Archive For: IR Revisited

Can States Counter ISIS through Social Media?

Over the past decade the relationship between new media and asymmetric warfare has been a hot topic. For all the promise of citizen journalism and unmediated access, the same technological innovations that empower everyday people also provide new avenues for propaganda and radicalization in the hands of terrorist organisations. The significance of this issue has been thrown into stark relief by the enormous success of ISIS social media strategy, which has menaced enemies with images of extreme brutality and radicalised thousands through powerful narratives centred on the persecution of Muslims abroad, religious duty and the prospect of adventure.

In response, Western governments have sought to counter ISIS online presence with a range of strategies, including pressuring social media organisations like Twitter and Facebook to shut down ISIS affiliated accounts, and gathering intelligence by monitoring online activity. However, perhaps the most widely publicised strategy has focused on countering ISIS online through state run social media accounts that challenge ISIS narratives and, in doing so, undermine the radicalisation of Western citizens.  

Yet there are good reasons to be sceptical about this approach. In a recent article published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs I explore the shortcomings of two US State Department programs that attempt to counter extremist narratives: the now discontinued Counter-Misinformation Team (CMT), which was tasked with debunking propaganda and misinformation about America; and the Digital Outreach Team (DOT), a 50 strong unit that actively seeks to discredit ISIS online disseminators, undermining the image of ISIS as a vehicle for social justice, and challenging its claims about religious legitimacy and military success. The key problem for both programs is the recurring issue of credibility, when the authenticity of government information is undercut by the realities of foreign policy practice.

I show that this dynamic was implicit in the counterterrorism policy setting from which these programs emerged, where ideas were situated as a strategic capacity in a so-called War of Ideas. This set up a tension between the rhetoric of democracy and liberal idealism, advanced through US public diplomacy programs like the DOT, and the less savoury aspects of the War on Terror, including strategic deception, extraordinary rendition, extra-judicial detention, and ‘enhanced interrogation’, not to mention a military intervention in Iraq and less publically visible involvements in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, all justified through nebulous links to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This contradiction between rhetoric and practice invited the perception of hypocrisy, duplicity and propaganda, sentiments widely considered key sources of resentment towards the US in the Muslim world. My analysis demonstrates that this set the scene for extreme scepticism about CMT and DOT activities among online audiences.

One way to highlight this vulnerability is to show how the CMT’s own criteria for judging source reliability might easily invalidate the US government as a credible source of foreign policy information. For instance, were discerning Muslim audiences really in a position to take statements from the US government at face value? In making this determination, they would have to consider a laundry list of sanctioned illegality and official deception, including the US government’s direct or indirect involvement in covert regime change and other clandestine activities in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua, amongst others; or the US government’s involvement in the funding and support of covert torture centres in Iraq from 2003 to 2006; or the recent revelations from Edward Snowden about the activities of the US National Security Agency. Aside from covering up controversial policies, there is strong evidence that the US government has sought to deliberately propagandise both domestic and foreign audiences. Some relevant examples of covert influence include the Pentagon secretly paying retired generals to appear on television news and current affairs programs as ‘independent’ commentators, having provided them with synchronised talking points; and the Pentagon’s contract with the communications firm Lincoln Park to plant pro-US articles in Iraqi newspapers, while pretending they were written by ordinary Iraqis.

Likewise, this tension between rhetoric and practice has manifested in problematic credibility dynamics for the DOT. In an analysis of DOT activity following Barrack Obama’s Cairo Address in 2009, Khatib, Dutton, and Thelwall (2012) found that DOT posts generated extreme antagonism, which coalesced around cynicism about US foreign policy, and, in particular, its ulterior motives. These same issues are evident more recently in DOT activities aimed at undermining the standing of ISIS online disseminators. Organised around the hash-tag #thinkagainturnaway, the DOT has highlighted, for instance, that ISIS kills mainly Muslim people, is rejected by key Muslim scholars, and has presided over a ‘rape culture’, where women are forced into marriage or worse. However, the credibility of the DOT is undermined when the US government’s own record of foreign policy malpractice is evoked. Take, for instance, an exchange, recorded by Rita Katz (2014), were an ISIS user brought up the abhorrent physical and sexual degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison as a counter point to a DOT twitter posts about ISIS atrocities. Immediately, the credibility of the US government is called into question and its message weakened.

The shortcomings of the CMT and the DOT are highly relevant for Western governments considering similar online interventions in the context of ISIS radicalisation. A more promising approach that is now emerging in policy debates about online counter-radicalisation moves towards partnering with community groups, non-governmental organisations and private enterprise to facilitate counter narratives to ISIS messaging. The emphasis here is very much on developing capacities and competencies, rather than delivering content or strategic messaging. However, the key vulnerability of such programs will be the extent to which the involvement of government at any level taints the messenger. In the end, authenticity and connection are crucial in any counter-radicalisation policy, and programs that are centred on these values are more likely to be effective.


Wall of Light

Since 11 September 2001, as a German, I have always felt irritated by the date ‘9/11’. Growing up in Germany, 9/11 signifies something different from the attacks on the New York skyline. Of course, and this is a no brainer, ‘9/11’ for us Europeans means 9 November, not 11 September. So, for me, ‘9/11’ denotes something completely different. Especially since 9 November has been such a fateful date in German history, connected to at least five important events: the execution of Robert Blum in 1848 (a leftist-liberal democratic leader whose death foreshadowed the failure of the German March Revolution); the end of the Prussian Monarchy in 1918 (and the all-too-bizarre, nearly simultaneous, declaration of both the Weimar Republic and the Free Socialist Republic in Berlin); the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich which saw the early emergence (and temporary downfall) of the early Nazi Party; the 1938 Reichskristallnacht (which saw the burning of Jewish property and synagogues); and the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall.

Needless to say, I was only (and thankfully – in most of these cases) alive to experience one of these historic events. But maybe ‘experience’ is the wrong term here. I was thirteen in 1989, and growing up in Bad Krozingen in southwestern Germany, my family – unlike many others – had no relatives or friends in the GDR. There was no personal connection through which as a child I could have understood what was meant by ‘two Germanies’, ‘the Cold War’, the ‘Red Army’, let alone the images of cheerful citizens of the GDR crossing the border across the bridge at Bornholmer Strasse in Berlin on that fateful 9th November 1989. What I remember vividly though was that I was watching the news live on TV with my parents and sister and I recall seeing my parents cry. I remember that I did not understand why they were crying – and how strange it felt seeing them cry out of happiness. But I clearly sensed that something important was happening at the time.

25 years later, the Wall has disappeared for good. In fact, so keen on tearing down the Wall in its entirety (which – as I learned yesterday – was once over 155 kilometres long), any visitor to today’s Berlin will be hard pressed to still encounter the Wall anywhere. In fact, there are only two places left where the Wall still stands. But everywhere else, it is hard to spot, let alone imagine, where the Wall used to be. Some people say this is a good thing, but as times goes by, there are others who believe that it is a shame that this previous division has disappeared out of sight (and out of mind) altogether. I always belonged to that second group, though that’s perhaps an easy position to hold for someone who never had to live with or in proximity to the Wall.

Currently I am spending half a year at the Humboldt University in Berlin and I am renting a small apartment in the former Eastern part of the city, some three streets away from that famous bridge border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse. It was here where on 9 November 1989 the first border crossing opened and some 20,000 people poured into West Berlin within the first hour alone (including, amongst those first ones, a certain Angela Merkel). It was the beginning of the end of the GDR, it lead to German reunification, the end of Communism and the Cold War. It marked a local event which had global implications. And it is one that came about by non-violent means (something unique in German history). That is the reason, by the way, why 9 November 1989 was considered as the official public holiday; but because of the legacy of the Nazi Putsch and the Reichskristallnacht it was considered as inappropriate and therefore 3 October (marking the big peaceful ‘Monday Demonstration’ in Leipzig in 1989) became the official holiday of German unification.

