Sep 21

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

War Imagery, Media, and the Internet

Today, I participated in a workshop at UC Berkeley of around 15-20 people that sought to develop a model policy for moving image archives that are preserving and publicly hosting incidental war footage from Iraq and other sites of armed conflicts. Many archives and web sites are being asked to evaluate the removal of violent images and videos that might be considered shocking, and new iterations of old questions about rights, censorship and access are being forged. The conference was motivated by concerns attendant at the Internet Archive, earnestly grappling with these issues.

The meeting included representatives from the UC Berkeley I-School, the UC Berkeley Library, the EFF, Question Copyright, Techsploitation, the Internet Archive, Witness, some expert social commentators, and others (including some large video sharing sites).

Below are my notes from this meeting, which hopefully will record some of the seriousness and intensity of our debates, from which we derived a draft proposal.

As an example, of around 250 videos being posted daily at the Internet Archive, approximately 30-50 could potentially be called into a process of review. These include images of hate speech or obvious propaganda, guns, victims, or long distance violence (snipers, car bombs, etc.) Some of the videos are excruciatingly violent (Trust me: extremely graphic and intimate portrayals of war and harm). In some of these videos people are identifiable through the explicit use of names, passport photos, or through questioning that reveals personally-identifiable information.

International guidelines focus different lines of response: in Europe, more stringent privacy guidelines dictate acceptable courses of action.

Some of the difficult questions that might "gate" decisions about video access:

Can someone get killed using information in this video?
[This question is in a class of its own, strongly motivating removal from the index.]

Am I helping terrorists recruit?
Am I helping terrorists communicate?
Am I helping the public understand?
Am I helping the authorities monitor?

What is the archive's social responsibility?
What is the curator's personal responsibility?

Historically, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Civil war photographs were not contemporaneously copied or distributed. The substantial mass copying and distribution of media did not occur until early in the 20th Century.

There are war watchers: people who will take videos or photographs of the war, and sell them for monetary gain to the press or other outlets; sometimes these are of dubious authenticity.

The toll of physical violence on victims is tremendous: profound stress and pain, humiliation, dehumanization, degradation, objectification.

One participant with a recent and prolonged experience of war shared observations derived from a review of videos of the Iraq war on public video sharing sites:

  • War crimes are committed not only against individuals but against nations.
  • Citizens should be aware of what was done in their name.
  • The act of recording, archiving, and sharing is not neutral to the act of victimization; it can perpetuate victimization, but it can also heal.
  • There are cases where there might be valid grounds for retraction or removal.
  • The focus of such selective censorship should be on the rights of the victims.

Who might be permitted to request removal? In order of effect and impact:

  1. Victims or their families.
  2. Viewers who find content objectionable.
  3. Different entities that have other goals for removal (e.g., they perceive the video is not in the public or national security interest).

(Ryan Shaw later commented, ".. relevant to the issue of weighing victim's rights to closure vs. the greater social good possibly served by disseminating images of suffering, is the story of the photograph Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath by W. Eugene Smith." )

Interestingly, the Internet Archive has not received take down requests from either war victims or by any U.S. government agency.

The provenance of much user-generated video is often uncertain. There is a certain informal market: a video might be recorded directly or from a broadcast, and then traded or distributed, sometimes mashed with organizational logos or labels, and uploaded.

Writing history: archives are often purposely destroyed or censored. In years foward there are often attempts at recovery: e.g., there was a recent NY Times story on the reconstruction of the shredded Stasi archives. One of the foundational responsibilities of archives should be preserving history. (Arguably there is a distinction between archiving and displaying. However, in the network space, disappearance from one site will likely foster appearance in another. A separate option might be timed-release, or a moving wall, but this strategy generates questions of censorship and selection bias.)

The Iraq war is the most photographed and videotaped on record: many soldiers have at least one personal recording device. There should be a concerted archival effort to record Iraq war media for posterity. The Internet Archive has a small but growing collection of videos on the Iraq war, but there are multitudes more scattered across the Internet. A university archive or library -- perhaps even the Library of Congress -- should specifically target for archival as many solider-authored photographs and videos as possible. It is their record of the war, in their voices.

Teaching the Vietnam War [book] discusses how the education of the war has been crafted for American youth. Many of the documents of record used in instruction are official U.S. Gov't press releases from the period of conflict. Given the doubtful veracity or impartiality of this product, one has to question the presentation of the conflict to U.S. students.

There have been restrictions on the U.S. press' display or accurate representation of soldiers to protect their privacy in certain situations (requesting their explicit approval for recording and distribution) that partially reduces the ability of the press to cover the conflict with thoroughness. While perhaps honorable in intent, these regulations have secondary consequences.

