Co-opting viral culture at Occupy Wall Street

By Jack Murphy,

On September 17, 2011, after months of careful planning, over 1,000 protestors marched on American’s center of finance capital in downtown New York. Initially jeered by the media, the protestors quickly established themselves in Zuccotti Park, becoming a permanent fixture of Wall Street as the occupation stretched into weeks and then months. The protestors themselves expressed a wide range of viewpoints. However, if a consistent theme can be teased from the often contradictory positions and reasons given for the protest, it seems that they are protesting corporate greed and the sorry state of the global economy. The so-called Occupy Wall Street protestors may have had a vague message, but their physical presence was what made the strongest impression.

In “The Crowd” by French social psychologist, Gustav Le Bon, he insists that a crowd has the emotional development of a five year old child. The crowd is an emotional being, it is easy to get the crowd upset about an issue and once the momentum has started it becomes impossible to change it’s mind no matter how logical or impassioned the counter argument may be. Given this state of affairs, can the crowd, in this case a virally organized protest movement, be co-opted for political gain by the establishment that it seeks to replace?

To understand how these protests were organized, and perhaps controlled by outside interests, we should first look back to examine how human beings are mobilized into mass gatherings with modern communications technology such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other forms of social media. The self-described inventor of such human mobs is Bill Wasik. First organized by e-mail, Wasik called these gatherings flash mobs, the name derived from the fact that he would bring together large groups of people for short durations of time. Wasik’s flash mobs were styled as a type of show art or social commentary conducted in public spaces. There was no agenda or implied violence behind the flash mobs, “…intimidation was not the point” (Wasik 58). As late as 2006, Wasik did not believe that flash mobs even had the potential for political action, “The idea seemed to be that flash mobs could be made to convey a message, but for a number of reasons this dream was destined to run aground” (Wasik 64). It is nearly impossible for a mob of such short duration to develop a hierarchy or carry a message, something rectified when the flash mob began to evolve.

Thea Brejzek helps us understand how viral media helped flash mobs make the leap into politically driven protests, “Distributed by ubiquitous media, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook, flash mobs and urban swarms create temporary, situated user-generated scenographic practices as an embodiment of what Wasik provocatively calls Viral Culture” (Brejek 116). Viral culture may have started as an art movement but it quickly turned into something much more. The same ubiquitous media was used to stand up the Arab Spring revolutions that broke out in 2010 centered around Tunisia before spreading out to Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and beyond. During the same time frame, the Tea Party protests began in the United States, also organized on the internet through a series of websites, not unlike the Adbusters group that organized Occupy Wall Street. The unintended consequence of Wasik’s art project has been political and social upheaval abroad but left the ruling elite in the United States relatively untouched.

Brejek was initially disappointed with the lost potential of the Wasik’s flash mob, feeling that they were valueless without some real purpose or strategy. She hails the emergence of the so-called smart mob, a improvised social media network organized on smart phones and the internet to coordinate collective political action. She points out that the first smart mob was the attempted color revolution that took place in Teheran, beginning in 2003. The idea of the urban swarm, organized by social media, is advanced in this case to overthrow an oppressive government, but how does this social phenomena really work and where is internal power source derived from?

Virally organized mobs capitalize on the post-modern narrative of the type that young nihilists can relate to. The crowd creates a spectacle in which there is no hero for the audience to relate to and no villain to fight against, as Brejeks writes. By breaking with traditional narratives, the audience is urged to participate rather than allow a hero figure to do the work for him. Brejek informs that this type of protest was first carried out by the Situationist International which mocked capitalism in “unitary urbanism” (Brejek 120). Interestingly, the Situationists directly inspired and influenced Adbusters, the organization which organized the OWS protests in the run up to the September 17th, 2011 first day of occupation. These techniques, called détournement by the Situationists, make a mockery of the establishment without any true call to political action, no demands are made, no revolution is sparked. Political mobilization without definitive demands now leaves the young OWS protestors open to manipulation by those veteran political operatives who are far to shrewd to accept vague and simplistic notions of opposing corporate greed.