25 years after the Wall came down, the city has become divided again – temporarily, from 7-9 November 2014: From Bornholmer Strasse to Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse, past the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery, a light installation featuring 8,000 luminous white balloons commemorated the division of Berlin.

The re-imagining of the Wall through this Wall of Lights (developed from an idea by Christopher Bauder and Marc Bauder) was accompanied by numerous exhibitions, events, and guided tours. And at 7pm on 9 November, thousands of patrons – schoolchildren, choir singers, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, witnesses – took their places beside their balloons along the 15-km-long stretch of the light installation, and affixed their personal message to the helium-filled balloon. As the climax of the event, they released the balloons into the air along the entire length of the installation – at the Brandenburg Gate, the Mauerpark, the East Side Gallery, and other locations. At the same time, the ‘Staatskapelle Berlin’, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, played the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the ‘Ode an die Freude’ (Ode of Joy) at the Brandenburg Gate.

Alongside hundreds of thousands, I spent significant time walking and cycling along this Wall of Light, at night and during the day. My aims were manyfold: Yes, I wanted to get a sense of where exactly the Wall had been. But I also wanted to see what visual and emotional reactions this would provoke in me – and in the people around me. And I wanted to try and capture this event visually, through film and photography. What struck me was the installation’s visual power to evoke the dimensions and brutality of the Wall. Built on 13 August 1961, the Wall went through the entire city, but not in a straight line. It literally meandered through Berlin with lots of twists and turns, alongside streets, through parks, between houses, over rivers, across railtracks and bridges. The course seemed erratic and chaotic and oftentimes cemented the division of the city, of Germany, of the global political system in ways that made me wonder. Why did the course of the Wall proceed along these exact lines? Why this one street and not the next? Why did it turn left here and not right? Why did it not go around this park instead of cutting across it? I don’t know the answers to this.

Alongside the Wall of Light, little info boxes told stories about eyewitnesses, about escape tunnels, about people being shot while trying to flee. They bring to life what normally cannot be seen and what has been grown or built over. But then there are other parts where you can clearly see that the Wall impacted on where entire rows of houses were built in the past, and where others had been torn down to make way for the Wall – here the invisible (and temporarily illuminated border) explains some of the city’s past and current geography.

But while visually evoking the brutality of the Wall, the 8,000 lights with their helium-filled balloons are stunningly beautiful. I marvelled in the aesthetics of them floating in one endless line of balloons, especially at night. They illuminate dark parks, go under and across bridges, up and down, left and right, and they generate a strange warm feeling inside me during these cold November nights. Oftentimes, they seem to criss-cross each other – and they make me walk or cycle along parts of the city I had never seen before. What must it have felt like living in one of these apartments looking from say (former Eastern suburb) Prenzlauerberg cross the Wall into (former Western suburb) Wedding with the Wall just two meters away from your balcony? And what must it have felt like living inside West Berlin – caged inside the Wall and playing football on one of those pitches right next to the Wall? And what must it have felt like to – as out of nothing – see this division disappear overnight?

I overhear a lot of conversations, older couples talking about their experiences; I hear a tour guide explaining to an English group of tourists what it was like back then. But most of all, I hear nothing. There is a wonderful quietness to this experience with people just walking at night and trying to take in the experience whilst having the occasional desire to try and articulate what they feel. It’s a nice thing to observe – and I guess it speaks to the power of this artistic project that it inspires in ways I find hard to describe.

For me, I have to also think beyond the immediate aesthetics and history of the Wall. How Berlin was one of many (but perhaps the most important) physical manifestations of the old Cold War world. It was here that the Soviet blockade of the city for several months in 1948/1949 lead to the American airlift; where the Cold War nearly turned hot when American and Soviet tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie; where the Wall was built by a regime afraid of its own people leaving. Maybe it is because I was brought up with the knowledge that walls are brutal and therefore need to be brought down that I feel so irritated by seeing other countries building walls themselves – after 1989. And yes, I am thinking of the Israeli government, but I am also thinking of Cyprus, North Korea and the European Union. Along the Berlin Wall, those who helped citizens of the GDR escape are today celebrated as heroes whilst at the same time we look at those involved in helping refugees enter the EU as criminals. Can we compare these or are these entirely different issues?

But what ultimately hit me was the sense of wonder and amazement: that the fact that I can walk here and allow myself to be puzzles about all of this, to be inspired by these thousands of illuminated balloons, was brought about peacefully. It’s such a remarkable thing to accomplish and it drives home the power of non-violence – something that so often seems counter-intuitive to us humans. But it can work, and this illuminated Wall is proof of it. It shows, as Gene Sharp (one of the key contemporary thinkers on non-violence) has said: ‘The dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are. They have their weaknesses. And the people are never as weak as they think they are… they have great power because all governments are based on the cooperation and subordination of the citizens they rule.’ Governments are in power because people consent to their power. In the course of 1989, the citizens of the GDR withdrew their consent peacefully and the result was the collapse of the regime and of the bipolar division of the world. The real 11/9 stands for this message – and it’s a nice and important message for us humans at a time when the world seems to have taken an ever more violent turn.

Video edited by Sebastian Kaempf
Footage taken from


Syria Girl’s ISIS

A colleague sent me a link to a youtube interview of Syria Girl, where she analyzes Isis. I strongly recommend it. She’s brilliant, and I agree with most of what she says. But here I will just go into where I think her analysis is weak.

She does not understand a few things about the US Empire and its limitations (see below for more on this). Also, she seems (at least in this video) to come from a “nationalist” point-of-view. Understandable, considering the nightmare that has resulted from the collapse of Iraq and the revolution in Syria, but these nations are very recent colonial inventions in many respects. Their borders depended more on the interests of French and British and then US imperialism than local history. What relation do they have to the existing cultures of that area? Many people living there clearly don’t have loyalty to the nation-states such as Syria, Iraq or Lebanon (a good case study of this kind of fracturing actually).

Look at the collapse of Yugoslavia into warring ethic groups, right at the heart of Europe. It isn’t enough to blame outsiders (like the Russians who are benefiting from the balkanization of the Balkans). When I was in Yugoslavia the first time, in 1971, I met two best friends, a Croat and a Serb, who predicted the wars that followed Tito’s death. They told me their families would try and kill each other. They admitted they might even fight each other, even though they knew it was madness! Haters are going to hate, especially in conditions of great fear that come from the collapse of old artificial organizations. Of course, all nation-states, and ethnic or religious units, are “imagined communities.” That is why this is all so volatile. Human imagination is a major factor. Anger, hope, fear, and despair are the drivers of atrocity. We must imagine something better than nation-states, ethnic enclaves, bloody religious nightmares. I would love to know what Syria Girl hopes for politically, in her most utopian dreams. I will follow her now on Twitter and Youtube. Hers is a very, very important voice.

But when she said “Turkey takes orders from the US” I laughed out loud. Turkey operates within certain constraints because it is part of the US sphere of influence and is in NATO, but it doesn’t “take” many orders. Certainly not since the Kemalistas have lost power, but even then, it is to diminish the Turks to think they easily take the orders of outsiders. The obligations of NATO fit Turkey’s geo-political needs (resist Russia’s desire to control Turkey, closer integration into the Euro-American economy) but Turkey has its own interests that go way beyond why it is in NATO. In fact, the two countries that probably want continual war in Iraq and Syria are Turkey and Israel and NATO does not. I think Syria Girl has good evidence on Turkey’s involvement in Isis. Israel is benefiting most, but no one has much proof for their role. They must be fostering this nightmare in every way they can but since they have long experience in such operations (Lebanon), and close proximity with good intelligence assets, they are hard to catch at it.

