Bloggers Now Weapons in Information War
Jonathan Finer and Doug Struck report on the ever-intensifying fight to shape the flow of information on the Iraq War–including the use of bloggers.
Retired soldier Bill Roggio was a computer technician living in New Jersey less than two months ago when a Marine officer half a world away made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Frustrated by the coverage they were receiving from the news media, the Marines invited Roggio, 35, who writes a popular Web log about the military called “The Fourth Rail” (http://www.billroggio.com ), to come cover the war from the front lines. He raised more than $30,000 from his online readers to pay for airfare, technical equipment and body armor. A few weeks later, he was posting dispatches from a remote outpost in western Anbar province, a hotbed of Iraq’s insurgency. “I was disenchanted with the reporting on the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror and felt there was much to the conflict that was missed,” Roggio, who is currently stationed with Marines along the Syrian border, wrote in an e-mail response to written questions. “What is often seen as an attempt at balanced reporting results in underreporting of the military’s success and strategy and an overemphasis on the strategically minor success of the jihadists or insurgents.”
Roggio’s arrival in Iraq comes amid what military commanders and analysts say is an increasingly aggressive battle for control over information about the conflict. Scrutiny of what the Pentagon calls information operations heightened late last month, when news reports revealed that the U.S. military was paying Iraqi journalists and news organizations to publish favorable stories written by soldiers, sometimes without disclosing the military’s role in producing them. “I am convinced that information operations from both sides are increasing and intensifying. I think both sides are beginning to understand that this struggle will be waged in both the kinetic and informational realms, but that the latter is the decisive area of operations,” wrote Daniel Kuehl, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington who specializes in information operations. “The insurgents target several audiences, including the Islamic world and the American populace.”
In addition, the military has paid money to try to place favorable coverage on television stations in three Iraqi cities, according to an Army spokesman, Maj. Dan Blanton. The military, said Blanton, has given one of the stations about $35,000 in equipment, is building a new facility for $300,000 and pays $600 a week for a weekly program that focuses positively on U.S. efforts in Iraq. The names of the city and the television station are being withheld because the producer of the show said he and his staff would be seen as collaborators and endangered if identified.
He said he recently began distributing his news releases to military bloggers and organizations such as veterans associations. The Marines also took a more direct approach by inviting Roggio to cover their operations. “A thorough review of his work was taken into account before authorizing the embed,” said Pool. “Overall, it has worked out really well.” Pool also praised the work of Michael Yon ( http://michaelyon.blogspot.com ), an independent author and blogger who embedded for almost a year with a U.S. Army unit in the northern city of Mosul. “His reporting was objective, credible and compelling. But most of all, it was independent,” Pool said. “He didn’t have to worry about some editor back in the States altering what he wrote before it got published. Plus, he had no competition from other news sources to churn out a ‘marketable’ product on a day-to-day basis.”
After military officials in Baghdad said Roggio could not be issued media credentials unless he was affiliated with an organization, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization in Washington, offered him an affiliation, according to an entry on Roggio’s blog. He and two other bloggers launched a new Web site a month ago ( http://threatswatch.com ), where he has posted many stories about his time with the Marines. Most provide detailed accounts of patrols or other outings on which he accompanied U.S. forces. When news organizations began reporting about the insurgent activity in Ramadi on Dec. 1, Roggio posted “The Ramadi Debacle: The Media Bites on Al Qaeda Propaganda.” “The reported ‘mini-Tet offensive’ in Ramadi has turned out to be less than accurate,” he wrote, citing information provided by Pool. “In fact, it has been anything but.”
Quite interesting. Politicians and their handlers have understood the power of the “alternative media” going back at least to the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bill Clinton used back door venues like the Don Imus and Arsenio Hall shows to reach voters. Given the rise of the blogosphere as an information medium, it was only a matter of time before those seeking to get their message out would turn there. Indeed, I’ve been getting emailed press releases from congressional offices, party officials, interest groups, and others for months now.
Cori Dauber focuses on another angle to the story:
On the one hand, finally, there’s a recognition that the enemy is engaged in information operations, that there needs to be some critical reflection regarding what they do and how they do it, that there’s a strategy underlying their behavior. On the other hand, that’s treated with equivalence to information ops American forces engage in. The difference is American forces are trying to influence the way articles are placed by, you know, influencing the way articles are placed, while the enemy are trying to influence the way articles are placed by staging events — meaning by killing people.
It ain’t quite the same thing.
True enough. Plus, the implication always seems to be that the American ops, because they are putting out a slant on the stories different from what one gets from the dominant media, are therefore propaganda, lies, and half-truths.
Update: Welcome Lucianne readers!
Update: See my follow-up post, “Bad Information on Information Operations.”