The War and the Digital War
I suppose it was inevitable that the union of war and new media would spawn some strange offspring that looked like a combination of hip media and varieties of war. Terrorists, revolutionaries, and disenfranchised citizens are carrying laptops, hand-held cameras, and phones into battle and posting real-time and unedited messages on Twitter and Facebook.
In 2003 we saw the early effects of new media when telephones were able to capture images such as Abu Ghraib and turn the site into an international symbol of torture. You can watch YouTube videos of Syrian rebels fighting government forces in real-time. The video takers are now part of the battle and have specific assignments and training. You can hear the video takers cry “Allahu akbar” when he successfully captures a photographic moment. We could call this the “YouTube war” because of the union of cell phones and social media that make it possible to furnish the world with real-time war. And YouTube does not delete very many videos; thus, there are some graphic pictures and raw scenes that even amount to crimes. You can see an example here but be forewarned .
The rebel videos in Syria are accompanied by English translations and commentary which touts the successes of the Syrian rebels. According to one article in the Wall Street Journal in September 2013 the rebels have hired accomplished graphic designers with stylized script to enhance the effects. It is not uncommon to leave cell phones and cameras on dead bodies so their content will be picked up. Some videos are designed for religious audiences and contain religious messages. A good reading on the use of social media in revolutionary movements appears in the online publication Small Wars Journal. It is free and easily available.
Some Ways New Media Has Changed Revolutionary Movements
Authoritarian regimes have always tried to control traditional media (radio and television) and have usually had the upper hand. But now the rebels have increased information and can gather intelligence more skillfully. Sophisticated American intelligence tries to understand the battlefield but revolutionaries now do it with amateur videos uploaded from handheld devices. Moreover amateur video legitimizes the narrative of partisans and insurgents. It is the first real countermove in the effort to weaponize information against authoritarian regimes. Propaganda is now a tool everyone has access to.
Secondly, the public sphere aspect of new media allows for mobilization. In Egypt in 2011 the phrase “We are all Khaled Said” on Facebook was a significant aid to youth mobilization during the 18 days in Tahrir Square. In one interesting development rebel fighters have Twitter and Facebook accounts in which they reveal their identity and answer questions “on the field.” They do not divulge locations but other than that the fighters use these social media to disseminate information and establish an online identity. They are completely comfortable with exposing themselves probably because they are simply used to sharing one’s identity online.
But third, social media cannot put weapons on the battlefield so it has its limitations. And state regimes have their resources and instruments of oppression that can easily overwhelm social media. Moreover, social media are particularly good at forming weak ties that are not accompanied by energized activism. Those who are members of Facebook networks make few real sacrifices and are “weakly tied” to the cause.
Finally, it is a little frightening to imagine the worst of all possible outcomes. Although new media in the form of videos uploaded on YouTube were instrumental in prompting debate about Western intervention in Syria and use of chemical weapons, there were also thousands of recorded atrocities before that and nobody paid attention. We might end up being increasingly entertained and narcoticized by images of war, and at the same time feeling just fine about doing nothing.