Other players are either pursuing their own goals (the Kurds, the largest nationality in the region without a state until recently) or have overplayed their hand. The Saudi’s think they are supporting Sunnis (and a conservative theology) but are actually creating groups that want to overthrow the House of Saud (Al Queda and now Isis) and the US, which backed Shia death squads until it became clear that they were destabilizing the US puppet regime in Iraq. That’s when Clinton called for the removal of Maliki, although by then the damage had been done.

And the damage was forcing almost all Sunnis into an alliance that is now led by Isis. Search for “Baath Party and Isis” and you’ll see there is convincing evidence that a big part of the strength of Isis is that the old Sunni Baath networks joined it. Isis is only strong in Sunni areas, except where panic and incompetence has spread it. Syria Girl is quite right that it isn’t as strong as most people think. But here again, when she thinks the media storm about them is a conscious policy I think she is wrong. Our media is always attracted to these kinds of stories (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and the beheadings (of ‘MERICANS!!!!) is what pushed Isis into the headlines in the US.

There was a real revolution in Syria. Tens of thousands died in nonviolent protest and among the first to take up arms were secular activists (called “hippies” by some). But Syria Girl has convinced me that what I have feared for the last year or so is true. They have been absorbed or killed and it is all various religiously framed ethnic groups now, of varying levels of insanity. War does this. Fanatics do better at war.

But to think the US has orchestrated this is nonsense. The US empire is not so clever and where it is smart, it realizes that this is not good for the Empire. From the first invasion of Iraq some US analysts called for breaking up the countries in the area into ethnic statelets, but the actual goal (totally a fantasy) was to make Iraq a client state, a sub-imperial power, like the Shah’s Iran was for decades. Trying to make that happen led to the Shia death squads and other stupidities that have collapsed Iraq and led, in large part, to the current crisis. And, of course, the brutality of the dictatorships in Syria and Iraq (and Libya as well) played a major role. But we can see again, that overthrowing a dictatorship is much easier that replacing it with something significantly better, as the Egyptians are learning as their revolution has been stymied by a new face for the old military regime.

While most elements of the US empire clearly want a perceived terrorist threat to continue what I call the 2nd Cold War (this one against “terrorism” as is explained in my book _Peace, War, and Computers_). I am sure only a minority want to foster a real threat on any level. A real threat isn’t necessary to maintain the national security state and trying to make one up becomes a problem when you start believing your own lies. Compare the two US invasions of Iraq by daddy Bush and baby Bush. Daddy Bush knew that a land war in the Middle East would weaken the US empire, not strengthen it. His son and his son’s advisors were so stupid they thought otherwise. No doubt some elements in the US imperial system are directly fostering Isis and similar groups hoping for chaos. These are Christian fanatics, the many corrupt officials who loot the money poured into these crisis zones, and the same kind of stupid analysts who thought Iraq could be made a sub-imperial power. But more sophisticated imperialists (Obama, Clinton, mainstream Democratic leaders and what is left of the Republican leadership that isn’t bat-shit crazy) realize that blowback is real and can get very out-of-control very quickly. In a world of WMD’s any real terrorist threat could possibly kill tens of thousands of Americans. This would be a major defeat for the US Empire, because (I know this is hard to believe), one of its great strengths is that most Americans don’t even know the US is the world-dominating empire. 9/11 changed this a little. The Iraq invasion changed it somewhat more (the largest protests in US history, in 350 cities). Now the US people are very tired of war and another large percentage is asking today, “why is Isis our problem?” The answer, of course, is that it is a US problem because we are the dominant imperial power in the world, (not “the world’s policeman”). The facade of US democracy and (small “r”) republicanism will collapse in another land war in the Middle East. Then, many Americans who ask how can the US escape this cycle of permanent war will find that what Alaa Al-Aswany, the great Egyptian novelist, wrote again and again before the fall of Mubarak is true: DEMOCRACY IS THE ANSWER. And that is real democracy, not the imperial shadow show.


Calling Chuck Norris

Or, “’Life doesn’t have to suck’: On Psy-Ops in Africa and How America Has Learned Abuse Is BAD.” Thomas R. Lansner’s take on a profile of America’s top “terrorist fighter” in Africa offers clear lessons on counterinsurgency, but inspires doubts that Chuck Norris is the best man for the job.


Joseph Kony is as elusive as he is murderous. He and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) followers have wreaked havoc across a vast swath of bush and forest covering the remotest corners of four African countries since launching a “holy war” in Uganda a quarter century ago. The Uganda Army’s endless pursuit, even with American special forces advisors over the past five years, seems… well… endless.

The Uganda field commander in these cross-border operations, Colonel Michael Kabango, complains that the hard men America has sent to help, are in fact, not so. Weanies, really, who require resupply of water every four days. “[T]hey actually slow us down,” he says. Their bush camp in southeastern Central African Republic—as we learn from the New York Times Magazine’s recent adoring profile of the boss of U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa, Brigadier General James B. Linder—has “an air-conditioned mess tent stocked with Red Bull, energy bars and a flat-screen TV tuned to CNN International.”

This raises the pressing question of who would ever haul an old fat-ass tube TV to the African bush, and whether the American special forces “operators” ever watch Al-Jazeera—but that we leave aside for now. Lessons [re]learned in insurgencies must be addressed.

With the campaign to kill or capture Kony yet to be rewarded with its trophy, his pursuers are ramping up psychological warfare against the remaining LRA fighters. One effort Colonel Kabango (interviewed outside the air con mess tent, where “tiger-striped butterflies darted through air filled with the scent of wild cucumber”…lovely!) appreciated was “fastening loudspeakers to airplanes and flying them over the jungle playing messages telling the guys to come home. Recently, six men defected after one such outing.”

“Quite simply, it’s marketing,” General Linder told the NYT. “You’re essentially teaching psy-ops marketing. The message is: ‘You don’t have to be L.R.A. War is over. Life doesn’t have to suck.’” Indeed! And how to make life not suck? We’ll return soon to what I will dub “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”… hard earned, no doubt, as Linder “has appeared on every significant battleground of the last 30 years,” the Times tells us, “Central and South America, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Africa.” Every significant battleground? Ahhh… all of America’s significant—and far-flung—battlegrounds, that is….

Enter Chuck Norris

There have been a few near misses in the hunt for Joseph Kony and the decimated but still deadly remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army [please see “Messianic Foes” here]. “In more than one raided camp,” US Kony hunt commander in Uganda Colonel Kevin Leahy told NYT reporter Eliza Griswold, “there were DVDs of Chuck Norris films.” Griswold apparently did not ask if there were flat screen TVs or movie nights at the abandoned camps, but intelligence on Kony’s movements is sketchy at best, anyway. Col. Leahy explains he has “reached out to Chuck Norris to create a ‘come home’ message” that could be broadcast to LRA fighters … or perhaps made into DVDs and dropped into the bush? It seems still in the concept stage, although the colonel sounded optimistic: “We’ve gotten some feedback from his agent.”

So, could “soft power” trump the guns, and America’s global pop culture dominance yield real-world gains? Surely a fine notion. And culture as transformative propaganda is not a new idea. Stalin regarded books as “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda,” The Atlantic recently reported, and the CIA seemed to agree; it smuggled millions of books into the Soviet Union, including works by Orwell and Pasternak’s banned Dr Zhivago.

This was in TV’s early days, long before DVDs or Internet, but at first blush Chuck Norris seems as appropriate to the action-loving LRA as Pasternak was to literature-hungry Russians. Yet, are we sure? Is there some chance that the massive and casual carnage that carries the 80s action movies the LRA favors was actually instructive? Cultural transference can be dangerously viral; only celluloid victims never feel real pain. Not that General Linder seems too interested in the finer details of ethnicity and local mores. “It’s not an anthropologist telling me about tribes and nomadic patterns,” he airily told the Times, “I’ve got Wikipedia for that. What I need is the operator.”

