YouTube War/The New Information Environment

Unfortunately, developing strategies to fight such an enemy is particularly challenging because 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.

Throughout history, terrorists (and insurgents) have gravitated towards the newest and most sophisticated communication technologies available. They have often seen the potential in such technologies very quickly, and have proven adept at developing flexible and creative new applications almost as quickly as these technologies have become available to them. In particular, they have used communication technologies to sidestep the traditional media, which has made it possible for such groups to get their message out to their followers in a direct, unfiltered fashion. Thus, for example, in Iran, the Shah might have controlled the media and the Ayatollah Khomeni might have been exiled to Paris, but personal cassette tapes had been developed and become widely available for personal use by the late 1970s. They were perfect for the Ayatollah’s supporters, at the time an anti-government insurgency. After a sermon had been recorded by him in Paris, copies could be made with relatively little difficulty, for relatively little cost. And at this point each copy was easily portable, easily hidden on the person of an individual supporter, and easily passed from one supporter to the next after it had been listened to. In this fashion the exiled Ayatollah’s message was spread throughout Iran despite his lack of access to traditional media within the country, a smart use of technology in those pre-Internet days.3 Today, al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups have found ways to use online videosharing sites such as YouTube, Liveleak, and Google Earth to provide precise targeting and mapping for operations, continue to explore aggressively the potential of such new applications as Twitter,4 and are discussing the possibilities for an “invasion” of the social networking site Facebook.5

Today terrorism is a media event in a second sense.

This is the age of the YouTube War. Terrorists (and, again, insurgents using terrorist methods) no longer depend upon the professional media to communicate with their own constituents and no longer depend upon the professional media to communicate with the outside world. (In fact, to an unprecedented degree, the professional media have become dependent upon them.) Technological developments permit any terrorist cell to film, edit, and upload their actions virtually in real time whether Western media are there to serve witness or not.

In this radically different information environment, a situation where not one, but a confluence of new technologies have all become available simultaneously, the possibility for synergistic effects is created, producing an entirely new environment from that of previous wars. Obviously the Internet is first among equals; a revolutionary information tool in and of itself, connecting the entire world in entirely new ways. It has been suggested that its impact is comparable to that of the first printing press.

The average citizen, meanwhile, has become empowered to film what he or she sees, to edit those images, and then to upload them for the entire world to see. It is an entire group of new technologies, all of which have become relatively mature at relatively the same time, which have together made for this new information environment, and terrorists and insurgents are capitalizing on this environment successfully. For our purposes, an information or communication technology becomes mature when it meets several criteria. First, it must be available off-the-shelf, that is to say it must be commercially available to the general public, not only to military and law enforcement communities or reviewers for consumer product columns. Second, it must be relatively affordable, something within reach of a decent percentage of the population, and not merely a toy of the super-rich. Third, and this is critical, 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, which technologies have met these criteria? Cameras of increasing quality (even high-definition) have become cheaper and cheaper (and smaller and smaller) even in countries without dependable electricity. Laptop computers are similarly available worldwide, at lower and lower prices and higher and higher quality. And the software that permits images to be edited and manipulated is available worldwide, requiring no training beyond the instructions that come with the software itself. In fact, while software such as Movie Maker 3 is easily available around the world and easily mastered without special training, it is not really necessary to purchase even something that unsophisticated—someone with just a little computer savvy (and realistically these days that is quite a number of the world’s young people) can download free shareware at zero cost or, with a great deal of computer savvy, hack something for free that is not in the public domain. (Or they can acquire what they need from the nonterrorist hacker or criminal communities.6) 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.

A benign example of what is made possible when these technologies come together was seen during (and in the immediate aftermath of) the tsunami of December 2004. Western reporters were not in place at the time, tsunamis not being predictable events, but there were people there with cameras, people who were able to capture the wave and the devastation that resulted, (sometimes simply by pointing their cameras over their shoulders as they ran), and to get their footage onto the Internet hours, if not days, before professional reporters were even able to get to the strike zone. Thus the first images the rest of the world saw—and therefore, to a great extent, the first the outside world really knew of what had happened—came from citizen journalists whose images were appropriated by the professional media, for the simple enough reason that they lacked any others. This process is described most eloquently in an essay posted—no surprise—on a web blog, one of the constantly growing number of websites maintained by individuals or groups where thoughts or opinions are posted to the web, and therefore to the entire world.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 illustrates how a physical event breaks into the worldwide public information system. On December 26, 2004, after a huge earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra was detected, some seismologists realized it could generate a tsunami that could ravage vast coastal areas. But this suspicion remained in an informational limbo. The Sumatran earthquake released more energy than hundreds of nuclear bombs, but this physical fact would not register on the world’s consciousness until it could be reported as a story.

The author continues:

When the tsunami crashed ashore there were no press photographers waiting for it. It was the ordinary tourist with a digital cameras and an Internet connection— the blogger—who brought the first accounts of the monster to the world. Sheer weight of numbers ensured that the Internet-connected citizen was in the position to witness one of the most awesome natural events of the early 21st century. Within hours their digital pictures and video, sometimes shot over the shoulder as they were on the run, and first-person narratives had percolated upward through the larger Internet sites to the mainstream media.7

Indeed, mainstream media outlets are attempting to capitalize on viewers’ desires to produce their own content. CBS News, as part of its coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament in 2007, encouraged fans to create short clips cheering their teams on—or taunting rivals—to be posted on a dedicated website linked to the one set up by the network for their own coverage of the tournament.8 And CNN co-sponsored two presidential debates during the 2008 cycle with YouTube, allowing viewers to submit questions to candidates in the form of video clips.9

A less benign example occurred within hours of the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government released the official video, but it was less than a day later before the bootleg appeared—a video that had been made with a cell phone camera and was then widely distributed internationally via the Internet and inside Iraq from cell phone to cell phone. While the traditional networks were still considering which images from the official video were appropriate to show on the air,10 any viewer with an Internet connection could easily view the entire hanging for themselves, by watching the bootleg.11