09 January 2007
Why America is losing the agitprop war in Iraq
The Americans are losing the agitprop war because they are too hidebound, according to this Newsweek article. They tend to rely on press releases:
These can take hours to prepare and are often outdated by the time they're issued. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the military's press operations in Baghdad until this past September, complains that all military-related information has to be processed upward through a laborious and bureaucratic chain of command. "The military wants to control the environment around it, but as we try to [do so], it only slows us down further," he says. "All too often, the easiest decision we made was just not to talk about [the story] at all, and then you absolutely lose your ability to frame what's going on."The Iraqis, by way of contrast, are issuing Video Compact Disks (VCDs) and sending out mobile telephone video clips, both of which are catching the occupiers on the hop. The article argues that "What the insurgents understand better than the Americans is how Iraqis consume information. Tapes of beheadings are stored on cell phones along with baby pictures and wedding videos.".
This argument is unconvincing. What the Iraqis probably understand is the power of the VCD and the thirty second 'phone clip, which is not quite the same thing.
The VCD has been around for a long time, but never took off in the west. However, that is not the case in the Third World. Basically, a VCD uses CD-Rom technology to produce a disk that has the same quality as a VHS tape. It certainly isn't DVD quality, but that is not the point. The point is that it doesn't need a DVD burner on the computer to copy it: a CD-Rom burner will do. Copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster are made and sold via the army of street traders that operate in any city. Other traders buy one copy of the latest epic and then run off copies using their own home computer. These are sold and some of the buyers are traders themselves who make additional copies to sell. The whole process is informal and very, very efficient.
Mobile telephone clips are very popular in the west, but probably not with the type of person who writes for Newsweek. This writer can remember a cartoon frog that spoke with a Manchester accent and told its viewers how much it hated "fucking students," or this rather delightful shot of a girl climbing some stairs.
Such clips are downloaded and then passed around freely; it is a small step from there to pass around clips of American tanks being blown up, especially if you happen to be living under their guns.
So what is happening is not a different consumption pattern, rather it is an informal network of people who are willing to distribute disks and pass around 'phone clips, and that we also have in the UK.
The British left needs to play catch-up with this technology. Instead of selling dreary newpapers on street corners, the activists would be much better employed working at a computer producing snappy, witty, 30 second clips that make people laugh.