And a question for Colonel Leahy, before he troubles Chuck too much more. Think: the Chuck Norris DVDs were left behind! Not to make fun of Chuck, but maybe they were chucked intentionally. Is there compelling HUMINT [“human intelligence” to those unversed in what must be the basis of all good psy-ops] that Chuck is favored above Sylvester Stallone? Over Jet Li? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Jean-Claude Van Damme? Or even Dolph Lundgren?? Maybe the LRA guerrillas, with recently-watered US commandos hot at their heels, risked all to save those action stars’ DVDs, discarding Chuck’s in the dust and detritus. This raises a point surely troubling to some that American soft power—“weapons of mass distraction”, as writer Matthew Fraser describes—may not be all so ubiquitous after all… for another discussion.

Perhaps some of the recent “defectors” (for gawdssake, let’s name them more psy-war sensitively as “returnees”!) could tell us. My utterly unsolicited suggestion is to show recent LRA returnees the 2012 film The Expendables 2 (although this—no joke here—leaves aside concerns that watching an action movie could inflame PTSD LRA returnees might be suffering.) They would pick from among the stellar cast of international action stars which should best be asked to make a “come home” appeal. Arnie, Chuck, Dolph, Jean-Claude, Li, Sly…? Most of the global action hero gang’s all there. Yes, this would exclude Mickey Rourke, who shined in the original The Expendables and was unjustly cut from the sequel… but this we could do safely, I think, leaving out also Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, who finally appeared with the resurgent Rourke only in The Expendables 3. The debate is joined. Comments are always welcome.

Lansner’s Linder Lessons

Now, last and very serious notes on the promised “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”—and how America has apparently discovered that abuse and economic injustice are BAD—as extrapolated from three quotes in the NYT article:

Quote 1: “One primary lesson learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, [General Linder] notes, is that if security forces abuse the local population, they alienate their best source of intelligence.” Too true. Think Abu Ghraib! Or the history of warfare.

So, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 1: An abused and disenfranchised population resents its oppressors, and lends support to a “legitimized resistance”… be it the LRA in its very early days, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Iraq today… or the “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army.

Quote 2: “The tactics of special warfare can look quite a lot like those used by the Peace Corps, which arrived in Niger in 1962 and left in 2011 because of security concerns.” This is a way far stretch, so I will offer it as:

Lansner’s Linder Lesson 2: More equitable development can undermine extremism. Or even more pithily, as General Linder himself declared, “Life doesn’t have to suck,” … a quote that should be in Wikipedia.

To restate plainly: Respecting basic rights and providing a modicum of social and economic justice is a path to peace. Learning can be priceless, no?

Well, no; let’s name the price of America’s recent wars: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed; 7,000+ dead American soldiers; trillions of dollars flushed in a cesspit of hubris, dismissing history and painfully “re-learning” simple and self-evident lessons.

We do hope that Chuck or one of his action-hero brethren can soon help convince the LRA to come home. Or that Boko Haram can be persuaded by some similar ploy [Nollywood, anyone?] to #BringBackOurGirls. Action-hero brethren?  Yes. Angelina, even as Lara Croft or Evelyn Salt, won’t do, especially after her recent real-life hero turn in #timetoact.

But I’ll still wager my pension that applying Lansner’s Linder Lessons 1 and 2—not abusing, and working to see that life does not suck—is the best long-term strategy to ending, or even better, pre-empting, insurgencies—fundamentalist, millennialist, or otherwise. Popular movements are far more often sparked and sustained by desperate resistance than lofty ideals.

And finally, Quote 3: “One of the first lessons that Special Operations teaches in Africa and other places,” says General Linder, “is that a good soldier serves the population, not the leader.“[emphasis added]

So, to close, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 3, this one verbatim: “A good soldier serves the people, not the leader.” A revolutionary idea, indeed. This does not suggest mutiny, even retrospectively, against a genuinely democratically elected leader. But that America’s good soldiers—or at least the good ex-General Powell—had heeded this advice in 2003, much of Linder’s work in Africa today would be moot. ###

Chuck Norris and Marshall Teague with U.S. Marines at Camp Al Taqaddam, Iraq, during a USO tour in 2006. USO Photo.

Chuck Norris graffiti dated 2009, in Osijek, Croatia: “Don’t Worry… I’m Coming To Rescue This City… Chuck”  photo by Objavljeno, 2013.


Reimagining Communities: Opening up History to the Memory of Others

By Jean-Louis Durand and Sebastian Kaempf; filmed & edited by Julia Schmitz

Modern nation-states cherish their history. It is a constitutive element of the national collective self-concept that has been used to educate successive generations about the frontiers of the national community, its worth, its values, its place vis-à-vis others, and the trauma and glories that the country had to traverse and that together make it a unique and proud place. Few, if any, instruments shape a nation’s psyche and consciousness more powerfully than the material used in schools. As a consequence, the practice and teaching of history is a foundation stone of national identity and one of the poles of nationalism. As teaching materials, history textbooks are deeply anchored in national traditions that are ultimately used to legitimise the rationale of the nation-state. Their pedagogical vocation makes them constitutive of the national and cultural identity of new generations, and as such they constitute ‘sources of collective memory’ and can thus be read as ‘autobiographies of nation-states’.

What this means is that the writing of history is a highly political process and in order to understand the writing of a particular history properly, it is necessary to engage in political reflection. At least since the early 19th century, history textbooks have been found at the centre of political conflicts about ‘memory’, both internally in national debates and internationally when two countries dispute mutually opposed versions of history. Often, school textbooks present a version of history in total contradiction of a neighbour’s version, for example Japan and South Korea or China, India and Pakistan, West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, or Israel and Palestine. As such, selecting what to include in history textbooks remains an important political stake. It is here where images of the Other are formed, communicated, and oftentimes cemented. This certainly has been the case in France and Germany, the two historical ‘hereditary enemies’ who between 1871 and 1945 fought tree major and catastrophic wars.

And yet, there comes a time when transmitting the history of a national past fails the context of the political present. France and Germany have shared tortuous historical experiences, yet the two are at the forefront of an unprecedented pedagogical development: for the first time ever, two nation-states have created a common history textbook (called Histoire/Geschichte) that is used in their senior secondary schools. As such, each country, to borrow Ernst Gellner’s formula, has abandoned – qua this textbook – its monopoly of legitimate education. Histoire/Geschichte detaches history from its exclusive national past and introduces the learners to a post-national present. It speaks in a tone that is demanded by a different time and by the new conditions of peoples who are living in a common political space. And most importantly, it is designed to transform the image of the Other.

This article, written by Dr Jean-Louis Durand and Dr Sebastian Kaempf from The University of Queensland, reflects on the meaning and reach of this precedent by first analysing the explicit political and pedagogical explanations inherent to the book. It then identifies and investigates some of the less evident effects of the textbook relating to rethinking war and history, rethinking the monopoly of education, rethinking national identity, and to offering another path to rapprochement. The two authors, based as colleagues and friends at the University of Queensland in Australia, grew up about one hundred kilometers from one another across the French-German border (one in Alsace-Lorraine, the other in Baden-Wuerttemberg). They themselves have thereby experienced, at different times, the historic legacy as well as the change in Franco-German relations. From the first steps of rapprochement in the 1950s and 60s to the end of border controls across the River Rhine, both have participated in youth exchanges and the learning of each others’ language and perspective. In the process, they themselves were forced to re-evaluate their emotional and cultural predispositions. A choice had to be made: either to take refuge in the ‘comfort’ and ‘certainties’ of the original position and refuse to contemplate the validity of the alternative, or to venture into the unknown and there dare to see the new reality as it is contemplated through the eyes of the Other. In that sense, the authors today are the outgrowth of the dramatic and remarkable transformation of the shared history between France and Germany – which explains their shared academic interest in exploring the meaning and pedagogy when they found out about this next history textbook. The idea arose immediately to research and write about this book as it lies close to the heart of both authors.

