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Video debate: the new media - a help or hindrance in conflict situations?

NATO Review video debate: New media and conflict zones

Following the long tradition of NATO Review debates, it seemed logical to convert them to a more modern medium for this latest edition.

So this is NATO Review's first (of hopefully many) video debate. This one, appropriately, looks at the effects of new media on conflict zones and operations.

It looks at questions such as how free soldiers should be to publish their accounts of operations, what audiences are tuned into this information, how the military can best respond to this changing reporting situation and whether the West is winning the proxy Internet war with insurgents.

NATO Review Editor, Paul King, is joined by two representatives of the different sides of the equation: the military and the new media.

For the military, General van Loon, chief of staff of NATO in Heidelberg, Germany, returned from commanding Regional Command South in Afghanistan last year.

For new media, Hayden Hewitt, the founder of liveleak.com, has been at the forefront of new media and military issues for several years.

To skip directly to a question, please click on that question in the ''Jump to a question'' section.

Jump to a Question

Introduction to the debate.

PAUL KING, NATO Review Editor: Hello and welcome to NATO Review's first video debate. Today we'll be looking at the changing media environment and how this affects complex conflict situations, especially for the military. There are a prevalence of websites, blogs and Internet postings showing the daily life of conflict in situations in countries such as Afghanistan. The postings come from all parties - western soldiers, Afghans, but also the Taliban and insurgents.

As western countries pour resources, personnel and commitment into these countries to create a freer society, we ask today whether the greater freedom of expression of soldiers and personnel on the ground helps or hinders these efforts?

We're also asking questions such as does front-line reporting impair military planning? Or is it a good example of freedom in action?

Are soldiers better qualified to tell us what's happening in a war situation, or journalists? And how does the military feel about the expansion of media techniques in delicate operations?

Today I'm joined by two excellent representatives of both sides of the equation. First, General Van Loon, who is the Chief of Staff at Heidelberg, but has returned last summer from commanding Regional Command South in Afghanistan.

I'm also joined by Hayden Hewitt, who is the founder of one of the main websites which shows information of this type, LiveLeak.com, which has been referred to by people from Tony Blair to the White House.

I'd like to start with the military side. General Van Loon, the postings of activity and conflict in Afghanistan: when you were in Afghanistan, how aware were you of this happening?

GENERAL TON VAN LOON (Chief of Staff Heidelberg): I think as a father of children that do use the same tools, I am, of course, aware that soldiers will use weblogs and others to share their impressions in Afghanistan. It's almost a fact of life. It's the way they communicate. Instead of letters now people send e-mails and even more today they will make weblogs where they write their experiences down.

KING: Do you think that this can work in the military's favour? Do they discuss at high levels how to use this?

VAN LOON: That's a difficult question. Of course, there are very positive or very negative examples, but the reality of it is this information is available and people share information, that is a fact. You can't just... well you can't change the world. It's the way it is.

What we now need to do is look at this, how do you manage this in a positive manner? How do you make sure that you educate your young soldiers how this works, what the reactions to their weblogs in their home countries are, what their parents are thinking when they put something on a weblog, and that you then help them make these weblogs better, and also how you manage sensitive information. So you make sure that information that is dangerous for the soldiers themselves, or for the units in which they serve, should not to be on the weblogs, but do it in a very positive manner. Reinforcing the good sides, and trying to mitigate the less good sides.

What role does censorship now play with new media?

KING: So can you see that there would be some situations where you would feel that it was right to censor, to control the information contained in these weblogs?

VAN LOON: Again, I think censorship is an old word. This is the information technology, the information age. Censorship should be far more in the form of education, making sure the people understand. I can imagine in certain periods it would be beneficial to shut down information for a while, quite a lot of nations have systems like this, so for instance, if a casualty occurs and the telephone lines, satellite links are cut, so it's for a while not possible to send information directly to make sure that the next of kin get informed first.

But again, in my opinion it's far more relevant to make sure that we educate the young soldiers. But this is the information age. But that they also understand that the weblog which they intend to be private is not, because by nature the Internet is public.

KING: Are there programs in place to educate soldiers about this?

VAN LOON: I think quite a lot of nations have got programs like this in place. What we now need to come up within in NATO as well is a management system, a good structured approach on how to do this. But I would certainly very much strongly be in favour of a system that allows the soldiers to use the new media, that used the good side of the new media.

You mentioned in your introduction there are a lot of possibilities now to educate the wider public, and this is what it means. So you can actually use these media to an enormous positive effect as well.

Who uses these websites?

KING: If I can come to you Hayden Hewitt, correct me if I'm wrong, but your website wasn't set up specifically for military postings, and yet has proved very popular for those.

