The Blogosphere at War
I wrote this paper as an attempt to describe how the blogosphere works; to situate it vis-a-vis the mainstream media and to indicate some of the ways it can be used as a weapon of information warfare. The reader may find many of the ideas half-baked, and the reader would be right. But perhaps this flawed little monograph can contribute in some small way to a discussion of what the blogosphere is and what it's future might be. I truly believe that "it is possible that in the long run the global public will come to rely on fellow Internet users to learn about the world more than it will from professional journalists."
The Blogosphere At War
There is considerable interest in the idea that "blogs" are somehow able to offset the mainstream media's (MSM) ability to sell a given narrative to the public, a power which is of considerable interest in peace and even more so in war. It is widely recognized that molding public perceptions through narratives is nearly as important in war as the outcomes on the actual battlefield. Palestinian Media Watch convincingly demonstrates that Arab and Muslim organizations have long made influencing international publics through print and broadcast media a strategic goal, especially in any confrontation with Israel. This effort has historically followed two tracks: the establishment of technically sophisticated media outlets like al-Jazeera to sell messages directly to audiences; and mounting information operations aimed at shaping the way in which Western Media outlets cover any issue of interest.
Although these efforts have long been in train, it was Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah that fully demonstrated how far the the virtual "power of the airwaves" could neutralize physical "airpower", in the striking analogy used by Michael Widlanski. Hezbollah's skillful use of the media during that war, especially in playing up and inflating casualties from an Israeli airstrike at Qana in Southern Lebanon, succeed in generating enough diplomatic pressure to ground the Israeli Airforce -- the strongest airforce in the Middle East -- while permitting Hezbollah to rain rockets down upon Israel. It was a tremendous achievement. Although the IDF dominated the kinetic war against Hezbollah, on the information battlefield things were often the reverse. One IDF spokesmen stationed on the Northern Front recently told an audience how he was haplessly herding literally one thousand journalists, many of whom were besieging him with questions fueled by rumor, innuendo and sometimes outright lie delivered over their Blackberries, radios and cellular phones. The middle-aged spokesman realized how drastically the game had changed from the public relations wars of his youth. Looking out on the hordes of journalists wired to their comms the spokesman realized how out of date he had become. "We were immigrants to a new world in which both the media reporters and the enemy were native".
For most of the Israel-Lebanon War of 2006 Hezbollah repeatedly accused Israel of atrocity and wanton aggression as a way of neutralizing its superior firepower; and little of this cant was rebutted in timely fashion. When on December 4, 2006 an Israeli think-tank release released a study, supported by imagery, showing that Hezbollah had fired its rockets from civilian localities all over southern Lebanon at civilian targets in Israel , the war had already been over for five months and Hezbollah had long achieved its public relations objectives. In pointed contrast to this ponderous performance, private individuals -- bloggers -- had managed to explode many Hezbollah atrocity accusations against Israel carried by the MSM in very rapid fashion. These blogger accomplishments included demonstrating that a wire service photograph of a bomb-damaged Beirut had been digitally altered to enhance both the smoke and the damage; that photographs of supposedly dead civilians posed artfully in the rubble were faked; and last but not least, the unmasking of an often photographed Lebanese humanitarian worker (The Green Helmet Man) as a brutal Hezbollah public relations agent callously arranging children's corpses for maximum effect. While the actual effect of these exposes on the international diplomatic climate may have been slight, observers of the 2006 war in Lebanon had found their white knight. The rapid and often effective response of the blogosphere raised hopes that the Internet might provide a way to neutralize the massive Islamic investment in media outlets and information warfare cells. What is the truth?.
The Blogosphere and the Mainstream Media
The blogosphere is defined by Wikipedia as the collection of Internet weblogs and all the conversations they have with each other. It is:
the collective term encompassing all blogs as a community or social network. Many weblogs are densely interconnected; bloggers read others' blogs, link to them, reference them in their own writing, and post comments on each others' blogs. Because of this, the interconnected blogs have grown their own culture.
