What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The timeless and spaceless conduct of OSIW, the Open-Source Information War

Ever since I came back from SGIR's Turin conference, I wanted to post on one of the many interesting lectures I had the chance to listen to there, and by chance today I've read two blogposts that make it quite timely for me to finally do make mention of that.
Those two blogposts shall come first.
I found an excellent blog covering North African politics, with a special focus on Saharawi affairs, and all of a sudden, reading one post, I got an answer to a question that, frankly, I was long since puzzled by: how vote-buying actually works in a more sophisticated environment. I always wanted to get to understand the political economy of how buyers can rest assured sellers don't A) defect, or B) lie (whatever, depending on the chronological placement of payment); presuming that reasonable procedural standards are met at the elections concerned. It's so simple I'm embarrassed - although it has never been something I thought much about. All it takes is just handing out mobile phones with an in-built camera, and having voters prepare photos as proof of their compliance. (Even if the article that discusses this actually notes that this is quite an expensive solution.) We tend to love camera phones, but techonology is just soooo value-neutral...
Peace Like a River, which blog, I understand, is soon about to move over to Wordpress, has this interesting reference in one post to the background of the recent terrorism-related arrests in Germany: suspects, to avoid having their e-mail traffic intercepted, have just drafted e-mails on accounts that their network's members could also access, and exchanged messages that way. I perhaps don't need to mention that similar message-sharing can also be done using invitation-only weblogs. It's actually an old method, and it's not in fact entirely safe for those using it. But I feel I should bring this in, having just read about this today, and because this again is pointing to a rarely considered aspect of some technological tool that one does take use of at times to, say, store interesting downloaded material somewhere when having to do without a pen-drive. Then you don't have to take home stuff - it's already there, I mean on some server of course. That's so simple, and again, so useful for so many purposes.
On this blog I have also already written earlier of how Wikimapia appears already to be used as an interesting means of communication potentially for information operations-related purposes - a form of activity that is very similar to what I'm finally really about to discuss now briefly (I just needed, you see, to make references to my stuff here first, that's why I'm writing this blog after all. :-)
So back in Turin I made it to Maura Conway's presentation titled "Broadcast yourself: terrorism, reality TV and the Youtube generation" on how terrorists/militants/insurgents use video-sharing sites on the web, sites such as, but of course not only, You Tube. Such sites represent quality change in the spread of all kinds of propaganda. Given that these videos can be downloaded and re-uploaded and re-edited and so on, propaganda that is once created may not ever be "lost" any more; it can even be bettered in the sense of being made more efficient. As I pointed out in a comment at the conference, this is extremely interesting conceptually because technically user activity of all kinds related to editing or re-editing such videos may qualify as something like an information operation (IO). And so what these people are partaking in is something like an open-source information war (OSIW). The conceptual tension arises from the obvious fact that of course some of the users concerned may not be aware even, of their activities being potentially comparable with anything related to war, even while they are handling pictures of war quite clearly. And even while their actions may aid, say, recruitment...
... recruitment for all sides actually. Focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, these IOs are coming not just from jihadists, but from friends and fans of all ages of Western militaries as well. And the seemingly best piece by one side may be the critical impulse for someone on the other side to get critically infuriated by... Another interesting issue is what happens with reality in the process? It's no news that IOs distort reality, that's the point after all, but it's more interesting that good-looking footage from an in fact botched up operation, from any of the parties, may eventually get recirculated in compilation videos trumpeting the all-out success of the given party. You might see just an air strike destroying mud huts with villagers in there, instead of insurgents; or you might see insurgents looking mistakenly confident before actually getting killed, as in this video... In, say, about five years from now, as these images are circulating around, they might take on a nearly timeless/spaceless quality in the sense that the underinformed segment, the majority, of the audience will not know where (what space and time) they come from. It's all closely connected to the topic of the epistemological insurgency.
Random pic from a random vid. Does it make sense? The user does...
So it's a very interesting topic indeed, and I'm really looking forward to reading Maura Conway's paper (she has written a lot of interesting stuff already, of course).
One last remark I made was to reflect on the methodological issues of doing research on relevant You Tube videos, issues that of course inevitably came up in the discussion in Turin. For quantitative analysis one had better be able in principle to get to all relevant videos, and tags don't really necessarily help with that. So one should have some tool to search through visual information (visual information of an enormous amount at that...). Ok, currently, such a tool is not there, but seeing how Google's free-for-all image search already provides one with the chance to search specifically for faces, and knowing a little about facial recognition software as well, and having a vivid imagination about what artificial intelligence and ever and ever higher performance processors can potentially bring us...
The only problem, you see, is with that vaguely definable 'us' that all this serves (and in this babbling blogpost the more frightening technological innovations weren't discussed; only, deliberately, some of the seemingly benign ones). Technology is just soooo value-neutral. As value-neutral as... as not even neoclassical economics can possibly be!

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