Surging on the Cyberspace Battlefield

by Christina M. Smith

Social networking sites such as YouTube permit user-created content to be posted on the internet for audiences to view via streaming video. With the recent purchase of YouTube by Google, its capability and reach has dramatically increased. One of the purposes of the service is to allow people to see “first-hand accounts of current events.” The War in Iraq constitutes a portion of such videos.

In March of 2007, the Multi-National Forces in Iraq launched their own channel on YouTube, meant to counter the longstanding effectiveness of the medium for terrorist and insurgent groups. The videos, with names such as “Taking Fire in Baqubah,” “Kidnap Victim Rescued,” and “Soft Knock Search in Baghdad” display footage of combat, teamwork between Coalition and Iraqi troops and interactions between Coalition troops and local civilians. Since its launch, the channel has attracted over 2700 subscribers and 158,000 views.

The U.S. military contends that the videos provide viewers with a “boots on the ground perspective” of the war meant to counter the success of terrorists in cyberspace. More importantly, Army officials suggest that the videos will provide alternative images for audiences at home – images often absent in mainstream media coverage. Webmaster Brent Walker notes that the videos are intended to “tell the complete story” for audiences who “have a genuine interest in developing a more informed perspective.” The importance of having the ability to reach out through YouTube was realized by the U.S. Navy who launched their channel in November of last year, followed by the Army this February.

In order to avoid offending viewers, the videos, which are filmed by videographers from the American Forces Network, are screened by the Combined Press Information Center for profanity, gore, or derogatory content. The videos have inspired a wide range of reactions from the public, which military officials cite as indicative of success. Major Armando Hernandez, media outreach chief, argues, “we get comments from viewers with different views…I believe that discussion is always good, and it is interesting to see how we are actually causing discussion.”

Principles

The challenge for the U.S. military and M.N.F.I. is to be open to potential responses – positive and negative – about their materials. Hernandez’ openness to discussion is a hopeful sign that military and civilian leaders might be willing to read and react constructively to some feedback they receive. The lack of control over the discussion of the content opens up the possibility for critique of the military’s tactics, as well as censorship or overly controlled screening of the videos. As Justus and Hess observed, “When deploying messages concerning new events in the Global War on Terror, consider the impact of various media organizations and their ability to reframe messages in reference to their cultural politics…Absolute control over the message is impossible” (p. 9). Whereas American viewers may find the YouTube images to be a complement or substitute to limited mainstream media coverage, Iraqi or international audiences may interpret the videos negatively.

At the same time, the M.N.F.I forces are implementing a communication strategy that resembles Corman, Tretheway, and Goodall’s pragmatic complexity model. This model, which seeks to replace the longstanding message influence model, calls for an embrace of complexity. The message influence model is no longer effective for strategic communication endeavors because it does not account for the complexities of communication as a meaning-making process. Meaning cannot simply be transmitted. Rather, “interpretation by a receiver is influenced by an array of factors that are outside the control of – and may even be unknown to – the sender” (p. 11). The M.N.F.I. videos posted on YouTube appear to be an initial attempt by the military to implement the most important aspects of the pragmatic complexity model: a de-emphasis on message control and the need for continuous experimentation and variation.

Analysis

Over the past century, each war has been characterized by unique iconic images, shaped largely by the rhetorical and technical resources available. Joe Rosenthal’s famous shot of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima is one such iconic image of WWII. The warfare videos on YouTube are similar, in that they provide images of the conflict. According to the pragmatic complexity model, though, the videos are better than a single, iconic image, because they permit viewers to go beyond the mainstream media sanctioned narratives surrounding the war and obtain images that both maintain and challenge privileged constructions of the War in Iraq.

Of course, the message complexity offered by the videos entails some dangers. Unlike past iconic war-related imagery which involve a material existence manifested in film stock and negatives, the circulation of YouTube videos is dynamic and ephemeral. Such videos have only a digital existence, which is not static and is therefore open to manipulation, appropriation, or deletion. Lt. Col. Christopher Garver’s characterization of YouTube as “a [new] battle space in which we have not been active” could threaten the credibility of the videos by lending them the taint of propaganda.

Another danger, as pointed out by Bob Garfield in his interview with Hernandez, is that not every aspect of the dissemination process is under military control. With regard to the pragmatic complexity model, the military’s use of the video medium effectively recognizes lack of total control over messages. Yet, relinquishing too much control is a risk magnified by the medium itself. Upon selecting a video, viewers are provided with a list of “related” videos. Multi-National Forces videos are not automatically provided to viewers, which threatens the military’s management of messages. Additionally, the videos available often provide only a minor contextual element in the form of text at the beginning of videos. The viewer is therefore unaware of the situation, the location, and the events preceding or following the video scene. As noted by Garfield, this makes it difficult for the viewer to see how the particular video fits into a larger message regarding the mission or its narrative structure.

In all, despite these dangers, the videos suggest the military’s growing recognition that approaches based on message transmission are increasingly ineffective and indicate a willingness to engage in pragmatic complexity, experimenting in new media with more complex messages and an openness to dialog about those messages.

Further Reading

  • Kellner, D., 2005. Media spectacle and the crisis of democracy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
  • Postman, N., 1984. Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin.
  • Sax, D. (2006, June 1). Combat rock. Rolling Stone, p. 42.

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