One of these puppet masters is almost certainly billionaire George Soros who has made extensive monetary contributions to the Tides Center, which in turn funds Adbusters, according Reuters who were forced to retract statements to the affect of Soros directly funding OWS after being attacked by Adbusters. The Anglo-American elite often operate through a system of non-profit institutions, think tanks, and foundations that allow for plausible deniability, other examples include the Ford foundation and the Rockefeller foundation. The sponsor and facilitator in this case can both deny involvement while taking part clandestine and covert operations. In this manner the Tides Center and George Soros both get to claim ignorance.

The power source for virally organized mobs is not it’s method of congregation or it’s political wherewithal. Rather, the power of the crowd is in it’s size. Brejek hits the mark, writing that, “Intrinsically, the mob has no other message than its sheer and unexpected physicality. Temporary, ephemeral and potentially overwhelming, the mob engages with the city as a collective drawn together, defying authorship, narrative, and protagonists” (Brejek 118). It is the bio-politics, the existence of a large mass of human beings that creates the amorphous call to action. While the protester’s message is vague, the political pundits on the sidelines turn loose their media machines with analysis of who the protestors are and what they want, co-opting the protests for every pet cause they care to mention.

Not long after the initial occupation in mid-September, a series of unseemly reports began to emerge about OWS and what shadowy individuals were at work behind the scenes of the protest movement which was quickly spreading virally via social media around the country. The movement often claims to be leaderless and that decisions are made via a general assembly. Historian, Webster Tarpley reports that while OWS claims to have a general assembly calling that shots that in fact the decision making process is contained to approximately twenty individuals who form a shadow steering committee. Older than the average protestor, they appear to be active duty or retired military personnel. When questioned in regards to their identity they answer with names such as “Mary MIA” and “Tony POW.”

John Carney writes that, “…west of the library there is what appears to be the inner circle of Occupy Wall Street. Several people, many working on laptops powered by a portable generator, sit in an area closed off by tables” (CNBC). Carney’s first hand experience is that men wearing blue arm bands police the media center to keep people out, including protestors. “They’re media relations, and outreach and planning,” (CNBC) one protestor tells Carney.

The OWS method of on-the-ground organization was derived from the Spanish indignados, or indignants, a youth-movement in Madrid that protested concerns similar to those of OWS. Tarpley writes that these indignants have taught the OWS steering committee their method of leadership, the consensus method that demands everyone come to an agreement rather than appoint leaders with a proven track record and who have the trust of the people. The indignants of Spain failed because of their, “inability to oust the ‘socialist’ IMF agent Zapatero, the enforcer of genocidal austerity demanded by the banks, or to block any of the austerity cuts” (Tarpley). Tarpley continues, cutting to the heart of the issue in saying that, “Wall Street predator George Soros was happy to endorse [OWS] this week” (Tarpley). This recent example demonstrates that legitimate protests can be rendered impotent in the face of financial policy by consensus decisions and group-think organizational techniques. Secretive steering committees isolated in secured media centers within the protest on Wall Street appears as the height of absurdity when OWS describes itself as leaderless.

The grassroots movement as a tool for manipulation can also be found in the Otpor consultancy group. The Serbian organization was stood up to oust dictator Milosevic in 2000 but was then sent by the CIA via the National Endowment for Democracy to the, “Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, and Egypt to train the operatives that would overthrow national leaders which the US wanted to get rid of” (Tarpley). Perhaps it was in Libya where the viral mob was truly exposed as a NATO led people power coup. When the protestors finally met resistance by Gaddafi’s forces, the mob was backed up by NATO fighter jets giving us a firm grasp on who was behind the Arab Spring movement.

At this stage is may be difficult to prove in a court of law that OWS and other viral social movements are manipulated behind the scenes, such is the nature of covert operations. However, there is enough evidence to make a number of inferences about who is really behind these protests and what their end game may be. At a minimum, organizations like Otpor, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Tides Center, and others have some explaining to do.

Wasik was not a political activist but even he knew when the flash mob had been consumed by the establishment. Before long, corporations were seeking to use this social phenomena to their own ends. “Ford and Sony did not care to steal the concept, or even sap its essence. To place stories like this, they needed only to take the term, even if in so doing they stripped it entirely of its meaning” (Wasik 66). These corporations didn’t want Wasik’s art, just the simulation of it to advance their own agenda. It is the physicality of the crowd that contains it’s power. Guided by the post-modern narrative OWS carries political capital while having the discernment of a five year old child, as in Le Bon’s example.

