The Blogs of War

The Blogs of War

Mini Teaser: Governments used to do war and diplomacy, media used to report them. But in the Iraq War, freelance writers with laptops critiqued, corrected and cowed them both.

by Author(s): Glenn Harlan Reynolds

The war in Iraq was the first Internet war: the first major conflict in which the Internet crossed theater lines and affected the course of events. This was unexpected. In the pre-Internet era, many commentators seemed to believe that rapid communication might make war impossible, or at least very difficult. How could people stir up the necessary hatred for the enemy if they were in constant communication with the enemy? How could you dehumanize people you actually knew?

This view, alas, was proved naive when the 19 hijackers of September 11--who had lived in America long enough to know their victims quite well--found themselves entirely capable of launching a brutal attack on innocent civilians. Another pre-war view of the impact of broader communications technology proved more accurate, but still short of the overall picture. I and many others believed that one of the most important effects of new communications technology would be to undermine government control of information. As I wrote back in 1989:

"As information processing tools . . . become more and more widespread . . . the ability of governments to limit their . . . use without bearing fearsome economic costs will be much less. Still more dramatic in its impact will be the spread (already imminent) of compact and inexpensive satellite up- and downlink equipment, which will make events in even the most remote regions fodder for worldwide television regardless of the efforts of governments to ensure otherwise. . . . While the spread of communications technologies and the accompanying growth in the ability of people to communicate despite the disapproval of their governments will not in themselves prevent tyranny and abuses of human rights, they will make both more difficult."1

These were words fit for the September 10 era, for they contain a key embedded assumption that has been proven largely wrong in the post-9/11 wars: that the main role of new communications technologies would be to bypass governmental information gatekeepers. In fact, the primary role of those new technologies has been to bypass professional news media organizations, and to undermine their role as gatekeepers. Furthermore, although the upshot of this has been, as predicted, to bring increased accountability to tyrants, it has not, as some might have thought, made war more difficult. In fact, by undermining the power of professional media organizations to present a negative image of war and to ignore dictators' crimes, the new technology has made war against tyrants easier.

Covering the Coverage

Because of America's overwhelming military superiority, military analysts generally believe that the chief constraint to U.S. warfighting capabilities is found in domestic public opinion. U.S. forces may be difficult to defeat on the battlefield, but Americans are more likely to give up on a war as a piece of bad business, and to respond swiftly to bad news stories--news stories produced in quantity by news media organizations that are generally anti-war in slant and that tend to hype bad news on all subjects in an effort to secure an audience.

Indeed, this is the traditional story of Vietnam, as told by analysts in the military: although the Tet offensive was a military failure for the North Vietnamese, it was a public relations success that turned American opinion against the war and made an American withdrawal simply a matter of time. This allowed the United States to be out-waited by the North Vietnamese regime, which--thanks to its totalitarian secret police and complete press censorship advantages--was not similarly constrained by popular sentiment. Later incidents involving the Marines in Beirut, and Rangers and Delta Force in Somalia, seemed to support this theory.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear, however, to undercut this view. For although media and pundits took the usual negative view of hostilities (Afghanistan was famously pronounced a "quagmire" by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman on the very day Mazar-e Sharif fell and the Taliban collapse began), the Internet allowed other Americans to demonstrate support for the war. The result was a very different climate.2

The most famous example is the "warblog"--a weblog that focuses largely on the post-9/11 wars, and the political and diplomatic circumstances surrounding them. Some of these became quite famous and developed readerships in the hundreds of thousands, comparing favorably with political opinion magazines like the New Republic, the Nation and National Review. Even some of the lesser known weblogs developed considerable followings, and some of their writers wound up attracting readers from the world of Big Media, and even crossing over to write for such publications. (Blogger Steven Den Beste, for example, who frequently writes long strategic analyses of the war, wound up writing for the Wall Street Journal.)

