How Social Media Has Changed War-Time Reporting
It is Memorial Day and we felt the need to give a salute to our American Armed Forces.
As we discussed the heroes who have died in conflicts over the years, it occurred to us that the way we consume information about our soldiers when they are at war has drastic
ally changed since our great nation was born.
Beginning with the newspaper in the 1700's and now with the proliferation of social media, the dissemination of news about our nation at war has made a significant change in how it gets to the general public.
Indeed, social media hasn't just changed the world of marketing, it has changed the way our world thinks and lives.
- How did media begin covering American soldiers and the conflicts they engaged in?
- Then how did the media and the government come to an understanding about what was reported to Americans about the war?
- How has the development of our relationship to different types of media changed, especially over the past few decades?
- Is Social Media itself a danger to our soldiers?
It would seem that with the advent of social media, America's relationship with our soldiers has suddenly become very intimate, flipping the government and mainstream media on their heads.
And we rather like it that way.
So what happened?
A SHORT HISTORY OF OUR MEDIA DURING WARFARE
In the not so distant past a person who wanted news about what was going on with America’s soldiers, especially during wartime, consulted a newspaper that contained the news; sometimes weeks old.
They poured over the pages as if it were gospel and, if the news was bad, comforted themselves with friends and family over our current national crisis.
Wartime news during the time of the newspaper could be cripplingly slow.
By the time actual information about a conflict reached home, another new conflict could be over and finished, a battle won, new lives lost, or possibly even battles over.
Our soldiers were seen as beacons of light through the pages. Our nation's heroes, our own brothers, husbands and loved ones who had left for nations far away to fight in battles we couldn't really envision, except through the pages of the morning newspaper.
Then came the radio. As early as 1906, Charles Herrold began sending out broadcast messages over the airways.
It wasn’t until the late 1920’s though, after the end of World War I, that a family would gather around the wooden box in their living room to hear the latest updates on American news.
America also mostly heard about World War II on the radio. Sometimes, even an actual fuzzy transmission came through from the front line.
Although the updates were still slow, the news our citizens was receiving was a bit more up to date and reliable.
The government also began to regulate.
As early as the 1920’s television made its debut, however it wasn’t until the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that television was a regular part of the American household.
NBC and the Camel Caravan News with John Cameron Swayze came into living rooms every night for 30 minutes and became the mainstay for any media coverage of our U.S. military.
The government began to regulate how information was sent out and began a sort of courtship with the media industry that included working together to get news of the war to Americans.
The proper distribution of information came to the forefront at the end of WWII with the formation of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. They were formed to make sure that information received by different countries, cultures and values was given special priority.
Now all people could receive the special brand of information that their government wanted them to get.
In America, our soldiers were always the hero, and our battles were always noble.
Then came the Vietnam War.
THE VIETNAM WAR
The concept of the government and media working together to report on America at war completely dissolved when American’s most trusted journalist, Walter Cronkite of CBS, returned from a trip to Vietnam.
He reported on his trip there and continued rather glumly that a military victory in Vietnam was going to be impossible.
His opinion turned the tide of American opinion regarding the war from bad to worse.
It also helped turn the opinion of Americans from not just being against the war, but to having strong opinions about the individual soldiers who were drafted to fight in it.
The American Government's efforts to play out the war effort in a huge marketing opera on television was over.
President Johnson even decided that without Cronkite on the side of the war effort, all future endeavors would be fruitless.
This moment in U.S. government and media relations was a critical turn in how the news was reported.
The relationship between the two became almost adversarial in nature as the news got real – or more liberal - in the minds of some.
The government was no longer going to be able to market itself, or manipulate our views of our soldiers.
THE END OF THE COLD WAR
When Ronald Reagan pulled himself up onto the Berlin wall and declared, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall," the hearts of much of the world were filled with hope that big changes were in store. Especially for third-world countries coming out from under the yoke of communism.
But the triumph of capitalism and Western-stylized democracy and the promise of global peace was not truly seen.
Our soldiers were still there though, where they were needed and when they were needed.