In raw numeric terms the blogosphere is almost inconceivably large and still growing. The Blog Herald thought there were about 100 million weblogs in October 2005, an estimate that is as much guess as survey.. The blog indexer Technorati is more modest, saying "there are 55 million blogs on the Internet; and some of them have to be good". Fifty five or a hundred million. Whatever the actual figure it is certain that there are a large number of blogs in existence and that the count is rising. These blogs are focused upon a wide variety of human activity, of which politics and the War on Terror constitute but a small part. What does the blogosphere talk about? A search in Technorati for references to the following key words in blogs (of any size, in any language) yields the following counts. The results suggest that people are as interested in talking about everything: of Britney Spears or digital cameras as they are about Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah appears far less interesting to bloggers than Britney Speaker or digital cameras.
But that picture is misleading. The blogosphere has an internal structure which is revealed once we run the Technorati searches again, using the same key words but this time against blogs with large readerships ("a lot of authority") in any language. This time Hezbollah commands more attention than Britney Spears. This suggest the subject matter focus of weblogs varies as they increase in size and "seriousness". For the larger and presumably "more serious" blogs, at least, Hassan Nasrallah may be a more fit subject for discussion than Britney Spears. This indicates that the blogosphere is not one undifferentiated soup. It is implicitly self-organized and performs certain functions.
The state of the blogosphere -- what it talks about at any given moment -- is extremely sensitive to external events. The focus of the Internet reflects the concerns of Internet users and often their direct experience. Posts in 2006 about Hezbollah, for example, peaks markedly around the dates of the War in Lebanon then tapers off but features a slight rebound later in the year possibly in response to rumors that Hassan Nasrallah was ready to restart hostilities. The blogosphere is like a weathersystem. It aborbs the energy from its ambient surroundings and processes it according to its internal workings.
It is possible that the blogosphere, in common with the Internet -- has no inherent content, only a structure that can be filled by those who provide the most content. But it is a most peculiar structure, one that is more congenial to gathering and projecting information that the mainstream media often chooses to ignore, because MSM storylines, timing and content are often driven by artificial editorial decisions unrelated to actual events in the wider world. The blogosphere, on the other hand, is a far more "open" system, responsive to external events in ways that the inbred MSM sometimes cannot match. But like the mainstream media the blogosphere is also an information processing engine which collects, analyzes and disseminates facts. This is its fundamental function. Information is collected by bloggers from their own investigations, sources, contacts or by scanning the news wires. The more interesting reports are picked up by other bloggers who may recognize a significant fact or trend in them, or perhaps detect an implausbility in a story. The is the 'analysis' step. Finally, the most notable stories, ideas or reports are picked up by progressively larger sites until any story recognized to possess significance rises to the very biggest sites on the blogosphere -- the very top of its information food chain. In the act of disseminating a story, the blogosphere amplifies or tones down such stories it collectively finds the most or least worthy of attention. When a blogospheric story is amplified to its maximum extent it sometimes attracts the attention of news agencies or politicians who "pick it up"; then it jumps the boundaries and spreads through the mainstream media like any other news item.
One of the most interesting properties of the blogosphere is that its information collectors -- the bloggers -- are sometimes significantly better at gathering certain signals than professional reporters with the mainstream media. This is often the result of the Day Job Effect. A blogger, by definition a part time writer, can sometimes more accurately recognizes the significance of an event because his professional training prepares him to notice something that would be ignored by the generalist reporter. Bloggers who are lawyers, doctors, engineers or soldiers, for example, are sensitive to issues in their area of expertise in ways a layman could not match. Also working in the blogosphere's favor is the sheer number of bloggers -- 55 or 100 million, whichever number one prefers -- which statistically ensures that a blogger will often be present when a professional reporter may be absent. The potential for signal reception -- the crucial first moment at which new information becomes visible to the rest of the information processing system is inherently high in the blogosphere. It defines the Event Horizon of the system, a boundary traditionally marked by the first wire service report that carries the first news to the world. In the blogosphere the Event Horizon is marked by the first post that recounts an event.