"Fact checking" journalistic reports was a major aspect of the warblogs' work, and the results were occasionally startling. Correspondent Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker reported from Baghdad that the American bombing campaign had left "a landscape of death and wanton devastation, all stamped 'Made in America.'"3 Warbloggers immediately noted that commercial satellite images of Baghdad, released by the private company SpaceImaging that same day, showed no such devastation, with the city remaining largely intact and traffic moving normally through the streets. This correction received a good deal of attention nationwide, and bloggers also noted on-the-ground reports from a blogger in Baghdad (the pseudonymous Salam Pax, now a columnist for the Guardian in London) that damage was less than Western media were claiming--and noting that Saddam's men had been filling trenches with oil and igniting them for several days.

Similarly, Australian journalist and blogger Tim Blair noted a report by Robert Fisk of the London-based Independent regarding an American missile that hit a marketplace in Baghdad. Blair reproduced the serial number reported by Fisk as proof that it was an American missile. But several knowledgeable readers weighed in to establish that while the missile was probably American, it was an anti-radar missile. It likely struck the marketplace because the Iraqis had concealed a SAM battery there, perhaps in the hopes of drawing fire and causing civilian deaths that could be blamed on the Americans. So Fisk's reporting, which was expected to make the American effort look bad, thus wound up demonstrating that the Iraqi government was likely guilty of a war crime.

Blogs wound up getting a lot of attention. As Steven Levy wrote in Newsweek on March 28, 2003,

"Perhaps it was inevitable that this war would become the breakthrough for blogs. The bigmouths of the so-called Blogosphere have long contended that the form deserves to be seen as a significant component of 21st-century media. And in the months preceding the invasion, blogging about the impending conflict had been feisty and furious. But it wasn't until the bombs hit Baghdad that Weblogs finally found their moment. The arrival of war, and the frustratingly variegated nature of this particular conflict, called for two things: an easy-to-parse overview for news junkies who wanted information from all sides, and a personal insight that bypassed the sanitizing Cuisinart of big-media news editing."

Interestingly, journalists from Big Media organizations were among the most devoted readers of weblogs. The BBC started its own reporters' warblog, as did the Christian Science Monitor. The Times of London called it "the first www.war." the Sydney Morning Herald wrote "the blogs of war conquer a wider world." And Time reported, "War-related weblogs--war blogs, for short--have soared in popularity since the hostilities began. Their chief attraction is that they offer perspectives overlooked in most U.S. news reports." Nor were journalists just reporting on the phenomenon: they were relying on it. When I was interviewed for a CNN program on weblogs and the war, I told the producer about a group weblog called the Command Post, which had about fifty people scouring the Web for news on the war. When I spoke to her a few hours later she reported that everyone in the newsroom was hitting "refresh" on the Command Post every few minutes to find the latest news--which is something to say, considering the source.

Gaining Legitimacy

It is this sort of high-profile readership, I suspect, that has given weblogs the ability to punch above their weight in national discussion. Even the most popular weblogs have a readership approximating that of a medium-sized newspaper: nothing to sneeze at, but American medium-sized newspapers--of which there are hundreds--are not nationally influential. The readership of weblogs is heavily tilted toward journalists and politicians, however, which makes their influence more akin to that of "insider" publications like trade newspapers or political newsletters. By the standard of those publications, weblogs have very large readerships. Additionally, their ability to link to one another--and bring different angles of commentary to bear on a subject in very short order--serves to magnify their power to an even greater extent. (Moreover, during the run-up to the Iraq War, supporters of the Bush Administration's policy used the Internet to organize very large "pro-America" rallies around the nation, despite a media climate that was generally friendlier to war opponents.)

This trend has continued since the Iraq War, with similar implications. Though reports of conditions in Iraq by Big Media organs have been almost unrelentingly negative, weblogs have made a point of showing both sides--and of noting that other visitors to Iraq have reported that the story is far less negative than the drip, drip, drip coverage of bombings and anti-American demonstrations on network news broadcasts might suggest.

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