Archive For: WWWar

American Media Intervention in the Middle East

Matthew Sienkiewicz is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Boston College.  In 2010, he produced Live from Bethlehem, a documentary about Palestinian media in the West Bank.  TheVisionMachine is proud to feature selections from the documentary (have your library order a copy from the Media Education Foundation) as well as his thoughts six years later.  Sienkiewicz’s fascinating new book on US media operations in the Middle East is The Other Air Force (Rutgers UP: 2016).

My interest in Bethlehem’s Ma’an Network was piqued when a friend of a friend, a Grizzled American Newsman, told me about his trip to the West Bank. He was sent by an NGO, which was sent by the US Government, to help the producers and journalists of this fledgling Palestinian network learn how to make ‘independent’ media. My initial reaction was probably a lot like yours in reading that last sentence. How can an agent of the US, a nation so far from a neutral arbiter in the Middle East, possibly be giving lectures on independence? Ten years later, this knot certainly hasn’t fully untangled itself for me. However, a lot of contextualization has helped. First and foremost, in researching Ma’an up close I came to understand that, like any media outlet, they are free from some external pressures, beholden to others. In the case of Ma’an, executives and journalists willingly take on American-authored restrictions in exchange for insulation from the factional and economic difficulties otherwise embedded the production of Palestinian television.

In the making of my (co-produced w/Joseph Sousa) documentary Live From Bethlehem, I also came to appreciate the danger in conceptualizing any media production, even in the most politically charged space, as primarily ideological. Certainly Ma’an’s creative freedom (or lack thereof) is a matter of political importance. The day-to-day experience of producers, however, is dominated by attempts to work within material circumstances, with the idea of structural change rather far off in the distance. As Live From Bethlehem details, Ma’an’s producers spend relatively little time considering the politics of word choice or the symbolic meanings of minor artistic adjustments. Instead, they spend their time trying to work out a production schedule that accounts for the uncertainty of movement imposed by Israeli occupation or attempting to jerry-rig substandard equipment so the final product looks good enough to suffice in the hyper-competitive world of Arab TV. Certainly, ideology frames these circumstances and provides a long-term sense of purpose, but the task at hand is generally a practical, not political, one.

The Media Education Foundation released Live From Bethlehem in 2010. It remains relevant and generally reflective of contemporary circumstances, in large part due to the lack of progress in the struggle for a peaceful, long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Ma’an Network has, however, grown in the intervening years, becoming an important regional satellite outlet while still remaining heavily intertwined with Western funders, including America. This progression is outlined and analyzed in my recently released book, The Other Air Force. In addition to serving as a sort of sequel to Live From Bethlehem, the book adds a deep consideration of America’s media projects in Afghanistan. Bringing these case studies together, The Other Air Force theorizes recent American communication intervention in the Middle East as “soft-psy media”—an attempt to blend the commercially oriented foreign policy strategy of “soft power” with the military control tactics of “psyops.” Put simply, America has been funding media outlets such as Ma’an and only loosely monitoring their content in the hopes that they will succeed financially and help bring “American-style” media into new spaces. Of course, there are always red lines not to be crossed, as detailed in the documentary.  In media, as in most walks of life, freedoms are precious, partial, and always fragile things.

Live from Bethlehem


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.


Innerview: Ron Deibert

Cyberterrorism, cyberwar, espionage, the Great Firewall of China, surveillance, human rights, Snowden, insurgencies, computer network attacks, hacking, data sweeping…  The Vision Machine had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  Deibert runs the Citizen Lab, a large interdisciplinary research facility that endeavors to track attempts by state and non-state actors to control the flow of information in cyberspace.  This interview, conducted by Seb Kaempf, plums Deibert’s extensive knowledge of how the gears of the net really turn and its possibilities for both democratic and authoritarian politics.  In addition to the reports generated by the Citizen Lab itself, Deibert has most recently authored the book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (Random House, 2013).


BH/CH/ADHD: Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention


Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention


“One Dead in London, Ten in Paris, 1,000 in India.”