The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 illustrates how a physical event breaks into the worldwide public information system. On December 26, 2004 after a huge earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra was detected, some seismologists realized it could generate a tsunami that could ravage vast coastal areas. But this suspicion remained in an informational limbo. The Sumatran earthquake released more energy than hundreds of nuclear bombs, but this physical fact would not register on the world's consciousness until it could be reported as a story.
The total energy released by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake has been estimated as 3.35 exajoules (3.35×1018 joules). This is equivalent to over 930 terawatt hours, 0.8 gigatons of TNT, or about as much energy as is used in the United States in 11 days. However, the most reliable seismic energy release estimate, as of September 30, 2005, is 1.1×1018 joules. This corresponds to about 0.25 gigatons of TNT. ...
Despite the fact this huge planetary force was on the loose, the tsunami would remain invisible until it encountered the first human being who would report -- or post -- on it. Science magazine reported:
At the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) in the south Indian city of Hyderabad, for example, seismologists knew of the earthquake within minutes after it struck but didn't consider the possibility of a tsunami until it was too late. In fact, at about 8 a.m., an hour after the tsunami had already begun its assault on Indian territory by pummeling the islands of Andaman and Nicobar some 200 km northwest of the epicenter, institute officials were reassuring the media that the Sumatran event posed no threat to the Indian subcontinent. ... The international scientific community fared somewhat better at reacting to the quake, but not enough to make a difference. An hour after the quake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Ewa Beach, Hawaii--which serves a network of 26 countries in the Pacific basin, including Indonesia and Thailand--issued a bulletin identifying the possibility of a tsunami near the epicenter. But in the absence of real-time data from the Indian Ocean, which lacks the deep-sea pressure sensors and tide gauges that can spot tsunami waves at sea, PTWC officials "could not confirm that a tsunami had been generated," says Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu, which works with PTWC to help countries in the Pacific deal with tsunami threats.
When the tsunami crashed ashore there were no press photographers waiting for it. It was the ordinary tourist with a digital cameras and an Internet connection -- the blogger -- who brought the first accounts of the monster to the world. Sheer weight of numbers ensured that the Internet-connected citizen was in the position to witness one of the most awesome natural events of the early 21st century. Within hours their digital pictures and video, sometimes shot over the shoulder as they were on the run, and first-person narratives had percolated upward through the larger Internet sites to the mainstream media. The tsunami story had gone through the stages of collection, analysis and dissemination within hours. But above all the Indian Ocean tsunami illustrates the process by which the first signals of an event are picked up, analyzed and amplified by the blogosphere. The gigantic wave crossed the Event Horizon into the world consciousness, first as news and later, as history.
Observers have long noticed that blog sites tended to fall into one of three categories: the Finders, Thinkers and Linkers, and these correspond to the structure of the blogosphere. Finders are sites dedicated to capturing direct experiences. Food bloggers, reporters embedded with military units, the journals of expeditions, institutions which monitor foreign language publications -- the tourist who posts pictures of a tsunami which has just wrecked his hotel -- are all examples of Finders. During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, one Israeli schoolboy described how he sheltered from rockets in a bunker on his personal weblog. Others captured video of rockets striking their neighborhoods. These are all Finders. They perform one simple function: to lift an event above the Horizon and make it visible to the Internet for the first time. The importance of this act cannot be oversated. Glenn Reynolds, in a private conversation, referred to this original reportage, the discovery of the primary fact, as "the Killer App".
Once an event has been blogged, however obscurely, it becomes potentially accessible to one of the countless eyes, both human and robotic, which pore over the Internet in search of facts to bolster or demolish an argument. Monitoring websites is a task made easier by the widespread adoption of a protocols like RSS which belong to class of formats which alert watchers to updated content, often with a summary of the content itself. Programs which continuously monitor a number of websites for content changes are called aggregators. Amateur and professional specialists use these and a variety of other tools to scour the web looking for new trends and facts to bolster their models. Some are industry analysts; others are academics; still others are open-source intelligence gatherers. Some are amateurs. Collectively they may be called the Thinkers. They are the people who find the stories in the raw data.
