Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

I recently talked to Capt. David Faggard, who is Chief of the Air Force New Media and Emerging Technologies team. His newly-formed group is an Air Force contribution to the effort by the U.S. to catch up to their “war of ideas” opponents in the use of New Media. Though it is only his third week on the job, he has noticed what appears to be a PSYOP campaign by the Bad Guys involving YouTube.

Persons unknown are posting videos of American forces being attacked, which of course is nothing new.  The twist is that they are baiting the videos with misleading keywords that would be attractive to pro-American viewers. Faggard explains:

So for an example, if a U.S. serviceman’s wife does a search about a military unit expecting to see pro-American videos, she would get gruesome video of a roadside bombing of Americans instead.

To see for myself, I did a YouTube search. Based on a suggestion from Faggard, I used the keywords ” kicking insurgent ass.” The first item was what you would expect, containing footage shot by a Marine corporal in Fallujah.

The second item was titled “Insurgents Shotdown US Apache Helicopter.” After clicking-away an age-inappropriate warning from YouTube, I was greeted by several screens of Arabic graphics superimposed on a background of fire.

What followed was jerky video of black-hooded gunmen firing machine guns at an Apache attack helicopter. After several minutes of shooting the helicopter slowly descended to the horizon, disappeared below a line of trees, and a column of black smoke appeared. A partial list of tags for this video includes:

IRAQ best attacks clip US american air force military helicopter shot down apache helicopter 1st Battalion 64th Armor Regiment 2nd Brigade Combat Team 3rd Infantry Division Fort Stewart hellfire missile us navy seals british sas elite swat shooting

The next video had the same list of keywords, but had been removed for “terms of use violations.” A little further down was a video entitled 4 Insurgents Get Obliterated (Graphic) Crispy Ragheads. It had also been removed, but its thumbnail contained the emblem of an extremist production company.

In all, 18 of 20 of the links returned on the first page appeared to be extremist videos. They had an average of about 7000 views and were rated from 3 to 5 stars. One, of a rocket attack on a U.S. base, had over 20,000 views and a 4-star rating.

Faggard said the pattern is for someone to register, post a video, then disappear, never posting from the same user name again. And he expressed frustration at the difficulty of weeding-out these videos. Technically, they violate YouTube’s community guidelines, which say:

Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed. If your video shows someone getting hurt, attacked, or humiliated, don’t post it.

YouTube is not a shock site. Don’t post gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies and similar things.

However since they are hidden by deceptive keywords, the only reliable way to detect them at present is by manual inspection, reporting the videos to YouTube for removal.

This baiting of YouTube videos is another example of how the Bad Guys exploit Western resources in an inexpensive and clever way to support their strategic communication goals. The U.S. effort to resist these tactics has been much too slow to develop.  I am also concerned that the effort is too weak. For instance, while Faggard and his team are obviously committed to their task, they are a small team of only three people.

These videos have a distinct pattern of keywords and contain telltale graphics. It would be a simple and fairly inexpensive matter for the military to develop algorithms to detect them automatically. One wonders why they haven’t done so.  Also why doesn’t YouTube automatically flag as suspicious videos with pro-American keywords that are posted from, say, IP addresses in Pakistan?

While awaiting these developments, anyone who wants to help can do so by looking for these videos and reporting them to YouTube for removal.