So goes the apocryphal rendition of traditional British News Values.*

It offers a good launching point to address why the terrible 07 January Charlie Hebdo [CH] murders received massively hyperactive global media attention, while horrific killings by Boko Haram [BH] in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga in the days before suffered grave global media attention deficit. Several “proximites” and other factors driving media coverage help explain.

As in real estate, the first focus of media is nearly always location. Usually, physical proximity to a news event matters most of all. Paris is far closer to London than is Baga, and to New York by travel time. This is common fare, from the vaunted BBC to your hyper-local rag. Muggings in our own neighborhood are more troubling than murders across town. Floodwaters on your street are greater concern right now than global warming’s softly rising seas. And when the enemy appears on our doorstep, we are well and truly alarmed.

Other sorts of proximity are also powerful, both for audiences and for those who generate and disseminate news—mostly based and/or working for corporate-owned media outlets in the major metropoles. These include security, cultural norms, economic, religious/racial/ethnic, and professional proximities.

On all these drivers of media coverage, CH/Paris trumps BH/Baga. Here, a brief survey:

  • Security—The attack in Paris is one that might be replicated in any major city/ The assault on Baga was on the margins of a troubled country in the “faraway”.
  • Norms—Physical assault on media workers has become taboo inside western countries/ The Baga atrocities are part of a too-familiar pattern in Nigeria.
  • Economic—The economic costs of urban terrorism’s effects on commerce and tourism are similar across major metropoles/ The economic impact of the Baga horror in Europe is arguably nil.
  • Religious/Racial/Ethnic —Western audiences’ ethnic and religious identification with the CH victims is clear/ Identification with BH victims is only on a generalized human connection.
  • Media Professionals—The targets in the CH attacks were journalists; nearly every journalist anywhere feels such an attack viscerally/ Baga was just another [very terrible] story as BH perpetrated [another] remote massacre “somewhere in Africa”.

Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity

“Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),” Britain’s National Health Service informs us, “can be categorised into two sets of behavioural problems… Inattentiveness [and] hyperactivity and impulsiveness.”

And we do see these symptoms in the hyperactive CH/Paris coverage and BH/Baga attention deficit [evidenced in coverage measured in an excellent piece by Ethan Zuckerman here]. These are partially the result of the proximities described above. A few other factors can be quickly, if not thoroughly, noted here: access to the conflict, communications, narrative resonance, telegenics, and official agendas:

  • Access—Paris is easily and safely accessible to major world media/ BH has attacked journalists and Baga is a long and now dangerous journey even from Nigeria’s media capital, Lagos. And absent access, establishing facts and telling a human story is almost impossible. As the BBC noted: “It won’t be the first time we are not sure if 150, 300, 500 or even 2,000 people were killed in a massacre in Nigeria.”
  • Communications—Paris of course has excellent communications; witness the row of satellite trucks as tweeted by the BBC’s @ImeldaFlattery at the massive march on 11 January/ Baga is now nearly cut off, with even mobile communications severely disrupted.
  • Narrative Resonance—The CH/Paris story is one told with the narrative simplicity of a plain good/evil morality tale: Islamists murder Champions of Freedom of Expression, and the simple solidarity of “Je suis Charlie”/ BH/Baga is fraught with doubts about official competence and perhaps collusion in the killings. Even some of the scant coverage was only to reinforce the notion of a greater Islamist threat.
  • Telegenics—Video of the execution of policemen Ahmed Merabet was as enormously shocking as the “Je suis Charlie” march was  telegenic; both reinforced the dominant narrative/ Images from Baga were unavailable.
  • Official agendas—Global officialdom at the highest levels rallied to denounce the “unprecedented” CH/Paris murders [no matter how stained they might themselves be with journalists’ blood], responding to and reinforcing media hyperactivity/ The BH/Baga calamity garnered scant high level attention, remarkably even within Nigeria, seen merely as a [bloodier] continuation of a series of unfortunate events in that country.

Two other factors absent in this context can compel massive media coverage. One is celebrity involvement. Princess Di made us care a bit about landmines. George Clooney briefly branded burning Darfur onto the media agenda. The animal magnetism of elephants, dolphins and loyal hounds also command attention. Combining the two, as I wrote of Paris Hilton’s alleged engagement with drunken elephants, can brew a hyperactive media storm.