THE GULF WAR
The Gulf War was yet another twist in the relationship Americans had with the media during war time and how the news was reported from the front.
For the first time in history, Americans were able to see our men in combat in real time.
The Information War, as it has been called by many, was reported by CNN for the first time as it happened and took many Americans by surprise at the bloodiness and mess of war in general.
Our government, especially the Pentagon, responded using things like smart bombs and computerized combat systems that seemingly took the human equation out of the war.
However, in their effort to de-humanize war by relying on innovation, there were still devastating casualties reported from the ‘other’ side. Efforts to manipulate the media and Americans backfired as CNN showed the misery for the invisible victims of the 1991 Gulf War.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Americans everywhere turned on their televisions and saw what looked like a war.
Although we were not actively at war, when two planes purposely crashed into the two World Trade Center Towers right before the eyes of America, it was the first time that most U.S. citizens experienced an attack on our soil.
It was, in fact, the largest attack in our history – including Pearl Harbor. The affects were so far reaching that it was almost impossible for then President George H.W. Bush not to respond the way he did.
Now, in an age where we can, Americans are always on alert, ready to report with our phones when necessary.
We will never forget.
THE RISE OF THE INTERNET AND A CHANGE OF GUARD
Today, Americans live in a time of almost complete globalization.
Networks collide; crossing borders and human rights blur in the minds of those with their own agenda and, their own social media platform.
At best, in a time of conflict and the threat of terrorism, when our very capital can be under the threat of an attack, the individual takes the idea of instantaneous communication seriously.
The news now emerges from “an ecosystem in which journalists, sources, readers and viewers exchange information."
It didn't start out that way though.
The change began around the change of the millennium when blog platforms first appeared.
Slowly, different social media platforms began to rise in the mid to late 1990's.
In a sense, the rise of social media has taken war time reporting out of the hands of journalists and put it into the hands of civilians and even soldiers; the people who witness conflict right on the front line.
Social media has also changed our ideas about our soldiers from one of an awe-like romance of our heroes, to a gnawing feeling in our stomach when we see first hand the pictures coming right from the fighting, or read the blog of a veteran or a victim who lives in the town in the midst of a conflict where US soldiers are present.
In an interesting infographic we came across, Schools.com shows how social media has come to replace traditional news outlets as the main source of information for most people.
Can newspapers and broadcasters survive?
TRADITIONAL NEWS OUTLETS TAKE NOTE
Now, nearly 60% of people use platforms like Facebook for their news sources, while traditional news magazines struggle to sell their printed issues.
This desertion of print media has been referred to as “one of the biggest shifts in journalism to ever take place”.
Media outlets must adapt or “face extinction”.
In addition, as opposed to the newspaper, people online are able to engage with each other directly and immediately, as well as give their opinions; potentially reaching huge numbers of the population.
JOURNALISTS PISHAW...AND THEN TAKE NOTE
Mainstream media and journalists have changed their attitude about social media and its effects.
For example, the great success of the Huffington Post, launched in May 2005, that combined reporting by highly educated journalists, blog posts from amateur bloggers and links to stories from news sites has had great appeal to readers.
Other ‘legitimate’ news outlets are taking similar routes, using the reports, blogs, and other social media posts by civilians as real news and getting great ratings and rankings in the process.
The addition of Facebook’s “like” button and the proliferation of sharing on other social media sites has also given more credibility to the Internet's users as a news source.
Today, more people follow @BBCBreaking on Twitter than watch the News at Ten.
Additionally, the idea that journalists are well-trained, impartial and independent, and able to put away their own ideologies had long been the model we followed about our media professionals.
Social media shattered this concept completely when amateurs reported information from their blogs, tweets and posts.
So, when a soldier tweeted pictures about a conflict from the front line did that make it any less credible?
In many cases, the average journalist competes with average citizens on breaking news stories on sites like Twitter.
Instead of being beaten by the platforms, they use them now as a means to add to their stories with curation of credible sources and for the purpose of spreading their stories – especially by younger generations.