To read the article:

Dr Jean-Louis Durand:

Dr Sebastian Kaempf:


Innerview: Chris Hables Gray

The Vision Machine had a valuable chance to visit Chris Hables Gray at his residence in Santa Cruz, California.  Gray is author of Postmodern War (1997), Cyborg Citizen (2002), and Peace, War, and Computers (2004).  Here, he puts the Arab Spring into context of new media going back to the Zapatistas, discusses the meaning of “war” in the digital age, and reframes the debate about the ethics of autonomous and remotely operated weapons.  To find out more about Gray\’s work, visit his page or contact him here at The Vision Machine.

Innerview by Seb Kaempf and Roger Stahl, edited by Roger Stahl.


Kony & Kardashian 2012: Viral, Vital, Virile?

The Kony2012 campaign pledged that the scourge of Joseph Kony would be eradicated by the moment we’d all be celebrating New Year’s 2013. Despite the massive media frenzy prompted by the “viral video” that launched the campaign ten months earlier, this very deadline passed nearly unnoticed. But as the year ended, another human rights issue was viral. Reality television mega-star Kim Kardashian’s celebrity prowess drew the world’s gaze to a glittering shopping mall in—and with activists’ encouragement, to the restive streets of—the repressive Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain.

Let’s call this Kardashian2012.

“If Only They Know… They Will Do Something”

As surely as day follows night, the bright light of awareness will expunge evil’s darkness. Were it ever so… and were it ever so simple. The Kony2012 campaign, launched by the group “Invisible Children” with what is described as the most viral advocacy video in history, was apparently premised on the deeply flawed assumption that awareness leads automatically to action. It is an immensely naïve, profoundly attractive, and potentially distracting and dangerous proposition.

Kony2012 emphatically disabuses us of any such notion. Awareness is a crucial first step in promoting change. A lesson I began to learn as a journalist covering terrible human rights abuses in Uganda in 1981 was that witnessing and reporting is essential, but very rarely sufficient to bring change. [Please see If Only They Knew, They Would Do Something…FAIL!”, below] The most significant result Kony2012 produced was many many many MANY people saying “J.Kony is bad”. An early and cogent critique of Kony2012 came from Human Rights Watch researcher Ida Sawyer, who appears in the video, and very quickly urged the sort of practical actions that experienced human rights advocates employ in efforts to affect policy. A viral video, even history’s most viral, and concerning an issue as grave as pervasive abuse of children and others in conflict, may leave behind little than the clamor of its own echo chamber. Disconnected from viable solutions and actions to realize them, awareness of abuses may prove little more than voyeurism gilded in the clothes of concern.

Kony2012Children Sell

Kony2012 was nothing less than a virtual Children’s Crusade. It reminds us that in advocacy [as in most marketing], children are a good “sell”—and can also be easily mobilized. Youth “fads” long preceded the Internet but their virtual vectors of contagion are today far swifter and broader. The emphasis on child victims and survivors of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army offered the most innocent and “worthy” subjects for our attention and concern—as do many appeals from long-established and highly reputable rights and aid groups. And some organizations, like War Child, are aimed directly at ameliorating the impact of conflict on children.

The video’s use of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell’s young son furthers the narrative arc of innocence, connecting online first-worlders to the suffering of children in Africa through an affluent—and super-cute—blond California kid. The 29-minute film, stupendously long for an Internet advocacy pitch, is indeed well constructed. It opens with views of earth from space, inspiring new age music, and jump-cuts of social media featuring children, their rather out-of–touch elders, and a baby’s birth. Pop culture icons get screen time. The video’s Ugandan “star”, Jacob Acaye, puts a human face to human rights abuse. The suffering of children depicted is heart-rending. Heartfelt pledges are sworn. Virtual bonds are sealed. Yet Kony2012’s simplicity seems most attractive to naïve audiences, and appears to have resonated most successfully with younger teenagers—in part because of the simplistic depiction of a problem [J.Kony] and its solution [kill him], and because the action demanded of viewers to write their favorite pop stars in earnest hopes of enlisting them to STOP EVIL was to youngsters an enormously exciting and ennobling proposition.

The video’s massive appeal evoked a commensurate tsunami of commentariat reflection on the merits of its videography, numerous factual errors, its creators’ assumptions, the demand for a military solution in an evangelical Christian context [please see “Messianic Foes?”, below], the roles of social media, the roots of “badavocacy”, and most usefully, reporting on the actual situation on the ground in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. Even China’s state-run Xinhua News agency joined the fray. On 05 March 2013, exactly a year after it was launched, Kony2012 had garnered 96,687,788 hits on YouTube, and 18.4 million more on Vimeo. A Google search for “Kony2012”, also on 05 March 2012, returned “about 6,230,000 results”.

But Kony today remains free to kill, and LRA depredations continue. As a small and nimble [and well-funded] NGO, Invisible Children appears to have done some good work on the ground in Uganda and Congo, including previously setting up early warning radio relays in areas then threatened by the LRA. It now co-sponsors an interesting LRA abuse-tracking website. But the hunt for Joseph Kony and the scattered LRA bands he nominally leads did not intensify because of the Kony2012 video or the massive attention it generated. It was earlier lobbying by a constellation of groups (including Invisible Children) that encouraged the 2009 deployment of a small force of US advisors tasked with helping local militaries pursue Kony.

After issuing Kony2012, Invisible Children was lauded with rafts of supportive statements by politicians and officials. Yet by the moment the video went viral, the Lord’s Resistance Army had been reduced to little more than ill-organized bands of thugs roaming remote forests in Central Africa. It posed no strategic threat to the United States, or indeed to any African country. There would be no massive multinational offensive to eliminate these brigands. On the ground, nothing really changed.

Kardashian2012—Celebrity Sells

Reality TV fixture Kim Kardashian’s visit to the Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain to promote a milkshake franchise evoked fan hysteria. This was certainly a publicity stunt; whatever Kardashian offers the public is calculated to promote her personal brand. Perhaps of the “any publicity is good publicity” school, she seemed supremely indifferent if not utterly oblivious to the Bahraini regime’s ongoing human rights abuses.  “I just got to Bahrain!” she tweeted on arrival, “OMG can I move here please? Prettiest place on earth!” If Kardashian’s celebrity would sell milkshakes, it could also be courted to create controversy. Democracy activists and human rights groups seized the moment to swing the media spotlight to abuses in Bahrain.

Leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja’s warning to Kardashian that her celebrity status was being used to whitewash the repression in the oil-rich autocracy was picked up by various YouTube pundits. Her visit was met by what Western media described as “Islamist” opposition demonstrations, as well as mocking re-tweets. The blogosphere was abuzz… perhaps especially after recent revelations of top stars raking in despots’ dollars more ready to disparage celebrities consorting with dictators.

And of course, media love controversy, especially celebrity controversy. Even New York’s Daily News and the New York Post, tabloids that typically offer scant international coverage unless Americans are killed far from home or Israel is affected, gave the story play, albeit with little context of the Kingdom’s ongoing human rights violations.

Arguably, human rights groups and activists who seized upon Kim Kardashian’s Bahrain junket to highlight abuses and US support for its ruling family were more effective in raising genuine awareness of a human rights issue than the makers of Kony2012. Similar efforts have focused on the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix [no worries, says its boss] and the football school run by the world’s most popular sports franchise, top English side Manchester United; teenager Ahmad Shams was reportedly wearing a Man U jersey when he was shot dead by police during March 2011 protests in Bahrain\’s capital, Manama.

But even compared to fast cars and football champions, Kim Kardashian is a tabloid titan. Unlike her, however, Bahrain’s ruling family understands that not all attention is positive. Reputational risks [e.g., killing unarmed demonstrators and torturing detainees, including journalists] might undermine its standing with European and American publics, and so has sought help from richly-paid PR touts to polish its global image. [J.Kony, we can guess, would not grasp this—or simply rely on divine guidance.]

