Citizen Propagandists

Cutting through the noise on Russia-Georgia is harder than you think

Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of the citizens’ media project Global Voices, notes an interesting angle to the Russo-Georgian Conflict:

Part of the reason this war is such a riddle is that we’ve entered a new phase in contemporary conflict: the world of citizen propaganda… What may be less expected is that citizen media accounts - blogs of eyewitnesses, jouralists [sic] writing in a personal capacity, the writings of people who know and are passionate about the region - are actively engaged in rhetorical warfare as well. Georgian, Russian and Ossetian bloggers - whether off-duty journalists or ordinary citizens - all want the suffering of their group acknowledged on a global stage and are all presenting the conflict from their personal perspectives. These perspectives sometimes include troubling eyewitness accounts, and sometimes include amplification of rumors, usually ones that support that author’s interperative [sic] frame.

The advent of citizen propaganda (as compared to media) is an important, and often neglected, phenomenon of modern warfare. During the recent hostilities in the Caucasus, this phenomenon was manifested in various ways—whether independent blogger-journalists like Michael J. Totten writing 5,000-word press releases with the help of official Georgian media representatives, or Blake Fleetwood accusing the GOP of orchestrating the war for their own election prospects. But this angle has largely been excluded from discussion about how the war has been portrayed.

Non-official propaganda matters greatly, because while most bloggers issued shallow and predictable jeremiads about either the horrors of the “new Cold War” or the horrors of American-supported client states, there were some out there who were largely getting things right. Unfortunately, these sober voices were often drowned out by the overwhelming amount of citizen propagandists flooding the blogosphere. Nevertheless, they bear mentioning.

At Wired’s Danger Room blog, contributor Nathan Hodge took a much more sober angle on American involvement, noting, quite appropriately, that American support and training for Georgian troops may have fostered overconfidence in their own abilities. Similarly, Dan Nexon has produced insightful, and sometimes counterintuitive, analyses of the conflict. Mark Ames, of the much lamented Exile, has also been an unusually clear voice on the war, taking great pains to highlight the moral and political complexities of a conflict with roots stretching well past even its previous iteration in 1993. BusinessWeek’s senior foreign correspondent, Steve LeVine, has also been an unusually clear, if ignored, voice.

Although a lot of people were thinking clearly about the war in Georgia, these kinds of perspectives were lost in the flood of citizen propaganda coming from partisans of all stripes. Matthew Yglesias recently noted that this is to be expected—and he is right. Rather than negating the complaint about citizen propaganda, however, this gets at the heart of why it matters so much: not only does it specifically fail the reasons blogs rose to prominence in the first place, it is little more than the retrenchment of traditional media biases. As such, the reasons behind much of the push behind blogs are still fully valid, only now the gatekeepers have moved down a level, from traditional media to a layer of blogs just as beholden to personal, rather than institutional interests. The usual suspects pushing pre-spun views of what happened lends them zero value over traditional media sources—surely not what the original architects of the blogosphere ideals intended.

The trick to the Russo-Georgian War, of course, is that neither side is heroic, and neither is villainous—both have done nasty things in the last month, and both have to answer for the death and destruction they caused. Yet sober judgment about war is often relegated to textbooks and History Channel commentaries. In the contemporary rush to filter all current events through a narrow political lens, straight thinking about war is often ignored in favor of overheated rhetoric that has little bearing on reality. As Zuckerman noted, almost all the analysts in the U.S. were uninformed about and removed from the conflict—yet they still were not dissuaded from offering what sometimes seemed to be militantly incorrect views of the war.

Learning to sift through competing sources of information is not a natural instinct; one tends to find and then enjoy sources that confirm a preset worldview. Yet, in war, truth matters more than ideology, and being spoon-fed disinformation is not something to enjoy. That vast swaths of the media landscape settle for ideological spoon-feeding should trouble anyone interested in accurate reporting.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at