HAYDEN HEWITT (Found of LiveLeak.com): Yeah, we didn't have definitely this is what we're going to specialize in, but we knew it would play a large part in the website.

KING: And are you surprised about that? Can you explain why the military have used your site so much?

HEWITT: I think if you create a certain environment where people know it's not directly an entertainment website, as its forte, they're more willing to share things of a very serious nature like videos from war zones or combat zones.

KING: The Taliban and insurgency in Afghanistan have used your website as well. How would you say the two compare, the western side and the Taliban side, who is the most advanced? Who posts the most videos? And what trends do you see?

HEWITT: Well, I'd just like to say, I highly doubt the Taliban actually upload videos to LiveLeak. They usually come through western sources for the most part who track these videos.

I think if we spoke about it as a propaganda war there is no doubt the Taliban and the insurgency are far more effective at getting their point out very, very quickly globally. Far more quickly than perhaps our system is set up to deliver information from these areas. And certainly they're very prolific in releasing videos.

KING: And have you seen any development over time concerning these videos, in terms of the style, the content? Is it a moving target?

HEWITT: Production values, for want of a better word, have slightly increased. They're using more motion graphics on them, 3D graphics, more titling. They're still always accompanied by the nasheed or the song behind it.

As a trend I'd say direct personal violence seems to be lessening in these videos and it's shifting more to a military objective within them, because clearly the personal violence aspect of it simply wasn't working. Nothing turns people off more than that. It just wasn't working for them. So they've shifted more to portraying themselves as a very much more militaristic operation and they share more campaigns of that nature.

How does the new media compare with the old media?

KING: In terms of what you upload, clearly you're a free new media organization without the constraints that other mainstream organizations may have, and mainstream media have a lot of debates about what's acceptable to show to what they have as large, wide audiences. What kind of considerations do you give before you upload, and also, once something's been uploaded that you think may have recriminations for soldiers in the field?

HEWITT: Well, quite often there are certain safeguards in place. Unlike the mainstream media who broadcast news directly into your home, with the site LiveLeak they have to go on, read a description, click a link, verify they are old enough, so you've already got some safeguards, because people know what they're going to see.

When it comes from soldiers I think if there is a very real OPSEC violation they will hear about it very quickly and get onto us asking us to remove the video for them. In all honesty it's very rare that I've heard that directly from a soldier.

KING: And can you tell us about your links with the military. Have the military been in contact about any of the videos that you have?

HEWITT: The U.S. military, their media division, actually posts on LiveLeak, they have their own channel. Apart from that, not a lot of contact, to be honest, apart from providing videos to them in the past for training purposes.

What is the best way to control messages?

KING: And you've been involved with new media from an early stage of development. What was the reaction within military circles at the very beginning when this was a new phenomenon?

HEWITT: The same as government circles - abject horror. You know, all of a sudden we no longer have control of all the information. In the early days it wasn't even particularly delicate information that was coming out, but it was the fact that these things were getting out with no controls and there was nothing they could do.

So understandably, when you've had a certain procedure of dealing with things so long and this new technology comes along it was quite a shock.

KING: General Van Loon, maybe you can elucidate how that shock manifested itself in the army?

VAN LOON: This is just part of the shock. Let's be quite realistic. The fact is that we have to deal with media, the fact that information sharing becomes more important than protection of the information. We have the same discussion when we talk about information sharing - classified information sharing.

There is still a strong tendency to sit on information because there might be a security breach, and we've got the same discussion here. The possibility of something, OPSEC breach, happening, which want to desperately avoid, should not stop us from getting all the positive elements in here. We must start realizing that there is so much more opportunities here, in very open websites, but also maybe in a bit more secure websites.

I can go to my bank in the Netherlands use a card, stick it in the machine, punch in some numbers and it'll go to a secure network, and I can send my money from here to there. If we can trust a bank to do that why can't we put some information on this.

I'll give you an example. Counter IED, the whole IED threat in Afghanistan is certainly the most important threat we have. And the fact that we learn about how this works, what happens fast, is so incredibly important. Now if you talk about new media, if you now go, a young sergeant in Afghanistan, experiences something like this and he could then on a secure website post his experiences, so that a sergeant somewhere in The Netherlands, or in the States or in the U.K. can immediately access this secure site and say well hey, that happened that in Afghanistan. Let's incorporate it in my training.

That is extremely powerful use of the new media, which I think we need to embrace. But there are so many changes which the military has gone through in the last ten years, sometimes just the resistance against change, because of the resistance against change it becomes a problem.