Kardashian2012 might have been a net minus to Bahrain’s international reputation. A Google search for “Kardashian Bahrain” on 05 March 2012 returned “about 3,800,000 results,” few of them only about milkshakes. Yet on the ground, nothing really changed. [And a wtf aside: Kardashian also found time—a paid endorsement?—to tweet glowingly about some dentists in Kuwait.]

Disregarding the Pain of Others: Strategic Dis/Interest

The NY Daily News’s short article on Kardashian in Bahrain closing sentence plainly soft-pedaled the regime’s abuses: “Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, is trying to overcome nearly two years of unrest among its majority Shi\’ite Muslims demanding political reforms and equality with the Sunni Muslims who rule the kingdom.” Writing that Bahrain is “trying to overcome…unrest” rather that “brutally seeking to suppress…dissent” is a typically passive and euphemistic formula America’s mainstream media often apply to repression by America’s more reliable allies—or, for that matter, to torture committed by the U.S. Government.

And these few words in the Daily News: “… where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based….” capture why persuading US leaders to pressure their Bahraini counterparts to respect human rights is so very difficult. United States strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and its continuing confrontation with Iran plainly trump any putative American commitment to protect rights and promote democracy in Bahrain, or in Saudi Arabia, etc.

These twin eruptions of mass issue awareness instruct us that “viral” may be neither “vital” to public debate, nor “virile” in moving matters from the public record onto the policy agenda. Mass awareness absent effective policy advocacy typically achieves little. And strong national security interests—in the Persian Gulf per Kardashian2012—or strategic disinterest in Central Africa regarding Kony2012—can each in their own way raise formidable barriers to convincing governments to act against human rights abusers.

YET… Witnessing Remains Powerful

The promise of Kony2012 was that by raising our voices we together could force the powers-that-be to hunt down Joseph Kony and end the terror visited over a quarter century on hundreds of thousands of innocent Africans—including many children— by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That estimable goal has not been achieved, and the campaigners seem never to have grasped the policy dynamics of US interests in that part of Africa.

In March 2013, Invisible Children released a new video marking the first anniversary of Kony2012. Its tone is akin to earlier productions, with a fair dose of self-congratulation and righteous self-promotion. It is more on target in praising the engagement of many young people than extolling its alleged accomplishments in helping contain [not kill or capture] Kony.

Yet witnessing is powerful and important in its own right. The first and imperfect awareness of a human rights issue that Kony2012 brought to many millions of young people might be formative to a sustained and more sophisticated appreciation of the wider world. And the social media tools many deployed in learning about and networking around Kony2012 may morph into future human rights campaigns.

Both Kony2012 and activism around Kardashian2012 mean that millions of people around the world can never again claim “they didn’t know” about these terrible abuses. But imagining that clicking ‘like’ or ‘share’ or sending a small donation is real action risks relegating our concern to what writer Lilie Chouliaraki describes as the solidarity of the “Ironic Spectator”. And being constantly urged “to care” can realize Marshall McLuhan\’s warning that, “the price of eternal vigilance is indifference”—unless genuine action that aims toward real goals is part of an empowering advocacy package.

The most viral video cannot be more than the initial rung on the advocacy ladder, placing events or issues on the public record and perhaps altering public perceptions. Viral communications can be hugely valuable to this first step. But to prove vital to the public debate, practical solutions must be offered. And to be “virile”, advocacy communications must offer meaningful participation in actions that can sustain commitment to address human rights abuses and social injustice challenges.



The Lord’s Resistance Army evolved from the messianic Holy Spirit Movement, which rose among Acholi people in northern Uganda in 1986. Its formation was similar to that of other millennial movements, such as those of the Xhosa in South Africa in the 1850s, New Zealand’s Maoris a decade later, or Native American Sioux at the end of 19th Century. The society in which it took root was under enormous stress, and some members perceived an existential crisis of alien domination and loss of both land and culture.

In Uganda, an Acholi-dominated military junta was in February 1986 defeated by rebel forces led by and mostly comprised of Ugandans from the south and west of their country. The diminution of Acholi power and privilege engendered some lingering armed opposition orchestrated by defeated politicians. But far more important to the creation of a new insurgency were abuses against Acholi civilians by some of the soldiers sent north to impose the new regime’s writ. This fed already existing fears of persecution and sparked a “legitimized resistance”—the surest base for a sustained guerilla conflict, as I have written of in the context of America’s war in Iraq.

The Holy Spirit Movement [HSM] was a new and initially small group led by a woman, Alice Auma, who took the name Lakwenya, whom she described as her spirit guide. Alice revealed that Lakwenya was demanding Acholi people purify themselves through a set of quasi-Christian prescriptions and prohibitions to be empowered to retake control of Uganda. The HSM advance toward Kampala was defeated in mid-1987, and Alice Lakwenya fled to Kenya. HSM fighters regrouped under the leadership of Lakwenya’s younger relative, Joseph Kony. Reporting from northern Uganda in 1988, I met Acholi guerilla fighters from the politically led Uganda People’s Democratic Army [please see PHOTO] surrendering to government troops. They said they could not face fighters of the rebranded United Holy Salvation Army [later rechristened the Lord’s Resistance Army], who were relentlessly attacking anyone who would not be “purified” and join their forces. Kony’s fighters were irrationally fearless, surrendering guerillas and government soldiers told me. They would sometimes charge enemies carrying sticks and stones they believed would turn into rifles and hand grenades. Many fell unarmed on the battlefield.

The late Alice Lakwenya’s missives from her spirit guide have evolved into LRA formal doctrine, enforced with great brutality. It is noteworthy that the LRA’s greatest nemesis, Invisible Children, has grown from a Christian-based group whose leaders’ religious fervor is perhaps no less deeply felt than Kony’s, and who loudly demand a demonstrably un-Christian militarized solution to a conflict that has long defied one. Invisible Children ignores Acholi cultural and religious leaders\’ arguments that traditional rites of healing and forgiveness are a better route to reconciliation. A compelling video that gives voice to this Acholi perspective has received less than 7,000 views….



One late afternoon while I was reporting from Uganda in 1981, a man knocked on my office door in central Kampala. Simply dressed, he was middle-aged, and rather gaunt. He spoke English carefully and politely, if imperfectly. A few evenings earlier, he told me, he’d heard about my story on the BBC radio’s daily Focus on Africa program of a smuggled letter said to be from detainees in an army camp. The letter described torture and other abuses by the much-feared red-bereted military police; its writers pleaded to be saved. I had mentioned that the letter included a list of 32 people reportedly held at the camp.

With a great courtesy bordering on deference I later saw was more likely desperation, the man asked if he could see the list. We sat. His brother was missing, he explained, seized by plain-clothes security men two months earlier. I handed him a copy of the hand-written letter, the names in question appended in smaller script. He peered down and ran his finger along the list once, twice, then again as tears began to leak from his eyes. “Did you find his name?” I asked, as very gently as I could. Rising, wiping his eyes, he barely sighed “No”, and head still down started toward the door.

I said I was very sorry and reached to shake his hand. He turned and took my hand in both of his. They were  large, and rough. “Thank you for your work,” he said softly, looking me squarely in the eyes, then added in stronger voice: “Make sure the world knows. In [previous dictator] Amin’s time,” he nodded slowly, “people said they didn’t know. This time” —he now shook his head with angry conviction— “please do not let them say they didn’t know.

In the moment, I believed that my reporting would surely make the world know… and that this knowledge would make a difference. The UK, US, and global institutions that supported the murderous regime would change their policies! But in the policy and media world of the 1980s, few powerful people evinced much concern. Uganda’s civil conflict was no Cold War proxy struggle. Beyond coffee, the country offered scant easily exploitable export resources. In Britain, Uganda’s past master and colonial creator, there was sporadic interest, at least some the afterglow of media attention lavished on the past dictator-cum-buffoon Idi Amin Dada. But American media attention was minimal, even while as many as 250,000 people, most of them civilians, were butchered in a savage conflict from 1981-86. The Vanderbilt Television Archives show that the main US networks reported on Uganda only a handful of times during that period. “Anti-communist” wars—raging in Central America, in Angola, in Afghanistan—were many orders of magnitude higher on the policy and thus the media agenda.