One classic example of a blogger acting as a Thinker was how Flopping Aces tracked down and finally debunked the existence of AP source "Captain Jamil Hussein", who was widely quoted by the wire service as an expert on the atrocities in the Baghdad area. Using Internet search tools and email, Flopping Aces gathered enough detail to make him suspect that that "Captain Jamil Hussein" was an all too conveniently present and quotable to be plausible. Following his hunch, Flopping Aces soon discovered that American officials in Baghdad had never heard of this widely quoted AP source. He wrote up his findings and preciptated a storm. Eventually, Hussein's existence was categorically denied by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, leading to demands that the AP retract stories based upon the phantom Captain. To this day the Associated Press has not produced the person or even the photograph of their star source, and a search for him finally involving CNN has not turned him up either.
According to AP, Jamil Gholaiem Hussein is a police captain with an office at the Yarmouk police station in western Baghdad, and more recently in the al-Khadra district. He has been cited as a police source in 61 AP stories from April 24, 2006 to November 25, 2006, and was said to have been "a regular source of police information for two years", however an Iraqi official stated he is not on their list of Interior Ministry employees. Besides Jamil Hussein, another source used in many AP articles is police Lt. Maithem Abdul Razzaq, who is not authorized to speak for the Iraqi Police. A warrant has been issued for his questioning by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. A partial list of other suspicious police sources under investigation has been issued.
Former CNN news division chief Eason Jordan announced that his "IraqSlogger" staff in Baghdad is trying to find Jamil Hussein. He has offered to pay for Michelle Malkin to go to Baghdad to join the search along with him. On December 14. 2006, Malkin accepted, and convinced Jordan to extend the invitation to "Curt", the Flopping Aces blogger.
On December 17, 2006, it was reported that a Jamail Hussein may have been located in the Yarmouk police station, as originally claimed by AP, but later the same sources said that the individual in question was Sergeant Jamil Hussein, not the captain mentioned in the news stories. According to Michelle Malkin, two Civilian Police Advisory Training Team (CPATT) officials told her that there is a Captain Jamil Ghdaab Gulaim (or Ghulaim) who is currently working at the Khadra police station, and who previously worked at the Yarmouk police station, as AP claimed with regard to Jamil Hussein. She notes the similarity between the name Gulaim and Jamil Hussein's middle name Gholaiem. Jamil Gulaim denies having contact with AP or any other media.
Associated Press maintains that after questions about the accuracy of events were raised, they returned and found 'more witnesses who described the attack in particular detail'; these new witnesses are all anonymous, AP stating that they fear persecution if identified. AP also maintains that Capt. Jamil Hussein is a genuine police contact and argue that the Interior Ministry's files are new and not accurate. A public affairs officer from the MNC-I Joint Operations Center has requested a retraction, or at least a correction, of the story by AP, claiming that it is false and that the AP's source does not exist.
Given the widespread use of AP reports, Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, has suggested that "AP should ask the American Society of Newspaper Editors to oversee the appointment and conduct of an independent panel of respected journalists and outside evidentiary experts to determine the truth behind Captain Jamil Hussein and all other sources similarly in doubt."
Now we come to the Linkers. Although Flopping Aces was a widely read blogsite, its traffic alone was incapable of generating the attention to necessary to challenge the mighty Associated Press. But the impact of the Flopping Aces analysis was soon magnified by the hierarchical structure of the blogosphere, a structure we glimpsed by running queries in Technorati. Following Flopping Ace's trailblazing efforts, posts casting doubt on the existence of "Captain Jamil Hussein" began to appear at even larger sites like Instapundit and Michelle Malkin's, sites which specialize in spotting trending stories and spreading them around. These bloggers are often called the Linkers. Blogsite after blogsite, following the lead of the Linkers, began to pile on to the case of "Captain Jamil Hussein", and added their traffic to the growing chorus. Finally the signal jumped across the gap into the mainstream media and the political world. One blogger -- one Thinker -- had forced the mighty Associated Press to respond to the question of whether it was making its sources up.
