11 November 2009

The New Media: The Dark Side

Additional links: Adam Elkus--Ft. Hood: A Social Media Failure, ABC News "Fort Hood Soldier Causes Stir on Twitter"

In September of 2009, the Associated Press came under intense criticism for publishing pictures of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, as he lay dying in Afghanistan. The picture was published soon after his death, against the wishes of the family. Although the Associated Press’ actions were protected under the First Amendment, their actions were, as Tom Ricks puts it, “morally indefensible”. Indeed, the pictures were decried by many throughout the defense community, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Nevertheless, last week we were treated to an even more disturbing picture—taken while Soldiers lie wounded and dying in hospitals throughout central Texas. This picture was taken with a cell phone camera and posted to the social networking site Twitter as the events at Fort Hood continued to unfold. Although the picture has since been taken down, and the Twitter account has been placed on private mode, some sites still have the picture and caption. In the picture, a Soldier is being rushed through a set of doors, presumably into the emergency room. Although there is no blood in the picture, the caption from the picture says it all: “The poor guy that got shot in the balls”. In all likelihood, this would have been the first indication the family would have had regarding this Soldier’s wounds. It was paparazzi-style journalism at its worst, preying on the misery and hardships of the Soldiers who were wounded in Maj. Hasan’s killing spree last Thursday.

But before anyone blames the news media, understand that this picture and caption came from TV news, but rather, another Soldier--Tearah Moore, a 30-year old from Michigan who recently returned from Iraq.

She damned well should have known better.

Social networking technologies have been used in recent years to document tragedies and news stories as they happen—witness the recent example of the “Miracle on the Hudson”. In military organizations, however, it is the cause of great concern. Take the example of the INS Hanit, an Israeli corvette hit by a Hezbollah anti-ship missile during the 2006 Lebanon War. The book War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age describes Israeli sailors calling their loved ones in regards to the casualties aboard the ship with personal cell phones—with the story hitting news outlets and families before it even hit Israeli military sources.

During military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soldiers are used to what are known as “NIPR Blackouts”—mandatory outages of Internet services which occur whenever a fatality or accident occurs. This is primarily done in order to prevent family members from receiving news about casualties—with dubious accuracy--from cell phone calls and news reports, and instead, through official casualty notification channels.

Tearah Moore would have known about this. She should have known better.

Ms. Moore capitalized on the misfortune of others, not to get the word out, but to receive attention. As Paul Carr writes at TechCrunch, she wanted to tell the world, “look at me looking at this”!

Two weeks ago, I wrote here about how the ‘real time web’ is turning all of us into inhuman egotists. How we’re increasingly seeing people at the scene of major accidents grabbing their cellphones to capture the dramatic events and share them with their friends, rather than calling 911. Last week I went even further with my doom-mongering, suggesting that the trend of adding people’s homes to Foursquare without permission was indicative of a generation that prioritised their own fun over the privacy of their friends.

In the actions of Tearah Moore at Fort Hood, we have the perfect example of both kinds of selfishness.

There surely can’t be a human being left in the civilised world who doesn’t know that cellphones must be switched off in hospitals, and yet not only did Moore leave hers on but she actually used it to photograph patients, and broadcast the images to the world. Just think about that for a second. Rather than offering to help the wounded, or getting the hell out of the way of those trying to do their jobs, Moore actually pointed a cell-phone at a wounded soldier, uploaded it to twitpic and added a caption saying that the victim “got shot in the balls”.

Her behaviour had nothing to do with getting the word out; it wasn’t about preventing harm to others, but rather a simple case of – as I said two weeks ago – “look at me looking at this.” (I don’t know about you, but if I spotted someone taking a picture of one of my friends or relatives in a hospital then they would probably need a hospital bed of their own. “Tell me, Ms Moore, exactly how did the iPhone end up in your lower intestine?”)

Perhaps fittingly, I posted some of these thoughts on Twitter yesterday, as events were still unfolding. Many people agreed with me – replying with links to the specific military codes that cover what information solidiers can share, and the HIPAAhttp://i.ixnp.com/images/v6.15/t.gif which deals with patient privacy. But plenty of others felt that by criticising Moore I was advocating censorship.

As one replyhttp://i.ixnp.com/images/v6.15/t.gif put it, sarcastically: “Yes indeed, let’s moderate twitter and vet all tweets…” Others pointed out that it was just this kind of photography and ‘citizen journalism’ that ensured that the truth got out during the Iranian elections. What about the global outrage at the famous YouTube video of Neda Agha Soltan, shown dying after being shot by (alledgedly) pro-government agents?

Yes – what of it?

Yes, the new media has led to a new form of narcissim. Admittedly, I give in to this, as do most of us: Look at me with women at the bar…look at me drinking from a beer bong…look at me diving with a shark. Unfortunately, in the case of Ms. Moore, it’s nothing quite so innocuous—it’s “look at me in the middle of these shootings…take a look at this guy’s wounds!"

Ms. Moore not only violated Army policies in regards to releasing casualty information, she violated the privacy of patients at the hospital. But most important of all, she made a spectacle of the human suffering at Fort Hood. She should be ashamed of herself.

1 comment:

raven h said...

I agree...thanks so much for putting up this post...my husband was in Afghanistan in 2007 and when casualties happened we couldn't email...I understand that ...why couldn't an active duty person understand military protocol on casualties????

BTW, I feel really lucky we could even do e-mail.