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YouTube War: Fighting in a World of Cameras in Every Cell Phone and Photoshop on Every Computer

Authored by Dr. Cori E. Dauber. | November 2009

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Summary

There is a vast literature on the potential for new technologies to create a Revolution in Military Affairs or “networked warfare,” but that is a discussion of the impact of military technology on the way the force itself can be used. Today there is a question regarding the impact of new communication and information technologies in the hands of civilians--some of whom are combatants--on the environment in which the force will be used. This monograph argues that the impact of these technologies has been, and will be, great enough that the way they are shaping the battlefield needs to be understood.

Waging war against terrorists (or insurgents using a terrorist playbook) is a qualitatively different enterprise from earlier wars. By definition, terrorists are too weak to fight successful conventional battles. They fight to shape the perceptions and attitudes of the public -- a battle over the public's will to continue fighting, whether that is the indigenous public insurgents seek to intimidate or the domestic American public they seek to influence so as to force counterinsurgents to withdraw from the battlefield prematurely. And in the modern world, this will be a battle to shape media coverage.

Terrorist attacks ought to be understood as consciously crafted media events, and while that has always been the case, today it is more true than ever before in two ways. First, the terrorist attack is itself often designed and intended for the cameras. Terrorist attacks are designed for an audience. Their true target is not that which is blown up--that item, or those people--for that is merely a stage prop. What is really being targeted are those watching at home. The goal, after all, is to have a psychological effect (to terrorize), and it isn't possible to have such an effect on the dead.

This means that the terrorist attack is a media event in the sense that it is designed to attract the attention of the media, the same way that a political campaign event is a media event designed to attract the media's attention and thus garner coverage. When we discuss media attention, we are really first and foremost talking about television, and we are really then talking about gaining the attention of the cameras--and the way to do that is to provide good visuals, however those are defined in a particular context.

Understanding the interaction between media needs and the way terrorist attacks satisfy those needs is essential. This is the case because developing strategies to fight an insurgent enemy has become more challenging as today's wars are taking place in a radically new information and media environment, and today's terrorists and insurgents have been bril­liant at capitalizing on this environment in their operational art.

For today, terrorism is a media event in a second sense. Terrorists and insurgents are now no longer dependent upon the professional media to communicate. In fact, to an unprecedented degree, the professional media have become dependent upon them. This is due to technological developments which permit any terrorist to film, edit, and upload their actions virtually in real time whether Western media are there to serve witness or not.

Several new technologies, all of which have become relatively mature at relatively the same time, together have made this new information environment, and it is this environment on which terrorists and insurgents are capitalizing. An information or communication technology becomes mature when it meets several criteria. First, it must be available off-the-shelf. Sec­ond, it must be affordable, something within financial reach of a decent percentage of the population. Third, critically, it must be small enough to be easily portable. Fourth, it must be available in most of the world, and not just in the developed countries.

In the last few years, several technologies have met these criteria. Cameras of increasing quality (even high-definition) have become progressively cheaper and smaller even in countries without dependable electricity. Laptop computers are similarly available worldwide and at progressively lower prices and higher quality. The software that permits images to be edited and manipulated is available worldwide, requiring no training beyond the instructions that come with the software. The Internet alone is a power­ful, even revolutionary, tool; the Internet in combin­ation with these other technologies has the potential to be used as a weapon.

Technology, however, and the rapidly improving ways to distribute and disseminate content that technology makes possible, is nothing without the content itself. Consider that, “. . . al-Qaeda [in Iraq] (AQI) and other terrorist organizations used to articulate their battle plan with rocks, and stones, and sticks, now we see them using power points with laptops and projectors on a wall.”1 The content is sophisticated and improved steadily (although there is evidence that, at least in some areas, coalition efforts did manage to ultimately degrade their sophistication substantially.2)Media labs are decentralized, (even as media strategies seem to be centralized) and the labs themselves are never connected to the Internet. Rather, any editing, production, and video compression is done in the labs. Once complete, videos are downloaded to thumb drives or (more likely, given the size of video files) portable hard drives and then taken elsewhere to be uploaded to the web.3

How important was this effort to the insurgency in Iraq--and how important was the effort against their use of media technology to the ultimate success of the coalition effort? Between June and roughly November 2007 (roughly the period corresponding to the “surge”), American forces captured eight media labs belonging to AQI. In these labs they found a total of 23 terabytes of material that had not yet been uploaded to the web. Coalition forces made the labs a priority target under General David Petraeus because of their importance to AQI operations, recruitment, and funding. The loss of those labs, according to the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I), resulted in more than an 80 percent degradation of AQI's capacity to get new material on the web as of September 2007, critical because it was the videos that played a large role in bringing in recruits from the larger Arab world.

