3Qs: Analyzing ‘the first YouTube war’

Hun­dreds of ama­teur videos cap­tured by news activists, cit­izen jour­nal­ists and for­eign cor­re­spon­dents in Homs, and dis­trib­uted to news orga­ni­za­tions and video-​​sharing web­sites around the world, have prompted some to dub the sit­u­a­tion in Syria the “first YouTube war.” We asked Jeff Howe — an assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design who coined the term “crowd­sourcing” — to explain how videos of vio­lence in Syria have shaped per­cep­tion of the conflict.

Jeff Howe, an assistant professor of journalism, said the Syrian regime’s war on journalists has been quite successful. Photo by Christopher Huang.

According to a news activist quoted in The New York Times, roughly 80 percent of the videos of the Syrian conflict that have been broadcast on mainstream news organizations have originated from amateur videographers. Do you think raw video of death and destruction could prompt the rest of the world to respond to Syria’s humanitarian disaster in a way that a typical news report could not?

Sure; I think it already does. One of the biggest drawbacks to citizen video is its amateurism. Footage is grainy; the audio is fuzzy and hasn’t been properly mixed. But this is also its greatest strength — all that amateur videography has the unmistakable feel of real people bearing witness. It makes it incredibly compelling and provides an aura of authenticity.

Comparing any two conflicts is always comparing apples and oranges, but the United Nations, as well as the global media, are both heavily focused on Syria. One wonders what would have happened if similar footage had emerged from Somalia, Sudan or, going back a few years, Uzbekistan.

Activists say the makeshift media center where for­eign war cor­re­spon­dent Marie Colvin was killed last month was the delib­erate target of a rocket attack by Syrian troops, who report­edly pledged to “kill any jour­nalist who set foot on Syrian soil.” How suc­cessful have jour­nal­ists been in thwarting the government’s effort to con­trol cov­erage of the conflict?


I’d turn that ques­tion on its head and ask: How suc­cessful has the regime’s war on jour­nal­ists been? The sad answer is, pretty suc­cessful. Colvin’s death grabbed the head­lines, but the day before, gov­ern­ment forces killed Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian national respon­sible for a great deal of the footage of the attack on Homs. Com­pared to Libya or Tunisia or cer­tainly Egypt, we’re essen­tially peering through a key­hole in Syria.

It’s impos­sible to gauge every­thing that’s not making it out to Western viewers, but it’s cer­tainly a lot. Recently Syria man­aged to block access to the Swedish live-streaming site Bam­buser, which had been the cit­izen journalist’s greatest tool in Syria. It would be erro­neous, dan­gerous even, to pre­tend that the won­ders of tech­nology are win­ning the war against oppres­sion and total­i­tar­i­anism. It’s just not the case.

One activist in Homs, who dug out bodies after a rocket attack and then video­taped the effort, pro­claimed that the con­flict has turned every Syrian “into a jour­nalist.” Com­pare the effort of cit­izen jour­nal­ists in Syria with that of guerilla jour­nal­ists in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

That’s awfully tough to answer. As much as we like to think of the “Arab Spring,” all these rev­o­lu­tions have little in common, even if they draw inspi­ra­tion from sim­ilar sources. What is safe to say is that while [former Egyptian pres­i­dent] Hosni Mubarak was hardly over­thrown because of social media — rev­o­lu­tions are com­posed of people, not tech­nolo­gies — Egypt demon­strates that in a tech­no­log­i­cally advanced, rel­a­tively open society, dis­sent is extremely hard to sup­press. Syria and Iran have been far more active in deploying the tech­nolo­gies of cen­sor­ship. Infor­ma­tion may want to be free, but auto­cratic regimes retain the ability, even in this day and age, of restricting it.

One activist in Homs, who dug out bodies after a rocket attack and then videotaped the effort, proclaimed that every Syrian has been “made into a journalist.” Compare the effort of citizen journalists in Syria with that of guerilla journalists in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

That’s awfully tough to answer. As much as we like to think of the “Arab Spring,” all these revolutions have little in common, even if they draw inspiration from similar sources. What is safe to say is that while [former Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak was hardly overthrown because of social media — revolutions are composed of people, not technologies — Egypt demonstrates that in a technologically advanced, relatively open society, dissent is extremely hard to suppress. Syria and Iran have been far more active in deploying the technologies of censorship. Information may want to be free, but autocratic regimes retain the ability, even in this day and age, of restricting it.

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