Update: WhoseTube in the War of Ideas?

by Angela Trethewey

Then

In Surging on the Cyberspace Battlefield (COMOPS, May 8th) Christina Smith praised the military’s openness to both positive and negative responses to videos posted on the military’s YouTube channel, Multi-National Force Iraq (MNFIRAQ). She called it a hopeful sign that “military and civilian leaders might be willing to read and react constructively” to feedback from a variety of perspectives.

Ms. Smith was not alone in her hopefulness. The website was an idea originally conceived by two Army contractors and other enlisted men to make productive use the footage being shot daily by the military. Documenting the daily “boots on the ground” perspective of the war is not necessarily a new idea. Combat reporters routinely filmed missions in Vietnam, yet that footage often languished in government archives. What set the MNFIRAQ “new media” channel apart from its historical predecessors is that it was designed specifically to provide an alternative to traditional media coverage of the war. While car bombs are a daily news story in the U.S., soldiers delivering gifts to Iraqi children rarely makes headlines. Military spokesperson, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said, “the soccer ball story is part of what is happening in Iraq … and that needs to be recorded somewhere.” And while Garver claimed that the channel was not designed specifically to counter the increasingly pervasive new media campaign of radical militants who use the internet to recruit new members and to advance their cause, he did acknowledge that “The cyberspace battle was not one that we were particularly operating well in. This was one of the first public steps into that cyberspace.”

Now

Shortly after we praised the Pentagon for its forward-looking move it announced on May 14th that it was halting access to the increasingly popular channel. Despite its potential to inspire national dialogue about the war, enhance support of our troops in Iraq, and perhaps productively engage audiences in the global war of ideas, the channel is now defunct. The military blocked access to YouTube, MySpace and several other social networking channels on all Department of Defense computers, citing security challenges and network drag as primary reasons for the decision.

Commentary

The internet is an increasingly important battle front in the war of ideas and a primary recruitment tool for violent extremists. The US and its allies are falling behind because we aren’t making adequate use of this medium. What is needed is the strategic deployment of weapons of mass persuasion. The principle of pragmatic complexity says that this deployment should take diverse forms and formats and should not be controlled by a centralized organizing body trying to shape a core message.

Why? Because more messages for more audiences on more channels empowers more people to interpret local meanings regarding what US and Allied troops are doing in Iraq. Multiple messages provide the narrative resources for global audiences to create new and, perhaps more appropriately complex and nuanced, meanings for America, our troops, the good works we are sponsoring, and our progressive ideals.

Of course we here at COMOPS are not privy to all the considerations that may have factored into this decision. But from a strategic communication point of view, it was a step backward. If we are promoting the ideals of a democratic society as part of our war of ideas strategy, then we must enact, display and promote democratic communication, even in the context of everyday military life. We can not promote or even appropriately display the complex workings of democracy if our leaders routinely try to control communication in the war of ideas. Like war, democracy is a messy and complex business. Any attempt to control our “message,” by closing off dialogue about the war, the nature of democracy, or our enemies moves us further away from our democratic ideals and is an ineffective posture in a media saturated world.

The stated security concerns could have been addressed by keeping the YouTube material on the public network. While we don’t know what network load may have been generated by soldiers uploading videos, bandwidth is a tractable problem that can be addressed given the will to do so. It appears that the larger problem for the military is the lack of ability to closely control and monitor the content and responses to YouTube and sites like it. Yet, as Noah Schactman, in a national security blog post for Wired, says correctly, “This is as much an information war as it is bombs and bullets,” he said. “And [the military] are muzzling their best voices.”

The opposition currently offers multiple sources of propaganda that largely go unchallenged in the new media. For example, the Divine Victory of Hizbollah is a nine part series telling an unchallenged story that fuels resentment of Israel and the U.S. every day. Yet, using highly controlled U.S. source propaganda to counter ideologically support for terrorism on the internet does not work. Indeed, it only serves to reinforce and escalate the negative image of the US in the Middle East.

What has the potential to counter propaganda is a disruptive message, one that provides audiences with new material around which they can organize new meanings. The MNFIRAQ You Tube channel afforded the opportunity to do precisely that. The pragmatic complexity model would suggest that the US should reopen the military You Tube channel and let freedom ring.