So if events in Uganda were on the public record, if my witness helped “let the world know”, such awareness did little to push the conflict onto the policy agenda. My information helped Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights [now Human Rights First] to issue damning reports. But absent oil or ideology as compelling cause for intervention, Uganda’s civil war carried on largely unremarked by the wider world. If the strategic interests of a state in a conflict are either very small or very large, promoting policy action is exceedingly difficult.

Witnessing and reporting offered awareness; it did not move policy. To believe that I did my job as witness well [please see The Guardian clip: “Sad times, bad times, in Uganda’s capital of suffering” in the sidebar] is a cold and hollow comfort as I recall the bloody broken bodies, the piled corpses—the shattered lives—of everyday people suffering under a cruel dictatorship. But there is still genuine importance, and potential power, in witnessing by professional journalists, by citizen reporters, by human rights activists. It is the absolutely necessary first step, but first step only, on a path of awareness and advocacy and, perhaps, change.

And like the man who visited my office that day in 1981, I am glad at least that world leaders and others who did nothing to try to stem the mass killing in Uganda in the 1980s would never be able to clothe themselves in the hypocrisy of claiming they “didn’t know”.


Comments are welcome at


Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988 Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord's Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony.  photo©TR Lansner

Near Gulu, Uganda, April 1988
Uganda People’s Democratic Army guerillas receive a chicken upon surrendering to government forces after being attacked repeatedly by fighters of the United Holy Salvation Army [later renamed the Lord’s Resistance Army], led by Joseph Kony. photo©TR Lansner


Social Media = Revolution?

It has become fashionable for many Western journalists and academics to enthusiastically endorse the idea that digital media and the internet are facilitating a praiseworthy grassroots-driven activism across the globe. Mobile phones, social media and You Tube are deemed to be tools making possible the spontaneous upwelling of pro-democratic agitation. Within this logic, digital media inherently becomes an agent of positive social change. More importantly, within this logic, digital media become associated with spontaneous grassroots activism – wherein ordinary people are now empowered to change their world for the better. One example of such a boosterist endorsement of digital media was the narrative constructed by Western journalists to eulogize the Arab Spring.

The question is – should we not be more circumspect in our thinking? Should we not be asking some critical questions about who is using social media, mobile phones and other forms of digital media as political tools? Just because interactive digital media looks like it produces bottom-up grassroots communication does not mean this communication is actually as innocent as it looks.

With this in mind, I invite readers to view the list of YouTube videos posted here. These videos reveal that the so-called spontaneous use of digital media by grassroots activists during the Arab Spring may actually encode agendas that are not at first apparent. In particular, there is a need to recognize that as with all media platforms, interactive digital media forms are also susceptible to being used as weapons by large political actors who mobilize surrogate warfare as tools of their foreign policy.

Surrogate warfare Obama-style

The videos show that Obama’s State Department is displaying considerable creativity in developing and deploying a new variety of surrogate warfare – one that has incorporated the use of digital media, mobile phone technology, and social media as new weapons of warfare.

As with earlier (Cold War) US-surrogate actions, the Obama-administration still seeks out political players who can be adopted as allies and partners. These partners are then turned into political actors of value to US foreign policy goals by providing them with training and resources that makes them more politically effective.

A key moment in the development of Obama-era USA-surrogacy came in November 2008 when the US State Department announced at a Press Conference that it was launching a new partnership called the Alliance of Youth Movements. The State Department partnered with Google, Facebook, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, CNN, NBC, MTV and the Columbia Law School to ‘bring together global youth groups and tech experts to find the best ways to use digital media to promote freedom and justice, [and] counter violence, extremism and oppression’ (US Department of State, 2008). The resultant Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) brought leaders from 17 organizations based in 15 countries to New York in December 2008 where they were exposed to US technology experts, media players and Obama consultants who showed them how to use media as political tools.

Within this emergent Alliance the role of Howcast was especially important in generating the new wave of surrogacy driven from Washington because Howcast is an online company that makes and hosts “how to videos” (Bratich, 2011: 626). What AYM has been teaching America’s new youthful partners is how to use social media to build political organizations, mobilize crowds, and build insurgent movements. One of the outcomes of the 2008 summit was an online ‘How-to’ Hub which hosted a series of videos on How to create Grassroots Movement Using Social Networking Sites; How to Smart Mob; and How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy (Bratich, 2011: 627). Importantly, AYM also teaches its youthful activists how to make videos geared to stirring Western publics into a state of indignation (see examples below) – in effect to produce video material that global news media like CNN and BBC can use to help build a mood for action against those the USA deems to be tyrants. Such videos have become an important feature of the Syrian conflict.

Videos and social media as weapons in Syria

One example of an NGO that has learned to use videos, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter as weapons is the Syrian Free Press. The Syrian Free Press has clearly learned that if you make videos that Western journalists find newsworthy, and post them to the Web, your material is likely to get picked and used by news media around the world. Some of these videos have clearly been made using mobile phones. Effectively the Syrian Free Press have learned the art of Public Relations (PR) and spin doctoring, and have successfully deployed this understanding of PR to distribute anti-regime messages via You Tube, Facebook and Twitter. The way in which the Syrian Free Press has successfully used a range of digital media to distribute its media releases is instructive of how easy it has become for political activists with an understanding of both digital media and PR techniques to get their messages out to global news media.

And what we have witnessed during the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian conflict in particular is that many mainstream media organizations have been all too willing to use the material posted to the Web by political activists, NGOs and citizen journalists often without verifying its contents. Without doubt the easy availability of such material on the Web has impacted on how journalists now report conflicts. But it is changing more than the nature of global news, it is also changing how struggles can be conceptualized by both political activists and the large global powers who are seeking ways to overthrow regimes of which they disapprove.


Bratich, J. (2011) User-Generated Discontent, Cultural Studies, 25 (4-5)

US Department. of State (2008) Press Release on Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, December 3-5.

An introduction to the AYM’s vision of online activism

Hillary Clinton’s message to the youth alliance built by the US State Department


Mali’s War, Unseen


Menacingly shrouded Al-Qaeda fighters… Paratroops descending on the ‘fabled desert city of Timbuktu’…  Jubilant throngs of kids, grinning… People waving or even wearing the French ‘tricolore’… Women again adorned in brightly-colored traditional dress feting French soldiers… The French president joyfully mobbed…  Staring from our screens, grim-faced amputee survivors of Islamist [in]justice…  Mali “in flames”…  And, yes, a few dead people….

These “snapshots” of Mali’s war—embodied in their representative images—define what most the world has learned of the ongoing conflict in the West African state. Most of the photos available, as the French daily newspaper Liberation observes, “have the feeling of having been produced by the school of fine arts of war….” [“avec le sentiment donné d’avoir été produites par l’école des beaux-arts de la guerre….”]

Serval-ing the dominant narrative

These images very comfortably fit and exceedingly well serve the dominant narrative of the origins and expected outcome of France’s military intervention in its former colony: that “Operation Serval” was launched on 11 January 2013 to repel aggression by “terrorist” forces, and will quickly conclude with victory over brutal fundamentalists, aided by warmly welcomed and enlightened foreigners.

This narrative seems at least in part quite plausible, and reflects an elite and mainstream media consensus. It is an easy sell to audiences accustomed to conflict reporting that offers dramatic and simplified [and sometimes simplistic] military-oriented coverage about places and issues about which they know little. Especially in France, whose people are being to asked to expend treasure and risk lives, the plain morality tale of demonized [here hard-line Islamist] enemies and grateful allies is useful in retaining public support for the mission. Yet the dominant narrative far from fully paints a situation that is far more complex, and challenges that might prove more costly, than early official assurances.

