The Call of Strange Places
Weblogs -- or blogs -- have been a hotbed of analysis and news aggregation for some time, but their value as a primary source of news has lagged behind. The blogosphere has proved competent enough to spot faked documents on 60 Minutes, but it hasn't yet beaten the MSM at finding fact first very often. That may change. Consider the example of Wow Philippines, a site run by an American called Bob Martin who has lived in Mindanao for the last five years. He writes:
I heard an interesting rumor today. I was talking to an American fellow who has ties to the US Military and he told me that the word is flying around US Military circles that the suicide bombers in the recent Bali attack were Filipino. Of course, it is widely believed that the planners of the plot were Indonesian JI members, but this fellow says that the actual bombers were Filipinos who were recruited by the JI members when they were in Mindanao.
This report is far from established fact. Martin himself describes it as a rumor. But his post provides a lead which an interested person could follow, a lead unavailable from the regular newspapers or wire services. The idea that the Bali bombers were Filipinos sounds astounding, but you can leave comments on Martin's site and ask clarificatory questions. And who knows? it may lead to a world exclusive. But what's even more interesting is the blog infrastructure he's set up. There are the links on his page that point to English-speaking Wow blogs in locales like Ozamiz, Iligan, Davao and Cagayan de Oro; all cities in Mindanao, pretty hefty coverage of an island where even CNN and the BBC don't have many resources: a network that an area specialist can sift through to find information unobtainable anywhere else.
The concept of using open source broadcasts to find news or intelligence leads is not new. Wikipedia notes that governments routinely monitored foreign language shortwave broadcasts during the Cold War to pick up obscure news or to detect nuance changes in the policies of foreign countries. Even amateurs played the shortwave monitoring game. An article reprinted from the Disabled Americans Magazine tells the story of American shortwave listeners who tuned into Axis radio stations each night of World War 2 to list the names of American prisoners announced on enemy radio. More than a few families learned, through this method, that their son was not dead or missing, but alive. Captured, but alive.
They sat in dimly lit rooms far into the wee hours of morning. Their faces illuminated by the faint, yellow glow of a short-wave radio dial, they carefully tuned through crackling frequencies during the dark days of World War II to listen to the propaganda broadcasts from Berlin, the enemy capital nearly 4,000 miles away. They were everyday citizens who independently served as ex-officio intelligence agents, sometimes finding hope and joy for the families of American and Canadian POWs in the enemy broadcasts designed to create only despair and disillusionment.
Each night, these few Americans closely listened to the broadcasts of "Axis Sally," waiting for information about soldiers and airmen taken prisoner by the Germans. The broadcasts included names of POWs, sometimes service numbers, hometowns, and the names of family members.
Like the shortwave radio of yesterday blogs contain a mixture of information and noise which can be potentially aggregated and analyzed to find the hidden vein of gold. But unlike shortwave radio, the receiver can interact with the transmitter and routed to other transmitters in turn. Where this will lead is hard to say. But it's possible that the newsgathering revolution has only just begun.