Ownership also matters deeply. Most news production is still driven by Western-owned media corporations that represent and report to audiences that feel their values and perhaps their lives are directly threatened by the CH/Paris attacks. Hyperactive—and occasionally hyper-sensational and impulsively Islamophobic coverage—was the rule. Fear, justified or not, sells.

A rough schema summarizing the effect of proximity and further factors above on BH/Baga and CH/Paris coverage is offered in the sidebar.

As Years Go By: On the Record… Not the Agenda

Yet there was reporting of Boko Haram and Baga to be found by any careful reader, albeit far, far less than that of Charlie Hebdo, for the several reasons laid out above. The terrible events from northeastern Nigeria were on the public record, but then and to date lacking intensive coverage required to raise them to the public agenda.

And a quick note on another proximity: chronological. Early next January, extensive and solemn reflection and prognostication will build as the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders nears; on 07 January 2016, it will again dominate global news.

One year on, the Baga massacre is unlikely to be recalled at all. Did we anywhere see mentioned previous outrages in the very same town, these allegedly by the Nigerian Army in April 2013? And where are the Chibok girls today, god or somebody please save them! The profound attention deficit of most Western media for a myriad of serious issues, and particulalry those not perceived of primary proximity to Western audiences and interests, will not soon abate. Baga—and Boko Haram, unless they are spectacularly incautious enough to attack on Western soil—are likely to remain, like most of Africa, in the exotic far faraway. ###

*Recounting his early training as a copy editor in his 2004 book, Grumpy Old Men: The Official Handbook, veteran British journalist Stewart Prebble recalled this newsroom formula: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”  


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.


Shooting Death: Kevin Sites and the Siege of Fallujah

In an age of instantaneous, 24/7, and live news coverage, in an age of SoJos (solo journalists, who travel with their own cameras, satellite phones, and blogs), how can news reporting from the battlefield still be controlled? With the rise of digital new media in 2002, this particular challenge has confronted many militaries. Our micro documentary offers a rare glimpse into the world of war reporting in today’s transformed media landscape.

Kevin Sites is an American author and freelance journalist, spending nearly a decade covering global wars and disasters for ABC, CNN, NBC, and Yahoo! News. He is considered the ‘granddaddy’ of solo (or backpack) journalism, helping blaze the trail for intrepid reporters who work alone, carrying only a backpack of portable digital technology to shoot, write, edit, and transmit multimedia reports from the world’s most dangerous places. His first book,<sup> </sup><i>In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars</i> (Harper Perennial-October 2007), shares his effort to put a human face on global conflict by reporting from every major war zone in one year. He is now a professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong teaching bachelor and masters programmes.

In 2004, Kevin Sites embedded with US Marines as a freelance war reporter for NBC in Iraq. During the siege of Fallujah, the biggest battle fought by the US military since Vietnam, he shot footage of a gruesome incident in which a US Marine shot and killed a wounded Iraqi captive lying on the floor of a Mosque. This film, drawing on the original footage (courtesy of Kevin Sites), retells the incident of the Mosque shooting and its aftermath, of what happened to the video footage, and how it was or was not reported in the media across the globe. The episode raises questions over the politics of war reporting, modern day (self-) censorship, the ethical responsibilities of those covering conflicts on the ground, and the importance of visual footage in our news streams.

This micro documentary was filmed and produced by Peter Mantello and Sebastian Kaempf, who tracked down Kevin Sites in Boston in 2010.  Edited by Ali Rae and Ben Walker.


Innerview: David Campbell on Embedding

Professor David Campbell ( is a writer, researcher, teacher, videographer, and producer engaged in the analysis and production of visual storytelling. With his writing and research he focuses on photography, multimedia and politics. He examines how documentary photography and photojournalism work, the opportunities multimedia bring, and the challenges presented by the revolutions in the new media economy. With his creative practice he works both as a multimedia producer collaborating with photographers and as a documentarian flying solo.

David has written or edited six books and some 50 articles and essays. This research deals with how atrocity, famine, war and ‘Africa’ are represented, how photographs function to visualize the global landscape, and how US foreign policy and wars in Bosnia and Iraq have been produced. He has curated three large visual projects (Atrocity, Memory, Photography, Imaging Famine, and the Visual Economy of HIV-AIDS).