This is not new in conflict coverage. Governments and militaries [and non-state actors] always, and most urgently during conflicts, seek to control information and shape public perceptions to their advantage. What is striking is that France is deploying precisely the opposite of recent U.S. and U.K. military/media relations strategy. Rather than embedding many reporters with front-line units to build journalists’ rapport with soldiers [and, conveniently, monitor their access], France has banned nearly all media from the combat zones.

Despite many correspondents’ repeated and sometimes risky efforts to reach the front lines, there are virtually no first-hand journalistic accounts of the fighting in Mali. Video of fierce firefights with all their attendant noise and smoke and confusion appeared in late February only after recently expelled Islamist guerillas re-infiltrated the city of Gao, which was then thought to be far behind the front lines. Even casual media consumers are now accustomed to and expect such images. More than a decade of compelling combat footage provided by embedded correspondents in Afghanistan and Iraq—and more recently from embattled Syria, although from there most often by citizen reporters or militia fighters—have convinced viewers that we can access on demand the latest horrific moments of faraway conflicts.

French media organizations have publicized the restrictions on their reporting [as well as sometimes criticizing their colleagues’ offerings], complaining vigorously, as have press freedom groups. “The French authorities, supported by their Malian counterparts, have achieved their ‘zero image of the war front’ media objective for Operation Serval by strictly controlling access to information,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in mid-February.

“Bewildering”—Mali in no context

While the depiction of French troops being welcomed by most Malians to drive out Islamists appears accurate, the much larger story of why war has come to Mali, and how its conflicts might be addressed, is absent. One can find more serious and sometimes contentious analysis, for example hereherehere and here. But the dominant narrative offers little understanding of how war enveloped a nation long held [and arguably misrepresented] as a peaceful democratic beacon amidst many countries torn by conflict and ruled by despots. The lack of context in most reports is unsurprising, especially in television news clips and other short-form journalism. Unfettered access to the front lines might even cut context and skew perceptions by trumpeting the latest most frenetic “bang-bang” video. For those who remain confused by events, The Atlantic Online offered a visual aid headlined: “A Map of the Bewildering Mali Conflict.” As a map it is pretty, but leaves neophyte Mali-watchers no more apprised of the causes or consequences of the conflict. And still bewildered, indeed, as the map’s caption itself closes by asking, “Just what are the French getting themselves into?”

Many even brief articles mention that France is Mali’s former colonial master. But the fact that Mali is a country of multiple ethnicities that has for decades seen rebellion simmer and flare among the marginalized nomadic desert Touareg peoples is rarely described. Nor is the fact that modern Mali is a colonial creation; its frontiers were declared by 19th Century imperial mapmakers, and it borders seven similarly-conjured countries, all now experiencing various degrees of political and ethnic unrest, and to which the fear of Islamist “contagion” is very real.

The notion that France’s intervention might be motivated by reasons beyond the desire to protect Malians and the wider world from violent Islamist extremism is rarely voiced. It is mostly left to small leftist groups to offer an alternative view and point out [and this, at least, quite accurately] that France has enduring powerful economic interests in West and Central Africa. The uranium deposits crucial to France’s nuclear industry found in Mali’s eastern neighbor Niger certainly merit mention, especially since that country has also experienced ethnic-based Touareg rebellions.  Another dissenting voice is Iran’s official PressTV, which headlined: “France war in Mali: Neo-imperialist grab dressed up in “war on terror” rhetoric”. Even if many of its reports predictably unveil vast Western Capitalist/Neo-Imperialist/Crusader Conspiracies behind every sand dune, they do offer interesting contrast to headlines like this from the BBC: “In pictures: Why Malians now love France”.

Don’t show us the flames of war

As  mentioned earlier, the vast preponderance of images offered recently from Mali are actually “post-conflict” or  from outside the conflict zones. When video of people reportedly executed by the Malian Army as suspected rebels or possible sympathizers was aired on French television, France’s official Supreme Audiovisual Council warned against showing such images “to ensure complicance with the principle of human dignity.” [veiller au respect du principe de dignité humaine.”] French media seem prepared to defy the broadcast watchdog; a senior news director asked, “I would like to know exactly if this is a new doctrine that we say ‘attention, don’t show the victims.’” [”Je veux savoir exactement si c’est une nouvelle doctrine qui nous dit ‘attention ne montrez pas les victims.’”]. An interesting question is whether the politically very sensitive [and counter official narrative] nature of alleged revenge killings by Malian Government forces prompted the French broadcasting council to object. The “offending” images are discussed at minute 13 of this Al-Jazeera program.

A few other images have caused controversy, including this of a French soldier in a bandana with a skull design over his face. This photo alone should evoke a panoply of commentary. The mask the solider donned against dust raised by a helicopter is based on “Ghost”, a popular character in the top-selling video wargame series, Call of Duty. How we — and young men especially — are conditioned to consider conflict by pervasive wargaming is increasingly debated. And the cross-cultural context is also rich: as part of the Call of Duty character’s complicated backstory, Ghost’s death mask seems to reference Mexico’s zestfully macabre “Dia de Los Muertos” festival.

The photo was jarring and profoundly “counter-narrative”; a French colonel scrambled to proclaim French forces “are not messengers of death” in Mali. And photo-evidence of  alleged revenge by Malian troops made grimmer viewing, even absent much context. But as Liberation observed, most of the proffered images are achingly beautiful, as this compilation attests. After touring with Malians at toil and at play (“mostly in the  south,” the introduction explains, “where photographers are able to work.”), we reach the conflict in only the last dozen or so shots of the 41-photo set. And nearly all the photos with soldiers are fairly static, and might as well show training exercises. Only the closing shot — after proceeding through a click-through warning of its “graphic content” — brings any real inkling of the terrible costs of war. This is a powerful image of death, made vividly and mundanely human by what appears to be the victim’s sandals, lying undisturbed by his feet.

Notable in this set are two images that present people framed by smoke and fire. Neither, as the captions frankly admit, have anything to do with the conflict; a marketplace accident [photo 21] and the annual burning off of sugar cane fields [photo 14]. The BBC also used the fiery sugar cane fields in a story, but with the caption, “It will be some time before life in northern Mali returns to normal”. This is surely true. But the photo depicts an unremarkable scene (including an archetypical donkey, and not even in the north), exotic to most viewers, but unconnected to the conflict.

No matter. Photo editors everywhere —and their audiences!—are drawn as moths to flames. And if fighters keep correspondents from the actual fires of war, some other blaze will serve and sell. The French Army would shrug, contentedly enough. To paraphrase words ascribed to the turn-of-the 20th-Century American press baron William Randolph Hearst, “Give me the [flaming] pictures, I’ll call it the war.”

MediaWatch analyzes the French media’s characterization of Operation Serval.

Al Jazeera’s “The Listening Post” explores the French government’s efforts to restrict certain images.

The only independent combat video from the Mali conflict came from what was thought to be behind the front lines in Gao, when recently-evicted Islamist fighters re-infiltrated the city.


Innerview: General Eugene Habiger

The Vision Machine’s Roger Stahl sat down with Gen. Habiger for an extended discussion in late 2011 to talk contemporary security, nuclear proliferation, and the challenges of the so-called War on Terror.  Gen. Habiger was Commander in Chief if U.S. Strategic Command during the Clinton administration and played a lead role in the transition to a post-Cold War defense establishment.  From there, he worked as Security Czar for the Department of Energy, where he ran cybersecurity operations and also oversaw the security of fissile material.  At the time of the interview, General Habiger was visiting the University of Georgia as a Distinguished Fellow and Policy Adviser for the Center for International Trade and Security, a non-proliferation group.

For this interview, we were interested in getting General Habiger’s candid take on issues of security threats and solutions, the nuclear threat in particular, cyberwar, the boom in remotely piloted vehicles (drones), and the new condition of asymmetry that animates the unipolar world scene.