Truth and Inconsequence

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

A leaked video of wartime atrocities sparks a media firestorm and raises questions about the accuracy and validity of new media.

On Monday, the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.org ignited a media firestorm by releasing a classified video taken from the gun-sight of an American Apache helicopter during a July 2007 skirmish in Baghdad. The monochrome images show in sickening detail the helicopter’s crew unleashing bursts of machine-gun fire on a group of men, and, later, on an unmarked van that drove in to rescue survivors. The video also captures the moments before the violence, as the helicopter’s crew deliberated whether to open fire, and after, as they celebrated their kills and taunted the fallen with profanities. At least two of the dozen men who died that day were noncombatants: a Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. When their bodies fell, they dropped press identification cards, cameras, and telephoto lenses—not weapons. Two children who had been passengers in the van were also seriously wounded.

In the official US military investigation that ensued, the soldiers involved were cleared of wrongdoing. According to a New York Times story, Reuters representatives were shown the gun-sight video two weeks after the killings, but the agency’s requests for copies under the Freedom of Information Act went unfulfilled.

Sadly, there seems little that is singular about this tragedy—talk of smart bombs and precision targeting aside, modern warfare remains bluntly indiscriminant. When a gunship rains bullets or bombs from the sky, they too often fall on the just and unjust alike, and those accountable will inevitably try to minimize the repercussions. There have been prior leaked videos showing such mistaken slaughter of innocents in the fog of war, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future, each eliciting feelings of nausea, rage, and shame. Technology just makes these obscenities easier to document.

Or does it? The most remarkable aspects of this still-unfolding story are how the video was obtained, how it was publicized, and the reactions that ensued. Taken together they portend how emerging tools and technologies like crowdsourcing, cloud computing, and online social networks can be used to create and control news stories. But it’s entirely unclear whether these developments will actually lead to a more accurate and agile media—or a more informed public.

Three months ago, a post on the WikiLeaks Twitter account stated that the organization had received encrypted videos of US airstrikes on civilians, and asked readers for “super computer time.” Though the organization is mum on specifics, it may not have used an actual supercomputer to crack the military-grade encryption on the video, perhaps turning instead to the same sort of distributed computing platform that enables scientific pursuits like SETI@home. If this is in fact what occurred (and it may not be), WikiLeaks should certainly be hailed for innovatively using a computational resource in a way that few if any mainstream media outlets have attempted. It should also be praised for due diligence: After the video was decrypted, the organization teamed with an Icelandic television channel, sending two reporters to Baghdad to verify details of the July 2007 airstrike. As a self-described “intelligence agency for the people” that goes to great lengths to protect its anonymous sources, WikiLeaks apparently takes pride not only in its sophisticated technical prowess, but also in its growing reputation for doing quality journalism, and breaking vital stories that the mainstream media missed.

That reputation, however, is somewhat undeserved, as the organization’s presentations of the Baghdad tragedy and other past “scoops” attest. On Monday, WikiLeaks released two versions of the video via the not-too-subtle domain name CollateralMurder.com: One raw and unedited, clocking in at 38 minutes in length, and a far more popular edited version with added on-screen “analysis.” The analysis chiefly consists of notations pointing out the movements of Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh, and the camera equipment they carried. As knowledgeable critics have pointed out, it fails to note, among other things, the AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades carried by some of the other men. On my first viewing, I didn’t see any armed individuals. But after reading the criticisms, I watched again, and there the weapons were, hidden in plain view, obscured by WikiLeaks’ “analysis.” As documented by countless neuroscience experiments (and clever YouTube videos), the mind’s capacity for selective attention is all too real—and easily manipulated.

WikiLeaks also arguably failed to present the full context of the tragedy: the fact that the event occurred in the midst of a heavy combat zone, and that the Apache was supporting nearby ground troops who were under fire. For that, you’d best go to a traditional journalism source: the Washington Post reporter David Finkel, who was embedded with the nearby ground troops from the Army’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion. Finkel described the situation and the video’s contents in chilling detail in his book, The Good Soldiers, released last September. You can read the excerpt here. That’s right—other than the voyeuristic thrill of witnessing gruesome brutality, there’s absolutely nothing to be gleaned from the WikiLeaks “scoop” that couldn’t have been gained by going into a Barnes & Noble six months ago and picking up Finkel’s book. The only exposé here is the average person’s callous indifference to all but the crudest and most direct evidence of atrocities, which isn’t exactly breaking news.

Which isn’t to say that WikiLeaks isn’t important: It provides an invaluable outlet for bringing potentially world-changing information to light. It’s also quite possibly a harbinger for the future of investigative journalism: Since the video went live on Monday, the organization has received more than $150,000 in donations, and in a bit of fortuitous timing, Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism announced a new program combining training in journalism and computer science. But without better judgment and presentation, that money is at risk of being squandered on lurid and deceptive non-stories rather than legitimate news.

In the aftermath of WikiLeaks’ latest major “story,” it pays to remember that the organization was also one of the key enabling distributors of the hacked “Climategate” e-mails. And thus, an indirect promoter of the ridiculous fantasy that global warming is a hoax concocted by greedy climatologists and, presumably, Al Gore. The damage caused by that wholly manufactured “scandal” has yet to fully be appreciated. But similar to the absolved helicopter crew and infantrymen, the researchers caught up in Climategate were cleared of wrongdoing last week by an official committee. Neither case reasonably suggests a vast conspiracy, but rather the simple fact that individuals, whether soldiers, scientists, or, ahem, whistleblowers, are all too human and capable of error and poor judgment.

WikiLeaks has proven itself a potent gatherer of information. Now it must demonstrate it can create real knowledge, by reliably providing what information needs most: context.

Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.

Originally published April 9, 2010

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