Complex operations like Afghanistan are forcing us to learn quickly. Transformation of NATO is covering an enormous pace now, so I am very positive that we will be able to embrace this. I'm personally not very worried about it.

But there is, of course, another side and that means that we have to educate the public that gets to these sites, and make them understand from what perspective these weblogs are written, because there is a very clear danger in here. A young man that is for the first time, or a woman, is for the first time in her life under fire, has to return fire, this is a so powerful experience, this is so much on their mind, that of course everything they put on a weblog is now completely focused on this very important event.

And then, of course, if you see it out of context in your own country this looks like, well, it's 24/7 war in Afghanistan, which his not true. Ninety-nine percent of the work is done, reconstruction, stabilizing this country. But there are combat operations.

KING: Let me ask you about the chain of command, because obviously within the military what is known to who and when is, for good reason, a tightly controlled operation. Now that you have soldiers who can be at the lowest rank of the military revealing information, as you say, on non-secure websites, so that it can be seen all over the world, how does that integrate into a chain of command that has been very strictly and sensibly set up for a specific operation?

VAN LOON: One, we have got the best soldiers in the world. Let's be absolutely sure of this. These are extremely good, very, very professional soldiers. And I trust my soldiers. There is no reason not to. Of course, it's what I called a management system before. We need to look at how do we make sure that if they make mistakes we tell them ‘hey, probably not very smart, change it, do it better next time’. So we focus on this.

But we at all levels in the command need to do mission command, which means I take my responsibilities, my subordinate colonels take their own responsibilities, and the soldiers have their own. The strategic corporal, as he's sometimes called... we know that he exists, we know that his actions have an immediate impact because there might be a television camera, there might be a politician, or even a lawyer looking at what he's doing.

So we must make sure that these strategic corporals have the luggage to make sure that we they can do their work. And that includes trust when they put something on a weblog.

Are these websites used for education or entertainment?

KING: I'd like to ask the same question to both of you: Do you think that what's being posted and revealed at the moment by those in the field, do you think it's viewed more as educative, or more as entertainment, at the moment?

VAN LOON: That's a good question. I've seen weblogs from soldiers which I thought were very educational, which gave a very good picture about what is happening, which allows the public to inform themselves about what is it really like, how difficult is the job though really. I've also seen some weblogs which were... less effective in educating the public, which were more entertaining. I think there, it’s the same with the Internet. If you go up on the Internet and look up whatever you want to study, you know, some of it is very effective, some of it is not. And that's new information you need to select your own choice.

KING: Hayden Hewitt?

HEWITT: I think with things like that it's not only the media that's the issue, it's the audience. It's like in television, one person can take a message from something, another person can sit there, point and laugh.

So there will always be someone that will take something from a media item, but you can't guarantee that yes, this is an educational video because some people just don't actually want to learn. But for me the most positive aspect to these videos is that it is teaching our generation and the younger generations, what war actually is, because I think we very much lost sight of that.

What effects do they have on missions?

KING: That was a follow-up question, which is, in terms of the effect of viewing these videos, reading these weblogs, do you think that the reality of war has an effect on mission support? Do you think that people can actually be more in favour of what we're doing, NATO's doing in Afghanistan, or less in favour, because they see the realities of what war actually involves?

HEWITT: Everything is bound to be a double-edged sword, isn't it? I think if people have this sanitized view of warfare that we're often given by the mainstream media, or whoever else, then they hear that, you know, we are fighting an ineffective enemy and we're vastly superior and we see videos of bombs being dropped from high altitudes. But we're still losing soldiers, and we get a little bit confused.

I think these videos do bring home the harsh reality of war in a way to people that can't experience it, or don't want to experience it. And so this is the reality on the ground.

It might horrify you and make you not support the war, but at least you know the reality of the situation. These are young people directly under threat of death, imminent death. It's not a laser-guided bomb dropped from however many thousands of feet.

KING: General, your opinion?

VAN LOON: Two sides of it. One, explain to the wider audience what the reality is for the soldiers on the ground is going to report. Not only the harsh reality of combat operation, but also what they do in helping the Afghan army. The way they cooperate with the Afghan army, the way they help with construction projects.

But the other side of it is of course, one of the major problems in Afghanistan is that we've got a population that cannot get information freely. We should allow our audience to get information freely and make up their own mind. And it's in our interest to make sure that this information is as clear and as understandable as possible.

It's not in our interest to hide information and then just, well... I don't think we should be in the business of selling what we do in Afghanistan, but what we need to do is make sure that they understand how complicated it is, but also how incredibly important it is.

Is the audience the same as for the mainstream media?

