The Mutu Network have developed a successful new model for French radical media, with 15 websites across the country embedded in their communities, reporting on local struggles and fighting back against the monopolisation of activist news by social media corporations.
Last month, two of us from the libcom group were invited to take give a talk about our project to one of the Mutu Network's biannual gatherings. Set up in 2013, Mutu brings together fifteen radical news websites across France and Switzerland some of whom are longstanding and very well-established like RebelLyon.info, set up in 2005, and Paris Luttes, set up in 2013, while others are newer such as the website collectives in towns like Rouen, Grenoble, Dijon and Nancy which have all been set up in the last year or two. The conference itself lasted three days and saw locals from across the network come together to report on their activity, share various technical skills and infrastructural know-how as well as discuss how to take the network forward.
Though political differences exist between (and within) website collectives, they are all united by a broad set of common principles:
1. Participatory publishing: any person or local group sharing the goals of the website can submit articles.
2. Support: the group which runs the website can help contributors with the writing and editing of their articles through a collective interface.
3. Openness: the website isn’t the property of a particular group, it aims to reflects the diversity of ideas and practices that exist locally.
4. Anti-authoritarian ideas: all the websites within the network aim to push forward emancipatory ideas and practices, resistance to authority, and anti-capitalist ideals.
5. Dissemination: we take steps to ensure the content of the websites can be spread massively
6. Integration within a local context
7. Mutual aid between members of the network.
Radical media from the local to the (inter)national
As stated in its common principles, Mutu Network websites are set up to reflect the diversity of practices that exist locally, meaning sites will host articles on a range of topics from the diverse social movements in their cities: from workers' disputes to environmentalist actions, housing struggles to protests against police violence, with content generated (as much as possible) by site users themselves writing reports direct from picket lines or demonstrations.
This in part reflects the origins of many of the local Mutu websites, which came out of the demise of Indymedia and the need for local activists to have a central resource for publicising local struggles and political activity. However, in contrast to the Indymedia model, having editorial control over the website and supporting people who want to post articles is an important part of the project. So while Mutu websites have kept Indymedia's ‘open publishing’ model, allowing anybody to submit articles, unlike Indymedia they reject articles which aren't suitable and support contributors in the editing process. What makes Mutu's publishing model so interesting is that the whole editing process is completely transparent. Any registered user can log in to the back-end of the site and see which stories are being discussed, approved and rejected, which edits have been suggested and by which editors.
By combining open publishing with a transparent editorial process, this has helped Mutu to get past problems Indymedia experienced where their sites would be flooded with fantasist nonsense and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories; because Mutu sites support contributors in producing articles, people who would write things counter to the politics of the site are discouraged from contributing.
During the conference itself, we heard reports from delegates representing about a dozen collectives within the network. Some, like Paris Luttes, publish about ten articles a day with readership fluctuating between ten and twenty-five thousand readers a day; other sites are smaller, often reflecting smaller local populations or movements.
However, all the sites were firmly rooted in local social movements with significant local readerships. Many of the local Mutu websites are frequently quoted as sources by local newspapers (who they often beat to stories) while the Swiss-French collective even told the conference about seeing graffiti around Geneva promoting their site, though they still have no idea who actually did it! As evidence of the degree to which some of these radical news websites have penetrated into local life, a member of the RebelLyon collective told us, "When I speak to other parents at my child's school, I assume they already know our website. If they don't then I explain to them, but usually they already do."
Map of member websites of the Mutu Network. The network has fifteen local news sites across France and Switzerland.
Mutu Network members mentioned one negative of this local focus being that they are not able to cover international events as well as they would like due to there not always being a local reason to report on it1 . For instance, a local solidarity protest with Palestine can provide an opportunity to report recent events in the region, but it's less likely to be the case for the recent education strike wave in the US or the anti-regime protests in Iran.
However, as websites with strong local roots have spread across the country, efforts are now being made to create a national website aggregating content from all its member sites. Mutu comrades hope this will also allow space to develop their coverage of international struggles. Excitingly, in this respect, Barrikade, Mutu's Swiss-German collective, is currently in discussions with groups in Germany and Austria about the possibility of setting up a German-language network to exist alongside Mutu's Francophone one. This, also, will no doubt help in the coverage of international struggles and even points towards the possibility (one day) of a Europe-wide network of local anti-authoritarian news websites.
