U.S. News

02.15.14

The Champagne Tranarchist Who Hijacked Occupy’s Twitter Feed

How a transgender Google exec seized control of the Occupy Wall Street Twitter feed—and set off a vicious war within the movement’s ranks.

With one tweet—“This Twitter handle is now back under the management of its founder: @JustineTunney. Let’s start a revolution”—and an accompanying selfie of a short-haired, bespectacled transwoman sporting a statement necklace, the faceless revolution had a face.

In early February, the stale Occupy Wall Street Twitter feed, @OccupyWallSt—once filled with rousing calls to action, links to petitions, and retweets of fellow activists—was suddenly flooded with impassioned exhortations to join the revolution, statements of philosophy and politics, and nostalgia for the good old days of Zuccotti Park circa 2011. They were the musings of Tunney, a 29-year-old self-described Champagne Tranarchist, who claimed to be an early but under-the-radar leader of Occupy Wall Street’s online community. Now, she had commandeered the feed away from the unknown number of Occupy community members who previously had access.

“Occupy has been nothing but drama since the beginning. So if we *must* have drama… then I might as well be giving you guys the best drama :)” she tweeted.

@OccupyWallSt, an account that once relied on the collective “we” and “ours,” was now using the first person with regularity—a disturbing development to other Occupiers who saw the takeover as the corruption of a leaderless, anti-hierarchical revolution. The sharp departure from a collective persona that was once vehemently protected immediately incited fury in the larger network, with followers decrying the move as a Twitter coup and urged Tunney to change the handle. It even sparked a satirical hashtag #IFoundedOccupyWallSt and a Change.org petition asking Tunney to surrender control.

Tunney joined Occupy in its earliest days, and registered the OccupyWallSt.org domain name in July 2011, one day after the very first call to #occupywallstreet went out, and before she’d even set out from Philadelphia to Zuccotti Park. Today, she moonlights as a software engineer at Google—a fact that many of her opponents have used to criticize her—and has built a prank-calling app called CelebDial. She has described her role to Occupy as “a loyal code monkey.”

“If these people weren’t posting memes on Facebook all day they’d be starting riots,” she tells the camera from her bed.

Her move to regain control of the Occupy feed seems to have been due to frustration with the lackluster state of the revolution. “There hasn’t been a lot of stuff going on in Occupy these days,” she said in a September interview with the Nation. “Now it’s mostly bickering on mailing lists.”

Two days before the Twitter takeover, she posted a 10-minute YouTube video entitled “Politics is a Subterfuge,” expressing her dismay at the inactivity of Americans to fight back against the supposedly tyrannical political system. “If these people weren’t posting memes on Facebook all day they’d be starting riots,” she tells the camera from her bed.

On Feb. 6, as the sole voice controlling Occupy, she explained that seizing control of the account was a move to bring its message back to the base. Her first move was to disable the “retweet cartels,” a setup that automatically retweets from preprogrammed users or hashtags.

“The movement lost the way,” she tweeted to Anonymous’s @YourAnonNews. “There were far too many people leeching off the movement to promote themselves and special interests. So I stepped in and stopped it,” she wrote in a second tweet.

“I was the founding organizer of this movement. But prejudiced people have always tried to deny me a voice in this movement,” she tweeted.

But her messages didn’t always fall within the boundaries of the movement’s revolutionary ethos. They ranged from the narcissistic (“Right now I’m “primary on-call” for a top-level domain registry AND an international grassroots social movement,” read one tweet with a GIF of a distinguished man lifting a glass to her name) to cat memes (“I left my heart at Zuccotti Park”); plans for a second try at revolution (“Right now I’ve got my sights set on Battery Park. I’m willing to bet I can find a way to make these guys give it to us, without cops”; and critiques of other Occupy Wall Street leaders (“Also I just want to say that David Græber is a chump. He took credit for everything everyone did. His contribution? Sabotage.”)

She urged followers to influence the Google algorithm that named activist Justin Wedes as Occupy’s founder—and to change it to Micah White. (It now names Graeber, considered by some to be the movement’s intellectual founder, though others—Elizabeth Warren included—have claimed similar influence.)

White, whose Twitter handle credits him as the “Occupy Wall Street meme creator,” is the former editor of a Vancouver-based anti-consumerism magazine called Adbusters, which first issued a proposal for the September 17 occupation of Wall Street in the summer of 2011.

Interestingly, in an early investigation into the origins of Occupy, NPR wrote that White’s Adbusters refused to be interviewed “for fear of overshadowing the movement.”

Now, White and social media activist Priscilla Grim—who, with Tunney, comprise the board of directors for the Occupy Solidarity Network, Inc. which runs OccupyWallSt.org—seem to be backing Tunney’s power play. (When The Daily Beast sent an interview request for Tunney, White was cc’ed on her reply. They ultimately did not respond to requests for comment on this article.) Earlier this week, @OccupyWallSt announced it was being collaboratively managed by all three board members and that they were working on an as-yet-unannounced new system.

A few days after Tunney’s call to oust him from Google search, Justin Wedes responded on a blog for Occupy.com. “I have never once envisioned myself or any other person as Occupy’s founder, but rather as a grateful beneficiary of its tremendous collective inspiration,” he wrote. “[T]he temptation of individuals to hoard the movement’s social media clout will be our downfall if we don’t resist it actively and with solidarity.”

Other Occupy properties were similarly unenthused. The Occupy Manhattan account—its bio reads: “Don’t follow leaders”—scathingly wrote: “The @OccupyWallSt acct is now a corporate motivational bot run by a self described “meme-author” with a phd. Good job bankers, you won.”

“Occupy is SOCIAL EVOLUTION on a global scale, you can’t “found” that it is unfoundable,” the “Decentralise Occupy” account from New Zealand tweeted.

And the Occupied Wall Street Journal wrote on Facebook that “Thousands of contributors made it possible for an autonomous media to reach literally millions of people. But it didn’t make those of us producing it into the spokespeople of this movement or the political leaders of it by virtue of our good timing (and hard work).”

On OccupyWallStreet.net, powered by the movement’s pseudo-governing structure, the New York General Assembly, Occupy organizer Charles Lenchner called the reinvigoration of Occupy’s Twitter feed a tool for “the public meltdown of OWS activist named Justine Tunney.”

Lechner criticized Tunny for refusing to give up her web holdings to general management by the Tech Ops Working Group, as founded by the General Assembly. “For better or worse, Tech Ops cared deeply about being accountable to something larger than itself,” he wrote. On Twitter, Tunney shot back, saying she used to call Tech Ops “the ‘Fuck With Justine Working Group.’”

The amount of Occupy-themed blogs and Twitter accounts emerging to call out @OccupyWallSt—which has the highest number of followers—is a tell-tale sign of how widespread and contested the ownership of the Occupy brand still is. And it’s fitting for a movement boasting an unofficial motto of “leaderless and leaderful,” as described early on by Dr. Cornel West.

In a November 2011 New Yorker article, as the Occupy movement soared into national consciousness, Tunney espoused a similar voice-of-the-masses viewpoint. “[T]he movement will have other Web sites. Over the coming weeks and months, as other occupations become more prominent, ours will slowly become irrelevant.”

“We can’t hold on to any of that authority,” she said. “We don’t want to.”

But more than two years later, Tunney’s tone has changed to suggest credit is due. “I was the founding organizer and I ran all the behind the scenes logistics. These things are facts. There isn’t any fight going on,” she wrote in a letter to BuzzFeed. “The whole reason why Occupy is leaderless is because I didn’t want to be the leader.”