When tracing the recent history of viral culture is seems evident that the end game for these mechanization is to swallow up legitimate political opposition movements domestically while wielding them as a weapon abroad. The Tea Party was first endorsed and than consumed by mainstream politics, this had the dual purpose of building political capital for the right-wing, but also swallowed any legitimate grievances by disenfranchised Americans, placating them with the simulation of real opposition. The same covert mechanisms are now being used by the left-wing to absorb OWS. While the movements described have real economic and financial grievances, it is now clear that they have been subverted and co-opted by the very establishment structures that they set out to protest.

Works Cited:


Brejzek, Thea. “From Social Network to Urban Intervention: On the Scenographies of Flash Mobs and Urban Swarms.” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media Vol. 6 (2010): 109-122. Print.


Carney, John. “Occupy Wall Street: What Life is Like for the Protestors.” 12 October 2011. Web. 11 November 2011.


Tarpley, Webster. “Occupy Wall Street: Who wants to Hijack the Movement?” 7 October 2011. Web. 11 November 2011.


Wasik, Bill. “My Crowd. Or, Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob.” Harpers Magazine March 2006: 56-66.


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11 responses to “Co-opting viral culture at Occupy Wall Street

  1. Le Bon sure got it right about crowds.

    I didn’t know for a fact Soros was tied to OWS but I guessed it. Remember, the Federal Reserve Act was sold as a safeguard against “Big Banks” too. And we know whose hands all that played into, don’t we?

  2. I think it is especially telling when left wing heroes like Michael Moore go to OWS and say, no, no, don’t abolish the Federal Reserve, just abolish capitalism! That tells you what kind of Cassandra that guy is…

  3. John

    Hehe – will be interested to see what your “reviewer” thinks of it.

  4. I almost mentioned Chairman Hypocrite…er, Michael Moore for the very same reason.

  5. Great paper Jack. It is very interesting to study the dynamic of the flash mob and how various groups try to co-opt it or control it for their own means.

    The real test for those that claim to have created this, is if in fact they can capitalize on the whole thing. Much like with the Tea Party.

    But that whole deal about being leaderless is what will hurt them. You need a general for an army, and an army needs a general if it wants to achieve a victory. As it stands now, there is no general to guide the mob or focus it’s energies, and this flash mob gone wrong will fail if they don’t get that kind of leader and focus.

    Worse yet, because this protest is confusing to the masses, there will come a point where the people will reject this leaderless mob. Especially as the mob destroys local businesses, trashes the parks, and acts like a bull in a china shop. When it gets violent, then a population will really question it’s reason for existence and reject it.

    Meaning, whatever they are trying to accomplish, better be worth the price the rest of us pay. If not, then your protest will be thoroughly rejected and scorned. The protesters will lose any moral authority or justification it thought it might have had.

  6. Good point Matt. I’ve read that back in the day whenever “real” conservative or libertarian groups tried to establish themselves that it was only a matter of time before mainstream GOP types came in and co-opted the organization. Not much has changed. I think both the Tea Party and OWS came about because of Americans falling out of the middle class. Both have legitimate grievances and both were co-opted. It is a perfect PSYOP, these movements drag in all of the disenfranchised, get them together in one place, discredit them, subvert them, and then mainstream them into the old establishment. It isn’t by accident!

  7. Dan

    It will be interesting to see how these Medusa like organizations and their obvious backers deal with the election cycle this coming year. Is OWS a precursor if Obama starts to go down in flames and what kind of protests and violence will the orchestrate and pull out the infamous Race Card along with these so called legitimate gripes at the Rich. Nice way to bring pieces together.

    • I betting it’s even more Machiavellian than that. Play both sides against each other, destroying any legitimate protest from both left and right in the process.

  8. John

    If neither “side” is in the decision loop all this is just a distraction, the moving hand in the magic trick. Watch who stays quiet and on the sidelines ready to swoop in a scoop up the remains. That is the true power player(s).

    • I think what I was trying to get at with that last comment was that here in the US, these protests will be used to fizzle each other out and quell dissent while the status quo continues in the background.

  9. John

    Exactly what I was thinking as well Jack – they have fizzled out so now we have to search out the source of that play. Excellent thread here and in FB on this one.

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