Social media vs. social movement media
One issue which came up throughout the conference was the negative effect of social media on radical publishing in France, with collectives lamenting the over-reliance on Facebook and Twitter for communication by student occupations or local union branches. Speaking to one comrade from the La Rotative collective in Tours, he described a situation with student occupations who "set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and considered their communication work with the outside world done.
"We also risk losing centuries' worth of tradition of collective anarchist publishing because people just prefer to post things on their personal Twitter accounts with no input from anyone else," they said.
Other problems mentioned about the over-reliance on social media where things like the inability to create an archive or collate articles, meaning reports from different places (or even just developments at the same place) were often isolated from each other in separate tweets or Facebook posts.
So, for example, in struggles like the current one of students and rail workers in France, or even the 2018 UCU strikes and wave of student solidarity occupations, it can be difficult to keep up with what's happening unless you're following all the right Twitter handles or Facebook groups (which even if some are, most won't be). This, of course, is without mentioning the issue that many people don't use these platforms at all, let alone with the necessary depth and expertise to be able to collate information from disparate social media posts to get an overall picture of often complex social movements.
Added to this are issues with security on social media websites and the fact that, should the multinational corporation which runs the site decide to kick you off for whatever reason (such as 'inciting' the 'wrong' kind of action), all the reports and information you've produced over the years will disappear with your account.
Over-relying on such highly centralised corporate monopolies not just to spread our content but to actually host and archive it puts all the content we create at risk. Or, rather, it remains safe as long as we remain ineffectual and irrelevant, but whether such monopolies would let us use their platforms if our movements begin to pose a serious political challenge is another question entirely. We only have to think of the arbitrary ways in which some people have been suspended from Twitter or look at how readily Facebook blocked videos of the Thai king at the Thai government to see how potentially damaging it can be to over-rely on such platforms.
Reflecting on radical media in the UK
In contrast to the situation in France, the British situation is far more ambiguous. Numerous publications have disappeared in recent years. Journals with decades-long histories like Black Flag, Do or Die and Direct Action have ceased publication while many local papers and newsletters like Schnews (Brighton), Hackney Independent (East London) and Now or Never (Norwich) have suffered similar fates.
Moreover, the demise of Indymedia UK meant that there no longer exists a central place to publish radical news, events and reports, which now remain spread across a variety of individual blogs and websites. Meanwhile, the issues with social media mentioned by French comrades is also true for UK, with many preferring the immediacy of individual Facebook or Twitter accounts over publishing on radical news websites.
That said, it isn't all doom and gloom. Freedom, since shifting to being an online news website, has prospered, publishing with increasing regularity as well as putting out a paper edition twice a year. After we put out a call for news contributions, we've also experienced an increase in news reports as well as some new bloggers.
There are also some good new radical publications, the foremost among them being Base Publication, who produce some superb analysis of current events. Other newsletters, like Rebel City in London, and a host of industry-specific ones like Plan C's Rebel Roo (for Deliveroo riders), and the IWW Courier Network Cymru (also for Deliveroo and similar food delivery app couriers in Wales), have sprung up recently and are doing excellent work.
When we started libcom.org, our aim was that our news coverage would be something like the Mutu Network (as well as maintaining a library of historical and theoretical texts, introductions to political tendencies we felt close to or concepts we thought were useful for people new to our politics... we may have spread ourselves too thin!). But rather than start with local sites networking into a bigger national/international structure (as Mutu have) we thought we could create the structure with our tight-knit collective and local groups would then fill in the gaps. This hasn't happened and perhaps never will.
Yet it seems without doubt that something like the Mutu Network would be a huge boost for radical politics in the UK: local websites where people can share information and reports on the various struggles and movements going on in their area, rooted in local communities, yet could, like Mutu, gradually create a network from the bottom up that covers significant parts of the country. It feels like a pipedream; but then, perhaps they said the same in France five years ago as well.
- 1Other issues mentioned was a lack of local knowledge and the need for more translations from local activists in other languages, something which at the moment they do not have the capacity for.