An archive should not aid and abet the production of a particular version of history.

The example of the voluntary withdrawal of Nazi science, however, demonstrates that the purposeful removal of content from public circulation can restrict certain types of highly undesirable activities; however it is very important that this extreme action should be triggered only after a very strenuous review.

There are an increasing number of groups who tag and contextualize videos for the targeted consumption of their specific, private communities. As a result, these videos are not fully visible to the wider public, but knowledgeable members of the group can search on key strings or metadata to locate, share, and discuss them.

There is great difficulty in parsing and interpreting videos in uncommon languages, or authored in language communities that are not widespread among archive, library, or the staff of video sharing services. E.g., does a seemingly militant video present a call for holy war, or a passionate exhortation for peace?

Are video sharing sites simply infrastructure platforms for content distribution? (There are legal and policy reasons for such a stance, with varying distinctions on whether the provider is a commercial organization versus a not-for-profit archive or library).

Is it conceivable to create a standardized summary "revocation record" for videos removed from sites? Most video sites retain a stub record of a video once it has been removed, partially to satisfy past consumers of the clip; partially to help frustrate re-submission; partially as a statement of record.

Mary Hodder pointed out the great semantic loss of video media distribution - we can isolate only the "middle understanding." We do not have the appreciation and contextualization of the submitter, nor do we understand the perception of the consumer. There are culturally very diverse interpretations of sexuality, violence, and other profound human experiences.

Dialectic between thematic material and the culture: thinking about sexually-explicit material, there has been a "pornification" of our society -- different understandings of sexuality, fashion, and sociality -- but so too has porn changed as well.

Do we become de-sensitized to extreme violence by our exposure to it? Is exposure to images of war educational in context, and socially and individually responsible? Even quite recently, Susan Sontag contributed to the consideration of these profound choices in Regarding the Pain of Others [book]; they perplex our grasp at resolution.

We may be shocked by vivid war videos, but we also have to remember that they are many peoples' daily life.

Perhaps we can support social-feedback mechanisms, through user-chosen communities. For example, "I do not want to see things that my community has flagged as violent or pornographic." In some ways, PICS was a predecessor of such a scheme.

Generally, the meeting attendees settled towards a policy of permitting user feedback to help determine objectionable video. Perhaps at a certain numerical threshold of user-generated warnings, a cautionary click-through splash screen might be provided as an advisory. Motivating against outright removal except in extreme cases (such as a strong potential of mortal or severe mental harm to others), it is a core mission of archives and libraries to try to record and keep as much media in circulation, and for preservation, as possible.

The workgroup recognized that there needs to be a serious consideration and dialogue on the issues raised by the troika of 1) war imagery; 2) a controlled, regulated, or censored media; and 3) the Internet.

The workgroup determined that the policy of an archive or library media site should emphasize:

  • Integrity of the historical record;
  • Access to information about important cultural, newsworthy, literary, artistic, political or scientific material;
  • Improved public dialog; and
  • Transparency and accountability in government operations.

Draft policy language (subject to change):

The Internet Archive regularly receives images of war and violence from patrons looking for public distribution that others may find objectionable. While the Archive reserves the right to take materials down for any reason, the Archive will attempt to maintain some level of public access to these objectionable materials. To help warn patrons of potentially objectionable materials, the Archive solicits and displays warnings from other patrons.

It was a hard but illuminating day.

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Comments: 6

  John Dowdell [09.21.07 10:01 PM]

Must all items in the collection be publicly viewable?

Video capture of someone's personal moments or terrorist/hatecrime speech need not be published, even though it is maintained in the archive.

We can archive without becoming someone else's distributor, right?

  Search‚óä Engines WEB [09.21.07 10:47 PM]

We must preserve as much as mankind's history as possible for future generations and for other life in distant galaxies that we may one day communicate with.

There is nothing stopping the creators of these graphic videos from putting them on a personal website or making CDs and distributing them.

If there is grave concern that certain images may be overall detrimental to a segment of society, we must also extend that concern to the realistic violent games children are playing with and the violent movies that anyone can download or purchase and copy with portable media.

The survival of society depends on learning from past mistakes and dealing realistically with the realities of civilization and human nature.

The price we pay for free speech and the abundance of multimedia on The Internet, requires that parents, the education system and mental heath professionals work that much harder to instill empathy and humanism in the younger generations in the face of competitive anti social temptations and impulses.

We can watch the harsh realities of life but not be swayed to imitate those behaviors gratuitously.