The entire process can be summarized in the flowchart shown below. First a veritable army of collectors (the Finders) report events on their weblogs. This pushes events above the Horizon. These events in turn become visible to the Thinkers, who are often specialist analysts in particular beats. The Thinkers are often the first to detect a significant trend; trends that are sometimes ignored or overlooked by the mainstream media which is busy with its own editorial priorities. Sometimes the Thinkers find a glaring flaw in an existing news story which resets the narrative. In a variety of ways, the Thinkers weave facts into a story, and particularly striking memes are amplified by the Linkers until it engages the public consciousness.
How to Optimize the Blogosphere for Information Warfare
It is possible in principle to tune parts of the blogosphere to better serve the needs of information warfare. For example, certain types of blogs are sensitive to picking up particular signals at levels which the general press would be pressed to match. Blogs which monitor and transcribe Arabic language media broadcasts, for example, report on what would be regarded as arcana by many major news outlets. Many MSM organizations simply leave foreign language broadcasts beneath the media Event Horizon because they are too expensive to access. But blogosphere, with its potentially unlimited number of Finders can simply post away, leaving it to the Thinkers and Linkers to separate the signal from the noise and to amplify significant of interest. The blogs can even be tuned to pick up human atmospherics. Lisa Goldman of On the Face and Charles Chuman of the Lebanese Political Journal maintained an Israeli-Lebanese blogospheric dialogue even while both countries were at war. It was a dramatic human interest story that had the mainstream media riveted; but it was also an amazing demonstration of how even in wartime memes flow between sites on the Internet.
A number of Internet institutions have consciously attempted to improve the receptivity of their networks to certain signals. YouTube has made it far easier for the blogosphere to pick up video content and Flickr has performed the same service for still photographs. Today the blogosphere not only sucks up words, it sucks up images and sounds as well. Harvard Law School's Global Voices project has encouraged the formation of blogs in Third World countries in order to float up stories that would otherwise go unreported. All these efforts are functionally Web 2.0 efforts to encourage publics to add content to the Internet. Collectively they have pushed an huge amount of data above the Event Horizon which would have gone unreported; and in volumes that may eventually dwarf that generated by the MSM. It is possible that in the long run the global public will come to rely on fellow Internet users to learn about the world more than it will from professional journalists. The blogospheric revolution may be just beginning.
Although the number of Thinkers as well of the number of Finders is bound to grow organically, it is in the obvious interest of information warriors to encourage more Thinkers -- the equivalent of analysis cells -- to follow issues of interest. First-class Think sites can dramatically improve the ability of the blogosphere to respond quickly and accurately to information that breaks across the Event Horizon. Blogs which follow particular countries or track certain issues, such as Regime Change Iran, begin to ascend a learning curve and progressively improve their ability to identify important issues and gauge the reliability of various sources from experience. The speed at which Thinkers can work enabled the blogosphere to respond within the "Golden Hour" of public discourse during the 2006 war with Hezbollah; and it responded with a velocity that at occasionally confounded the calculations of disinformation professionals who never dreamed that such an avalanche of scrutiny was possible.
But Finders and Thinkers could not effectively function without Linkers. Information warriors would do well to track the propagation of a meme from first detection up through their Linkers to see whether the appropriate subsection of the blogosphere "works" for the issues they are interested in. During a public diplomacy crisis it is important for a critical detail to rise quickly to the top of the Internet hierarchy within the "Golden Hour". And this can only happen if the subject area is thoroughly and assiduously trawled through by Linkers. Where a natural escalation ladder does not exist, it may be advantageous to encourage the formation of blog alliances, especially among sites dedicated to relative arcana, like foreign language transcriptions. Blog alliances serve as artificial amplifers which small bloggers can use to create a path up through to the higher reaches of the Internet. Anyone who wants to know whether the blogosphere can help outflank the MSM during a public diplomacy crisis can do a systems check to observe how it works in normal times. As a rule of thumb, something that doesn't effectively perform an information war function in peacetime is unlikely to work in wartime.