For the past two decades he has taught visual culture, geography and politics at universities in the US, Australia and the UK, most recently as Professor of International Politics at Newcastle University (1997-2004) and then Professor of Cultural and Political Geography at Durham University (2004-10).

Now he works free-lance and independently, but retains a number of affiliations. He’s a member of the Durham Centre for Advanced Photography Studies at Durham University, Visiting Professor in the Northern Centre of Photography at Sunderland University, and Honorary Professor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia (where he is part of the Australian Research Council funded project on how images shape our response to humanitarian crises).

This innerview with David for TheVisionMachine was conducted by Sebastian Kaempf and Peter Mantello in Alphabet City, New York City, on 9 February 2010 and edited by Ali Rae and Ben Walker.



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


Returning Fire

War-themed video games that restage the multiple conflicts of the War on Terror have posted record-breaking sales. In real dollars, the November 8, 2011 appearance of Modern Warfare 3, which recapitulates the drama of fighting a global terror network, was the largest entertainment release of any kind to date. The phenomenon is even more notable considering that US wars have fallen off nearly every other screen. With the brief exception of Libya in 2011, the now myriad US interventions and occupations around the planet have achieved a remarkable invisibility on the news and in Hollywood, where the war film has been declared “a toxic genre.” This has by default left the video game as the signature medium for the public understanding of war. Of course, many have argued that the consumption of the video game war poses problems for civic deliberation on these important matters. One might go so far as to say that the war-as-game mode may represent a new mode of social control: a grid of emerging practices and narratives that discipline the citizen and divert critical questions. War game culture has its own set of paradoxes and contradictions, however. While the name of the game is fidelity to ongoing conflicts and the faithful reproduction of weapons, there is a noted absence of the ugliness of conflict – the shattered families, starvation, and overflowing hospitals. There is the sense of alienation in ruthlessly separating the “conflict zone” from the “comfort zone.” At the heart of the war game is the experience of driving an avatar through the paradoxical thrills of “safe danger,” an analogue to the post-industrial West’s uneasy relationship with long-distance drone warfare. And while war games generally align themselves to a nationalistic narrative, there is little reference to the larger policy choices that precipitated the conflict, leaving the player in the curious position of fighting for “freedom” while adhering to the totalitarian and unquestionable dictates of the state. Returning Fire: Interventions in War Game Culture is an attempt to understand these internal contradictions. The film itself does not present a critique, but rather surveys the ways that artists and activists have engaged the politics of the war-themed game. The film follows Iraqi expatriate Wafaa Bilal and his project, Domestic Tension, which invited visitors to his website to shoot him, via mouse click, with an actual paintball gun in actual physical space – a recapitulation of the logics of seduction and long-distance weaponry that animate the experience of contemporary warfare. Anne-Marie Schleiner’s project, Velvet Strike, is a study in how political space, physical space, and virtual space mesh in war games and how the virtual street corner should be reconsidered as a valid space for activism.  The clip included here features the story of Joseph Delappe, who created a media stir by going into the official Army recruiting game, America’s Army, and listing the US war dead in a painstaking virtual memorial.  These three vignettes provide glimpses into the instabilities of war game culture and offer strategies for opening the narrative to more critical questions.


The Military-Industrial- Media-Entertainment Network

Technology in the service of virtue has given rise to a global form of virtual violence: Virtuous War. In the 21st century, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network (aka The MIME-NET) has become the ‘fifth-dimension’ of U.S. hegemony. Fought in the same manner they are represented through real-time global surveillance, media dissimulation, and network-centric warfare, virtuous war deters, disciplines and destroys the “enemy” at a distance. An all-too-real matrix, MIME-NET, seamlessly merges the production, representation, and execution of war. We learn how to kill but not take responsibility for it; we encounter ‘death’ but not its tragic consequences; we now face not just the confusion but the pixelation of war and game on the same screen.

Professor James Der Derian, of the University of Sydney, takes the viewer on a journey through deserts real and virtual to find the ghosts in the 21st century war-machine.