Small Wars Journal

Contextual Truth-Telling to Counter Extremist-Supportive Messaging Online

Sat, 11/06/2010 - 12:13pm
Contextual Truth-Telling to Counter Extremist-Supportive Messaging Online:

The Wikileaks "Collateral Murder" Case Study

by Larisa Breton and Adam Pearson

Download the Full Article: The Wikileaks "Collateral Murder" Case Study

On April 5th 2010 the website Wikileaks, historically known for publicizing sensitive and sometimes classified documents online, released classified cockpit footage of an American helicopter strike on armed insurgents in New Baghdad, Iraq that took place on July 12th 2007. Wikileaks posted 39 minutes of "research" video along with 17 minutes of "edited" content purported to show American troops killing Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists in cold blood. The posting received more than 5,000,000 views; commentary from the public was transnational in scope and condemnatory of perceived American action. This type of online messaging is picked up by, and used as an influence tool, by groups seeking a) to discredit Western nations; b) to drive negative perception of the West; and c) to recruit newcomers for physical, material and emotional support for causes espousing violence and terrorist action.

In response, an individual posing as a British national re-edited and posted a contextualized version of the video intended to rebut and debunk Wikileaks. We provide a case study of that intervention with concomitant exposition and examination of: ways in which American content is de-contextualized and reformatted, event timeline of the counter-Wikileaks intervention, resultant hit traffic, pickup into international media, exploration of Wikileaks' identity as a provider of public information and its use of media tactics; explanation for paucity of individual interventions, and qualitative analysis on the influence of the lone, informed dissenter in creating, and promulgating, contextual truth online to counter violent extremism.

Download the Full Article: The Wikileaks "Collateral Murder" Case Study

Larisa Breton is a strategic communications engagement and influence specialist with a wealth of US Government, commercial digital, and traditional multimedia experience. From her roots as part of the digital vanguard that revolutionized Internet usage in the early 1990s, Larisa pioneered digital commerce to Fortune 100 companies. Since transitioning to Strategic Communications, Larisa has helped to frame strategic and tactical programs, and program execution, on complex and challenging engagement projects conducted worldwide.

Adam Pearson is a Cyber Investigator with Striker Pierce Investigations, LLC, and has over 12 years experience with the Intelligence Community in both the military and civilian world. He is proficient in multiple languages and is a subject matter expert in Strategic Influence and Information Operations.

About the Author(s)


Bob Underwood

Wed, 11/10/2010 - 12:34pm

No Name given:It wasn't obvious to me that Jason is not a veteran. I am a combat veteran, understand the psychology of combat, and think his comments are dead on. It seems to me that the Army could do more for us by saying something honest about the video instead of trying to white wash it. Nothing about your psychology in combat can make it ok to kill non-combatants. We are missing what's important if we can't look at these sorts of events and learn from them.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 11/07/2010 - 9:11am

Jason: it is obvious from your comments that you are not a combat veteran and have never been shot at or fired a shot in anger. Your expressed opinions are from your ivory tower and are not grounded in the reality of war. We defend freedom of speech so you have every right to speak your mind and express your opinions but your criticism of the comments of the apache pilots' professionalism shows a lack of understanding of the psychology of combat; something that is hard to understand if you have never been there.

Context Matters (not verified)

Sun, 11/07/2010 - 9:00am

Jason, a minor bit of context. You wrote "The unedited 39-minute version of the gun camera footage was also released by Wikileaks." that is true, but Julian Assange stated he knew few would watch the entire video and at the same time said the whole video had a tenth of the viewers as the edited video. Watch his interview on the Colbert Show before you write your long paper - or a short paper. More discussion on Wikileaks is necessary. On the desensitization, may I suggest an interesting book, On Killing by Grossman.

While all comments are appreciated, I suggest you look at some of the overwhelming evidence of deceptive editing used by Wikileaks when comparing the 39-minute video to the 17-minute one they heavily propagated. Their intent to obfuscate the context of what really happened by editing out all references to RPGs and receiving hostile fire is clear to any rational person after looking at the evidence. Click on my name for the link. Nobody is saying that harsh words weren't spoken, but this is war, not murder.

Jason Lemieux (not verified)

Sat, 11/06/2010 - 12:47pm

¾Bob¸ first sought to demonstrate that Wikileaks had used editing to create a narrative that supported its own stated anti-war activist position. For example, the 17-minute Wikileaks-edited version was the subject of a quote by Julian Assange made to American news outlet MSNBC: "[It] shows the debasement and moral corruption of soldiers as a result of war. It seems like they are playing video games with people's lives."

-Yeah, you're right. I'm sure phrases like, "look at those dead bastards" that seem to the layman like grabassing in the cockpit of a helicopter designed to kill Soviet tanks were really just Army jargon used for some morally upstanding communication.

Nothing to see here, folks. Engaging civilian-clothed personnel with a 30mm cannon whilst they visibly rescue a visibly wounded man in a city of eight million people is all kosher, because they were in a van, and INSURGENTS also use vans. Americans should be real proud.

I guess I should write my own article.

Jason Lemieux (not verified)

Sat, 11/06/2010 - 5:38pm

Adam: Someday Ill write an article responding to yours, probably long after everyone else has forgotten about this discussion. In the meantime, Ill just say a few things, none of which should be interpreted to imply that Wikileaks is any more above legitimate criticism than other organizations.

First, you didnt address my point. You actually came closer to proving it by implying that, in war, the kind of utterly unprofessional statements made by the Apache crew do not constitute evidence of debasement and moral corruption. If you really want to claim that the entirety of historical, psychological and literary arguments for soldiers desensitization to death and violence in sustained conflict are inaccurate, then you need to do so explicitly.

Second, my point does not rely on the assumption that Collateral Murder was free of creative editing. The unedited 39-minute version of the gun camera footage was also released by Wikileaks. Either way, what happened five minutes before or after the video picks up doesnt change the fact that the pilots did not obtain Positive Identification of a hostile target when they engaged two men who were rescuing a noncombatant. They requested permission to fire on the grounds that the rescuers were "probably" picking up bodies "and weapons." The word "probably" itself indicates that Positive ID was not obtained. Furthermore, we can watch the video and confirm that the rescuers were, in fact, picking a wounded man up off the ground and not any weapons before they were fired upon.

Last, as a matter of argumentative technique, you have placed yourself in an extremely precarious position by claiming to be on the side of "truth." I can question what "truth" means, point to neuroscientific evidence that all human beings distort and omit certain information even in the most benign circumstances, and ask why I should consider the word of a "strategic communications engagement and influence specialist" or a "a Cyber Investigator with Striker Pierce Investigations, LLC, [with] over 12 years experience with the Intelligence Community in both the military and civilian world" who express their sympathy for "supporters of the American military" to be more objective sources on this matter than Julian Assange or Wikileaks - and all before I address any of your main points.