For decades — perhaps even centuries — journalists have been the primary witnesses to and chroniclers of war, piecing together news reports from eyewitnesses and military briefings. But what if the armies or military forces who were engaged in a conflict took on the role of publishers themselves, distributing their own live reports while the battle was being fought? That idea is no longer science fiction: it became reality when the Israeli Defense Forces started live-blogging and live-tweeting an attack on Hamas guerillas in the Gaza strip and uploading video of their rocket blasts to YouTube.
Social media, once thought of as a tool for bored nerds and marketing gurus, has taken on a whole new role it seems — one that could stand to change the face of modern warfare forever. As BuzzFeed notes in its round-up of Twitter posts from the Israeli army (a sentence I never would have imagined typing even a few years ago), the IDF actually warned Hamas guerillas not to show themselves on the Gaza strip or risk being killed in the attacks that began Wednesday morning, and the official Hamas account responded:
In the hours that followed, videos of rocket attacks on Hamas strongholds were uploaded to YouTube, and the IDF blog carried a minute-by-minute breakdown of what was happening — how many Hamas rockets it intercepted, a strike by the Israeli Navy, and so on. It looked very much like the New York Times live-blog The Lede, except that it was being published by a military force: the front of the website even looks like a traditional news blog or breaking news site, complete with the usual social-media buttons for sharing content on Twitter, Facebook and other networks.
Not that long ago, CNN was the archetype of war reporting with its real-time video of the war in Iraq. More recently it has become the province of breaking-news blogs like The Lede from the Times, with minute-by-minute updates — or of National Public Radio editor Andy Carvin, sifting through live reports from civilians in Tahrir Square in Egypt and using his Twitter stream like a crowdsourced newsroom. Now, we have to add to that the army as a media entity, as symbolized by the IDF’s official live blog, Twitter stream and YouTube videos. What more could a publisher want? There are even infographics and a hashtag.
Blogging pioneer Dave Winer has written about how social media allows “the sources to go direct,” and we have seen the power that can have when a newsmaker adopts Twitter or a blog, the way News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch has or the Pakistani resident who live-tweeted the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But there is perhaps no better example of taking that principle to its logical — if unpleasant — conclusion than what the Israeli Defense Forces did on Wednesday. How does that change the way that wars are waged, or experienced, or covered by journalists? It is certain to do all three.
Governments and armies have always tried to influence the way their battles are perceived, whether by “embedding” journalists or by creating their own mouthpieces — people like Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally, who broadcast favorable messages as a way of destabilizing the enemy or turning the tide of public opinion (or both). But now, commanders and their political chiefs have tools at their disposal that would have been almost unthinkable even a decade ago: all the same tools that a newspaper or a TV network has, and probably more. Their message now lives or dies by the same principles.
As more than one observer has pointed out, the main issue when armies become media entities is how to sort out the truth from the marketing spin — and how to ensure that the other side gets fair treatment, even though it may not have as powerful a marketing department. Just as NYT media reporter Brian Stelter has said that having Rupert Murdoch on Twitter makes his job a lot harder, the advent of military publishers will likely force traditional war correspondents to up their game as well — and it will put even more emphasis on crowdsourced efforts like Andy Carvin’s Twitter newsroom.