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The Onion's Baratunde Thurston sees beyond the 'Internet of Crap'

When the police raid on Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park went down in the middle of the night last November, I didn’t hear about it on the local news or on cable or any other mainstream news outlet. I received a tweet from Baratunde Thurston, which is how I, along with a good chunk of his 100K followers, wound up watching the cops — many gussied up in riot gear — clear out the protesters.
Mindy Tucker / Today

When the police raid on Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park went down in the middle of the night last November, I didn’t hear about it on the local news or on cable or any other mainstream news outlet. I received a tweet from Baratunde Thurston, which is how I, along with a good chunk of his 100K followers, wound up watching the cops — many gussied up in riot gear — clear out the protesters.

Recounting that night during his keynote speech at Austin’s South by Southwest, Thurston described how he strung together live camera feeds, police scanner reports and digital scraps from social media to broadcast a breaking story that regular news outlets — closed for the night and snug in their bourgeois high-thread-count bedding — hadn’t yet caught wind of. Thurston, digital director for The Onion and author of the new book “How to be Black,” cited this experience as an example of the power of technology in connecting humanity.

True enough. One month earlier, everybody knew that the NYPD was planning to remove the iconic OWS encampment from the financial district in lower Manhattan in a 7 a.m. raid. The Gothamist live blogged it. By the time the riot police rolled up with their paddy wagons, protesters were out in force. Violent exchanges transpired, panicked local politicians begged the mayor to back down, and the cops left. Hence this middle-of-the-night surprise the second time around. Nobody knew what was coming until after it began — and Thurston and others got the word out first.

It could be argued that if sympathetic parties had joined the occupation of the park instead of occupying their Aeron chairs while following Thurston and Twitter (and eventually the news) at home, that if they'd gotten out there in the name of solidarity, Zuccotti Park would still be occupied. That's how things played out in Oakland, Calif. Police estimate that 7,000 people participated in a protest march that shut down the Port of Oakland in November. Despite numerous attempts the authorities still haven’t managed to clear out Occupy Oakland encampments for any substantial amount of time.

That noted, Thurston presented examples of how oppressed people in other countries use the Internet to broadcast satire in order to subvert authority and reveal the truth behind the news. Think The Onion or “The Daily Show” — only the humorists sometimes go to jail for the jokes. Or worse. Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat had his drawing hand smashed, allegedly by government goons.

Mindy Tucker / Today

“You can almost measure the freedom of society by tolerance of the satirists,” Thurston observed.

Egypt, China, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Iran all made a strong showing in what Thurston described as “laughter against the machine.” In these places, Thurston emphasized, creating subversive satire can spread a message. Thurston sees this as content that cuts through the noise of today's World Wide Web, signals that reach beyond “the Internet of Crap.”

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.

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