But the reverse is not necessarily true. Systems which work in peacetime do not necessarily work under stress. During the 2006 war in Lebanon the editorial staff of Pajamas Media discovered that tracking developments on a 24x7 basis, required a network of editors "handing off" to each other across time zones for an extended period of time. Failure to do so would result in gaps in the coverage. Additional manpower, a robust organization and effective messaging between bloggers is absolutely vital to tracking events in a crisis.
Finally, the dissemination function of the blogosphere can be enhanced by creating bridge institutions which help narratives in the blogosphere jump the "spark gap" into the mainstream media. Dr. Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor noted how "activist" NGOs hostile to Israel were able to generate front-page headlines on specious reports by the simple tactic of getting a respectable institutions to repeat their allegatons. While blogospheric stories normally gain currency and credibility by passing the scrutiny of ever larger sites, "activist" memes are passed up a prepapred ladder of legitimacy until the doubtful and sometimes the false can be passed off as fact.
The blogosphere needs to develop similar connections in order to help its memes jump the "spark gap". But it can be done in an honest manner. For example, Mark Tapscott, the editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, has suggested that "AP should ask the American Society of Newspaper Editors to oversee the appointment and conduct of an independent panel of respected journalists and outside evidentiary experts to determine the truth behind Captain Jamil Hussein and all other sources similarly in doubt." Institutions like a voluntary MSM ombudsman described by Tapscott can perform an important function in "legitimizing" serious questions which are raised in good faith.
The blogosphere will turn its energies with equal ferocity to every side. Populated as it is by people from all walks of the ideological spectrum, the blogosphere itself has no inherent political bias. Bloggers with Left wing, Right Wing, Arab, Israeli, European and American, religious and atheistic viewpoints will be simultaneously scrutinizing every scrap of information that raises its head above the Event Horizon. The blogosphere is no one's friend. But it will be unkindest to the side which relies the most on cant and propaganda to spread its message. And to the extent that one political side is the target of a deliberate campaign of disinformation and deceit, the blogosphere will tend to favor that side. The ultimate irony is that disinformation tactics designed to blind, then shape the reportage of the mainstream media by controlling their access to the field, and making them reliant upon stringers -- the so-called "access journalism" -- may in the end make journalists more dependent on the blogosphere as an alternative source of information. The blogosphere, by opening up wholly new sources of alternative bandwidth, may yet make "access journalism" counterproductive. If a sufficiently dense blogospheric network can be emplaced, the large-scale lying will be increasingly difficult to pull off.
The Internet revolution has created new structures of knowing, thinking and communicating. Those features are only now being exploited. They are destined to complement many aspects of the public intelligence system known as journalism over the next decade. The blogosphere contains potentially a very large number of information collectors, which raise events which occur in the physical world above a Horizon at which they become detectable on the Internet. It has also evolved a sophisticated network of watchers and analysts whose professional competence has no preset limits; analysts who are able to separate the signal from the noise. Finally, the blogosphere has a sophisticated and evolutionary system of grading the reliability and relevance of stories; it promotes stories of interest upward until they reaches the top of the Internet hierarchy within hours. From that apex, blogospheric memes can make the jump into the mainstream media and into the legal arenas of society.
Understanding and exploiting the characteristics of blogosphere will become a key skill in any information warrior's manual of arms. Information warriors can improve the blogosphere's receptivity and performance in key areas by proactive preparation. But they should be advised. The blogosphere does not contain any preordained political or cultural bias. Structurally, however, it is extremely hostile to cant and disinformation. The political side which tells the most lies and falsehoods is likely to suffer more at its hands than one which hews more closely to the observable truth.