KING: In terms of the audiences - you've both mentioned that - maybe I could ask you about where you think this information is directed at? Clearly there's the double-edged sword that we mentioned before of the viewers in western countries, troop contributing nations, who are taxpayers, who are paying for this war on one side, the Taliban, the insurgents on the other side will be looking to recruit more enemy fighters.

Hayden, maybe if I can come to you first on that. Do you think that the audiences are equally divided on your side, or do you think there's a predominant audience in certain countries?

HEWITT: There's a predominant western bias to the audience. There's no doubt about that. It's a western website. Obviously you'd find the opposite on a website from the opposite side, I imagine.

I think all media has a propaganda value. Whether it's intentional or not there is a propaganda value and you can use media from either side to prove whichever point you like.

Now with the Taliban media you could use some of it and say look... you know, aren't they, blood-thirsty killers and then you could say on the other hand, aren't they brave freedom fighters. With, our forces, the western forces, you could say pretty much the same thing. You can use any media to prove any point you want, if you want to twist it. And I think that's something that's been going on far too much.

As the General mentioned, we're not seeing enough of the positive things that are being done in Afghanistan. Why isn't there a literal media blitz? It's not an expensive thing these days to do that sort of push through the new media. We should be seeing a lot more of this. And let people really know what's going on in thecountry, because from what most people know it's a lot of combat, a lot of IEDs, a lot of RPG attacks, and a lot of very nasty direct personal violence. We're not seeing any of the positive aspects at all.

KING: But you have videos that are on LiveLeak that are more constructive, less violent, less explosive. Do you find that those get the same number of hits, that people are as interested in those kinds of subjects?

HEWITT: Let's be realistic, if a video's got something blowing up, more people are going to watch it. It's totally natural. And of course, the interesting thing what I like about the more positive videos, they tend to spark a more interesting debate, from my point of view. With the fire fight videos it's directly polarized. People for, people against, whichever side happened to show the video.

With the reconstruction efforts and the peacekeeping efforts the debate tends to split that polarization and people will think it might be a bit cynical, or this was staged, because we don't see a lot of it, so you see this odd video crop up and it's... ‘where did this come from? Is this really going on?’ It's just a soldier handing out sweets perhaps, but I think we do need a greater awareness of the positive aspects that NATO is especially carrying out in Afghanistan.

KING: General, we've talked about the mainstream media here. Do you feel that the new media is a complementary tool, or is it a substitute, and does it allow you to get things out that maybe the mainstream media are not so interested in covering?

VAN LOON: Certainly. What the soldiers put on the new media and on their weblogs is an additional source of information. If we can use... do it - I'm already reluctant with the word use, because this is something natural, this is something that happens, information being shared.

But it does provide an insight in what it's like. So it allows decision makers to look at what does it really mean, what is a soldier going through, so that the understanding for this very difficult job becomes better. And if you then couple that with the other media, already a bit more organized, use the new media, where you can explain why it's so important, where you can get the link between the Afghan side of the story for Afghanistan and the western side. So you can actually link these two and then it becomes a very effective tool.

And of course we should never fall in the trap that we strive to abuse the new media, like in some cases the Taliban are deliberately doing. They are building some of these IED attacks that are now videotaped and there is money being paid for the videotapes. So if these guys make a nice bloody video then they get a lot of money, which is distorting what the whole conflict is about.

But of course, we must also realize that this happens. So we must also start arming us against this, how do you then discredit this information? How do you react to something that happens in a new media?

We're very good at reacting to what happens in the normal media, but reacting to what happens in new media, we're still struggling to do that.

KING: And Hayden Hewitt, can you explain what kind of links you've had with the mainstream media? How they've used you, if they've used you?

HEWITT: From what I'm told, from people I spoke to in the media, many of the main newsrooms do check the site frequently and if they see an interesting story they'll probably contact the uploader or just take it and run with it.

I think the thing with the mainstream media is they are subject to pressures that we aren't. It's very easy to paint them just as the big bad monster, who are a 100 percent bad. It just doesn't work like that. But they do have commercial pressures, political pressures, that we simply do not have. They only have so many stories they can run in a given period of time. We don't have that restriction.

And it's far easier for us to be seen as being unbiased because we don't have to appeal to one specific audience, which by the very nature of commercial television they really have to do.

Some have been great. We've dealt with some, and they've been really straight. And others do feel a little threatened by the Internet and new media and make it clear by enhancing stories about the site. It's the same as when you deal with any large corporations really.

KING: Do you see any merging together, or is it still parallel lines at the moment?