If civilized society is overall incapable incapable of not being influenced and reacting to these depictions of the extremes of life after a certain threshold, then society has take away privileges from the masses for its own survival.

  franck perrier [09.22.07 06:18 AM]

Reading your post highlights the quality of that day. Wish i could have been there. I ran Corbis/Sygma in France for several years and worked with a number of war photographers who covered Irak and Afghanistan. A couple of weeks, i interviewed on my weblog,of my good friend, War photographer Patrick Robert, who was wounded in 2003 in Liberia. All the issues you discussed are really new. Never before in history was information accessible that fast. Who would pay to collect and archive these moving pictures and follow the kind of recommendations you highlight?

  Ross Stapleton-Gray [09.24.07 10:00 PM]

I'm really bothered by the term "terrorist," especially as it's used, broadbrushly, in phrases like, "Will this help terrorists [do X]?" Apart from the issue of who gets to call whom what (is someone attempting to bring down the Mugabe government through force a terrorist, or a freedom fighter?), we're in theory fighting for the moral high ground that believes that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that bad speech ought to be combated with more speech. Let's hear what everyone has to say, whomever they might be; frankly, I'd love to hear what extremist Shia are saying about their Sunni counterparts, and vice versa, to understand the nature of that schism and its effects... most Americans, I suspect, still don't perceive that there are differences, or that "Muslim" isn't a synonym for "Terrorist."

  Peter Brantley [09.25.07 08:02 PM]

Ross -

Basically, we agree. But I want to be very clear here. I think what you address, while absolutely valid, was not quite what we addressed, and I want to eliminate that misunderstanding.

I also must warn readers: the rest of this message is extremely graphic. Please do not read it if you are not ready or willing to be confronted by narrative describing extremely violent acts. Stop now. Read something else. Go away. Really.


One of the videos that I saw was of a beheading; it was an intimate video; the camera was maybe 1-2 meters away, sometimes very much closer. It lasted a really long time.

If this sounds obscenely graphic, I will only tell you that the video was far -- way -- more than a magnitude worse. Somebody died there; somebody died a most horrible death, and it was videotaped purposely, for others to see.

I'm not that much of a relativist any more to say as you did, "I'm really bothered by the term 'terrorist.'" Actually, I'm not bothered by it at all, not any more.

Was this video and what it depicted an act of war? Yes. An act of terror? Fundamentally, yes. Absolutely, by design, it was an act of terror. It was gross, obscene, and despicable. In any way that I possibly can, I condemn it. Whatever the justifiability of the larger conflict, I condemn this act, and the person that committed it, and their accomplices, both the persons and the nations, however I can. We all should; we must.

I say this knowing that sometimes we are wrong in our judging, and yet still, we must judge. That too is a terror, of a different kind.

I just finished reading a new history of Mao's Long March. There was a point in that saga where one of Mao's armies, entering Tibetan territory, ripped away the sustenance of the population for their own needs, threatening the residents with starvation. Understandable, given the circumstances. But the Tibetans made their pain known, also understandably, by killing those they could; stringing their bodies up in trees; gutting them; and flaying them.

Whereas normally that would just pass over me, I have to tell you that after having watched these war videos, this was brought home in a way that was as direct and immediate as an arrow. I understood a little of what that meant, and I hope, I pray, I don't ever understand it any better. The Long March occurred in the middle of multiple wars, both within China, and between China and Japan. It was full of terror, with people committing purposely terrorist acts. Wars are terror. There is terror in war.

We at the conference, in the face of this most base horror - in full cognition of the extraordinary and extreme hurt that humans can inflict on each other - we nonetheless came down on the side of preservation, and access, albeit with warnings whenever appropriate. It is an act of faith in our humanity that light on these acts might inform us, shift our hopes, and alter our destiny. Despite all that we do to ourselves, in our wars and in our cities, over and over and over again.

  Ross Stapleton-Gray [09.25.07 08:45 PM]

But I'm not willing to make "terrorist" the handy hook for selling any propaganda the powers that be want to sell. Is someone who makes "snuff" videos a terrorist? No, they're a sadist, they're cruel, they're obscene, or whatnot; the images are terrifying, and terrible, but we don't say, "that person's a terrorist."

The Bush administration wants "Terrorist" to be something approaching a nationality, or race, or at least a creed. The most unsettling thing I've read all week (your own post here notwithstanding) was the news that snipers in Iraq are "baiting" insurgents by putting out things like explosives and detonators, on the theory that when individuals happen upon them, then pick them up to leave with them, they must be doing so with the intent to attack U.S. forces, therefore need to be "dropped" (aka, "shot in the head"). Are we terrorists for adopting such tactics? Certainly, we may be killing some insurgents... we may also be scouring Iraq of the tidy, or those who're concerned enough about the civil war we've catalyzed to arm themselves against their heretical fellow Muslims.

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