Now playing on the Net: War propaganda

Video-sharing sites allow combatants on both sides to tell their story, much to the chagrin of the Pentagon. Images: War caught on video

Amid the home videos of dancing teens and sporting events on YouTube, a well-crafted, nine-minute video makes a direct appeal to Americans to oust the Bush administration.

"People of America, we wish to share with you our thoughts on the events we experienced," says the narrator of "Iraq--the truth?" The narrator claims to represent those opposing the U.S. in Iraq. "Despite the madness we have endured we see no harm in presenting you with the criminal nature of your newly elected emperor."

It's impossible to say for certain who created the video, but it's no doubt part of a growing and surprising trend at video-sharing sites. The democratization of online video through sites such as YouTube, Metacafe and Ogrish.com is allowing combatants on both sides of the battlefield to make their version of events public.

The Web offers any individual with Internet access the means to reach out to vast audiences with little or no regard for geographical borders. The number of people watching the propaganda videos is still small: About 14,000 people have viewed the "Iraq ? the truth?" video, which was posted in May. By comparison, the most popular video currently on YouTube is "Tila Tequila," which has been watched more than 800,000 times.

But experts say such material could be a harbinger of the future.

"The enemy is taking propaganda straight to the American people," said Nancy Snow, associate professor at California State University at Fullerton and author of "Propaganda Inc." "You have to give them credit for utilizing the power of this new medium. They're using cheap technology, but today anybody with a video camera can make his own movie and broadcast it."

Bush administration officials have noticed. In a speech last February, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said al-Qaida and other extremist groups have adapted faster than the U.S. to fighting information wars on the Web.

War video

"There's never been a war fought in this environment before," Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations, according to a transcript of the speech. "Today we are fighting the first war in the era of e-mail, blogs, BlackBerries, instant messaging, digital cameras, the Internet...The U.S. government still functions as a five-and-dime store in an eBay world."

Propaganda, the practice of tailoring a message to sway opinion rather than to present impartial information, is not new to the Web. Sending e-mails to promote one political philosophy or another is as old as the Net. But when it comes to influencing opinions, than text or photographs, said Snow, a former staffer at the U.S. Information Agency, which was once responsible for explaining U.S. foreign policy to the world.

The power of video to communicate ideas to large audiences has not been lost on politicians, corporations or the clergy in this country. Many have begun posting commercials or sermons on user-submitted sites.

Figuring out just how many people can be reached via online video is still unclear. San Mateo, Calif.-based YouTube, the largest of the video-sharing sites, attracts more than 16 million viewers per month and presents 100 million videos a day. The company was lauded recently for providing an unfiltered view of the fighting in Lebanon.

These sites are quickly becoming a bully pulpit from which any agenda can be pushed.

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Video: War clips on the Web
Combatants on the battlefield in Iraq post video clips of the war on sites such as Guba, YouTube and Ogrish.

Anyone performing a search of the word "Iraq" on YouTube can locate scores of clips about the war, including those that show Americans being attacked by snipers or with explosive devices. One clip shows what appears to be U.S. soldiers being shot by a sniper known as "Juba" or "Juma." The text and narration in these videos are rarely, if ever, in English.

In contrast, "Iraq - The Truth?" features very little graphic violence. The narrator speaks English as somber orchestral music plays in the background. He argues that the war in Iraq is unjust. There is also a veiled threat that the U.S. will face nuclear attack. He finishes by complimenting Americans on their ability to produce great leaders with a subtle suggestion that they violently overthrow the current administration.

"We believe that a nation which once gave the world John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington...will not fall short of giving true leaders of substance and dignity," the narrator says. "We advise you to take matters into your own hands."

Such material is unlikely to change the minds of anyone who strongly supports the war, Snow said. But for those people who are unsure or oppose the effort, the images may prove powerful.

Average American soldiers also have begun communicating their take on the war. It's a take that may not please the Pentagon.

Perhaps the best example of this is the controversial video called "Hadji Girl." The clip shows Joshua Belile, a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq, singing a song about falling in love with an Iraqi girl before being ambushed by her family and being forced to kill them. Belile has reportedly said the song was meant as a dark joke but it enraged many Muslims.

There are countless videos that feature American weaponry. They often follow the same pattern: heavy-metal music plays while U.S. troops kick down doors or blast away with machine guns. Guns fire from a helicopter to pulverize a suspected insurgent position in Mosul, according to the text of one video. Another clip shows American servicemen watching insurgents on infrared cameras before gunning them down. There's the video titled "Iraq Airstrike" that appears to be taken by U.S. troops confronting an insurgent position. A bomb explodes on a building and the voices in the background whoop it up.

"Sucks to be your a--," one of the voices says. "See you in hell, dog. See you in hell."

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command said it does not have an official position on soldiers posting video clips to the Web as long as the images don't violate operational security. That means that a soldier can post a video as long as the content doesn't give away vital secrets, such as a unit's geographical position or troop strength.

"The military mission is supposed to be about rebuilding and peace," Snow said. "Some of those videos send messages that conflict with that."

But anyone blaming Web sites for hosting the material or who accuses them of aiding the enemy is misguided, said Hayden Hewitt, co-owner of Ogrish.com, a Web site that specializes in offering some of the bloodiest images on the Internet.

On Ogrish, scenes of Americans as well as insurgents being killed are available.

"We don't choose to take sides in any conflict," Hewitt said. "We show an un-sugarcoated view of war and one we think people should see. How can people make informed decisions about what's happening without seeing what's really going on?"

Hewitt said he expects video sites to emerge as unbiased information centers. People interested in learning about a conflict can log on to these sites to determine for themselves which side is telling the truth.

No longer, Hewitt said, will people rely only on their government or the media to tell them.

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