Recommendations.

All of this is made more urgent by the fact that the American television networks, unable for a variety of reasons to obtain usable combat footage on a regular basis, all depend on insurgents for visual product. That is, they download footage of attacks insurgents have staged, filmed, and posted, then use that as news footage as if it had been filmed by Western photojournalists. The audience is almost never provided adequate warning as to the source of the footage. A number of ways audiences could be properly “cued” to the source of footage is offered. The government has no way to compel the press to comply with these recommendations. Therefore, we must be aware of ways technology works for the insurgent-- and look for ways to make technology work for us. The Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, has taken the lead here, for example, by embracing the potential inherent in blogging, but these kinds of initiatives will require Army-wide support, both in terms of resources (bandwidth) and education (ensuring users are sensitive to security concerns, for example.) But the primary issue will continue to be responding to insurgent uses of technology in a more nimble and powerful way.

If the truth about an event that has made the news is not known, then by all means an investigation is in order, because nothing will erode credibility more rapidly than to reverse positions already taken. But it is critical that investigations be completed as quickly as possible while issues remain in the public eye, and that they not be used as a rhetorical crutch if there is no real need for them.

If the truth is known, military spokespeople need to be proactive, to engage in rapid response or, if at all possible, to get out ahead of stories that are predictable. When investigations are necessary, the military must understand that bringing them to closure as rapidly as possible--meaning before the story has fallen off the media's radar--is absolutely essential. It is not about satisfying the press, an annoyance that interferes with the mission. If the story has the potential to erode public support, either domestically or internationally, then it is, in fact, mission critical. Because once the story leaves the natural ebb and flow of the news cycle, announcing the results of an investigation will mean very little. The resolution of a story never gets the same attention as the original story, and the original impression is the one that most people will be left with. Over and over, accusations that the American military killed civilians are page 1 news. Reports of the investigation proving those accusations false, if they come after the story has played out, are page 32 news. Trying to change that approach to reporting the news is wasted effort--understanding the way the news is reported and adapting to it is critical.

Whenever possible the military must be proactive. Opportunities come along to get ahead of a particular story or, on occasion, make news, and the military has too often been too hesitant. For example, when enemy media labs were captured, some of the material found was what might be referred to as Islamist blooper reels, several of which are described in the monograph, and would have been quite powerful if released.

Having footage of that nature presents an opportunity. Circulated, it would have made that group look ridiculous, puncturing their carefully crafted image of competence, toughness, and manliness. Why the hesitance? There was, of course, a famous video released of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one which made him look very foolish. Apparently, there were negative reactions to that video that led to the decision to hold off on further releases. These polling data were unavailable, so it is impossible to comment on it, but when a communications strategy does not work as hoped, it is often better to look for ways to improve upon the execution of the strategy than to toss it out entirely. Was the response to the Zarqawi video so negative that there is absolutely no point revisiting the use of such material, in any configuration, with any framing or presentation, at any point? Or were there nuances to those responses that could be used in crafting such releases? I cannot say without access to the data, but surely there is some way to make use of material such as this when it falls into the military's possession. Closer study of the Zarqawi data is clearly warranted--if this material has been found in some labs, it will be found in others, and having a skeletal strategy in place that takes that experience into account would be well worthwhile. At a minimum, determining if the negative response was to some extent context-based is very important.

The problem is that all too often the American military has been reactive, for example, responding by saying that an incident is “under investigation.” That is not a response. That answer simultaneously freezes the potential for response--because what it says is that no real response will be forthcoming for an indefinite period of time--and one that opens the possibility that the claims made by the other side might be true, because if they were not, what would be the need for an investigation?

Endnotes

1. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Jenkins, Director of Operations for the Combined Media Processing Center, Qatar, Interview by phone, December 3, 2007.

2. Major David Jenkins, Psychological Operations Officer, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Penin­sula (J-39), Interview with the Author, Ft. Carson, CO, May 19, 2009.

3. Donald Bacon, Chief of Plans for Special Operations and Intelligence Working Public Affairs Matters in the Strategic Communication Department of MNF-I, Interview by phone, November 10, 2007.