HEWITT: I think the Internet and new media will become more organized. Many sites will become more corporate. I think the mainstream media have got a lot more work to do to trim all the fat off and get to the point where they could operate in the new media world if they really wanted to.

I see them more as just two different streams of information. I don't think there's any need to see them as competing in any way, or anything like that, or even needing to merge. They're just two totally separate streams. The mainstream media can be a great way of bringing new things to people's attention. Then they can shift to the new media when they want to chase down a particular detail or a particular story.

Is there a danger of information fatigue?

KING: Can I ask you both about an issue which has been raised, which is that information now is obviously a lot more ample, a lot freer, a lot more frequent than even just 10, 15 years ago. We also have a war in Afghanistan so there is a very hot topic to cover.

Are you worried, I'll come to you first, General, are you worried that there is a danger of information fatigue and in doing... in providing so much information that here may be some kind of desensitization eventually to the war?

VAN LOON: Certainly there is. By the way I think you see that in a lot of your conflict areas, where after a certain amount of time, certainly the mainstream media lose interest. Which does happen. I don't see that happening in Afghanistan in the very short future, because it's certainly too much on the foreground now.

But also there the new media will provide an additional source of information, another area where you can look at.

I would also suggest that for decision-making, in the environment in which we are now, the amount of information, but particularly the area from which you need the information, become far more diversified. While in the old days basically what I needed to know where is the enemy and where are we ourselves. It's not longer good enough. I need to know all about the population, what motivates them. I need to know what our opponents are putting on the weblogs so that I can actually see what the impact is on the population.

I need to know what the NGOs are doing so that I can actually make sure that our operations do not counteract what is happening. So there is a far more requirement for a much broader look at information on the one side, and it automatically also means that you will have to now focus at our own level. I said before, we no longer have the luxury that a general can actually get involved in what the soldier on the ground is doing himself, because he's got other areas to look into as well.

So he must trust the soldiers and their platoon leaders to do the right thing. To make sure that they understand that job as well. And it becomes much more like the society around us, it becomes very diversified.

KING: Hayden Hewitt, danger of information fatigue?

HEWITT: I think that would be more likely if it was all nicely polished and sanitized material being released every day. I think the material that's being released by the soldiers, it's far more personal. It's more of a personal opinion, showing a personal experience and people can see that every day from a new person, a different person's perspective. So I'm not overly concerned about any fatigue, where I was concerned in the new media.

Can the new media benefit Afghanistan?

KING: General Van Loon, if I can ask you about the society that we're talking about, which you've mentioned. Obviously the society in Afghanistan, there are low literacy rates. The electricity supply is unreliable at times. In other words, Internet viewing is a precarious activity.

How much of this new media, the development about it, can actually be benefited by Afghanis in the country?

VAN LOON: At the moment, almost none. The illiteracy rate's at 80 percent. The most important thing that will make dramatic change in Afghanistan is education.. because then people can actually look for information, they can gather information. And if you can gather your own information you can make up your own mind, and it makes it much harder to get whole groups of people with relatively cheap talk to become terrorists.

So we have to make sure that the access to information and the first step to that is obviously education. And until that happens anything we can do to help them get information is enormously helpful.

For instance, the handout of radios. Simple radios, sometimes with a small generator driver, or batteries, works extremely well. Because then people can listen to other people expressing their opinion and they can make up their own mind.

What advice can we give on doing it better?

KING: And Hayden, I'd like to finish the interview with a question about the comparative videos that are being posted on LiveLeak. You obviously see the ones that come from the insurgents, the Taliban or their proxy individuals, and you've seen the ones posted by the military. That puts you in quite a good position to give advice to the military about how they could make their videos more effective. What advice would you give?

HEWITT: Well, it's very hard to compare the two obviously because the Taliban make videos that are perfectly suited to the people they want to reach with them. Unlike propaganda of old, it's not really to talk to us or to put fear into the general or anything like that, it's to talk to people who already believe in it and perhaps bolster that support.

So they manufacture those videos for that target audience.

I think for us to do, you know, the western countries to do that would be very much more difficult. Western countries have far more access to information. We are more aware of how propaganda works on the whole. We are more aware of how propaganda works and less susceptible to it.

I think there just has to be a certain level within operational security and things of that nature, of transparency and openness, because people expect that and they know when they're not getting it. And although there might not be a revolution because of it, it just adds more seeds of distrust.

So again, it's just openness. And transparency, wherever possible, would be the best way of approaching the new media certainly from NATO's standpoint, if you wanted to get further into, for want of a better phrase, the online digital war.

KING: Any response to that, General?

VAN LOON: I fully agree.

KING: Good. General Van Loon, Hayden Hewitt, thank you very much.

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