In a blog that discussed the new relationship between social media and warfare, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, an Affiliate at Harvard University discussed how social media has changed the way journalists work during times of war.
Although his research was done on the drug wars in Mexico, the results across the globe are much the same.
During his investigation, he learned that journalists were receiving news reports from social media contacts they had across cities involved in conflict.
These contacts, mostly on Twitter, but also on other social media platforms, considered their tweeting and sharing of information as it happened in front of their eyes to be a noble quest. They were taking over where the government and local media had abandoned publication or coverage of local conflicts.
These "curators" as journalists sometimes called them, felt that the government and the media were not only hiding information, but had forgotten their obligation to their people.
In Monroy-Hernández's opinion, the people took over, using their social networks.
He also suggested that this rise in local curators of information, also known as crowdsourcing, shows that current media outlets in his studied war torn areas truly were not meeting the public’s need for information. And during wartime, the people's need for news is voracious.
Although getting information from these curators does raise a big issue of the validity of the information being published, Monroy-Hernández says that most journalists now have a trusted network of curators in their own areas, as well as a growing method for crowdsourcing that cracks any misinformation very quickly.
THE DANGERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA TO OUR SOLDIERS DURING WARTIME
Nearly anyone on the front line has the ability to publish or distribute data, pictures and video; which changes the nature of how governments approach their attack.
The army now has a Social Media Handbook. In it, they are very clear that soldiers are allowed to have networks like Facebook and Twitter. However, they also lay out clear guidelines about what can be posted and when a commanding officer must be notified about particular information.
With soldiers themselves posting photos on Facebook and Instagram, including pictures of missions that can be tracked down to longitude and latitude, social media can make it very dangerous for a group of American soldiers on the move; a double-edged sword.
Anyone can now post and manipulate information about where our soldiers are, what they are doing and what they have with them.
The ramifications have yet to really be seen in this area, but it is beginning to have its effect.
For instance, in an article that appeared on Economist.com, it was reported that when Osama bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed by American troops, it turned out that a man in a Pakistani village was unwittingly described the entire operation as it was occurring through a series of tweets (““A huge window-shaking bang here in Abbottabad…I hope it's not the start of something nasty”).
In another blog article called How Social Media is Rewriting the Rules of Modern Warfare, author Mathew Ingram states that “Bloggers, tweeters, and Facebook friends of Israel were reminded by our IDF contacts not to say exactly where rockets have landed or even when/where alert sirens have blared… The siren and landing reports are helping the terrorists hone their aim, making it a bit easier to target/kill civilians.”
According to Ingram's blog there is a correlation here. The new distribution of information via social media and the propaganda campaign during World War II; “Loose Lips Sink Ships” which warned Americans about talking about talking about the war effort to their friends and to anyone who might have connections to the military are loosely, but most deadly related.
When it comes to the safety of American soldiers, social media has, no doubt, become a challenge.
Now, anyone who has a smart phone can publish and distribute information, no matter how mundane, about an attack, a person, or the movements of soldiers that could be potentially harmful.
The Internet however, can also become the military’s newest marketing campaign tool; distributing their propaganda and manipulative information, aimed either at the enemy, or even at Americans themselves. It has become a dangerous and provocative idea; and impossible to defend against.
Some governments in foreign countries fear inaccurate information, misinformation and even the appearance of true information on the Internet so much that they clamp down immediately on the sometimes anonymous account holders who are sending out posts.
It would seem that from now on, every war will be a social media war.
Global conversations can take place within the course of minutes, not days or weeks.
It is more important than ever that social responsibility is rooted in the claims made upon social media platforms, especially during times of war and conflict.
Although social media and blogging will most likely never replace journalism, they do add another layer to it; an exciting and ground-breaking new era.
With this in mind, we keep our soldiers at heart, specifically their safety wherever we can protect it. They are after all, our freedom fighters.
And we end this blog, where American media began:
"Here speaks a voice from America. Every day at this time we will bring you the news of the war. The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth."
– First broadcast of the Voice of America, February 24, 1942 – ironically transmitted in German