We can all remember a moment when we gazed up at the sky and used our imagination to make familiar shapes out of the clouds. In folk wisdom, seers practice aeromancy, a form of divination that involves observing atmospheric phenomena and nephomancy, the divination by studying clouds).
What we are witnessing in the Iranian situation resembles this practice, only now the clouds are made of information. This infosphere is not the same as the old chestnut, the “fog of war.” It’s more like what I call the fog-machine of war, and its analysts are performing infomancy.
People are seeing their hopes, fears, and their shadows in this data mist. One of these faith-based assertions is that more info equals more democracy. It’s not just that observers consider the anti-regime protests to be democratic, but they believe the use of social media is inherently democratic (i.e. more freedom of expression). But we were given official notice early in Obama’s administration that cyberwar is a renewed threat, so why not take heed and understand Iran as a case of warfare? In that light, more info = more infowar; more information means more disinformation. Propaganda used to come in print form and be dropped from the skies. Now it’s laterally spread through peer-to-peer networks, creating a bottom-up disinfosphere.
What happens then? Info droplets get absorbed by more traditional news outlets. Cable news now functions as a mechanism that selects from a haze of unverifiable information and amplifies its choices. CNN seems to be the best example. At least they’re upfront about it: an anchor previewed an upcoming story by saying they’d be bringing us reports “true or not.” Jack Cafferty noted that the information from Iraq was “Alive but Cloudy”. Even their original segment on Green martyr Neda opened with the disclaimer “the facts surrounding her life and death are difficult to confirm.” This didn’t stop them from replaying the garish spectacle so often that it begs comparison with the paltry coverage of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani victims of US aggression.
Professional journalism has been criticized for years for its disproportionate reliance on official sources. With the Valerie Plame case and other escapades in the secret sphere, journalists’ dependence on anonymous insiders also came under scrutiny. In Iran, the anonymous sources are covered in “people power.” The question remains: are they insiders?
Are people tweeting from the streets or from other lands? Are they eyewitnesses or I-spies? Perhaps these news outlets could take a tip from entertainment tabloid television program EXTRA!, which at least makes an attempt at info-sorting with a regular segment called “Rumor Control.” A member of CNN’s gushing Twitterati, Ali Velshi acknowledged that the biggest problem is getting the true story. In a nod to the power and problems of crowdsourcing he admitted, “We are as good as you are.” Well, if that’s the case then we’re in trouble: CNN ought to keep its weekly program Reliable Sources, but refer to its other 167 week hours as Unreliable Sources. Witting or not, these news networks collectively retool the famous line allegedly telegraphed by William Randolph Hearst, updating it for the digital age: “You furnish the tweets, we’ll furnish the war.”
Meanwhile, key actors in the Iran uprising remain obscured. Take Mostafa Hassani, whom the Nation calls the “the whiz kid who came up with the idea of using green.” The Guardian UK gives him a bigger role than just the resident graphic designer, stating that he is “leading Mousavi’s green campaign.” Some basic searches turn up almost nothing else on this shadowy character. You would think such a figure would get more attention, but that’s the way it goes when infomancy is performed poorly: sometimes you ignore the important patterns in order to project your wishes.
In sum, the very basics of reporting (when, where, who, what?) have become unverifiable. However, the “why” seems relatively clear for pundits, anchors, and other infomancers. Lingering Cold War fantasies dominate their visions, now with a theocratic twist: People Power vs. Iron Fists, Democracy vs. Dictatorship, Freedom vs. Repression. Neglected is the soft control of information warfare. We could call this a Cyborg Fist in the Velvet Glove. Or maybe it’s leather. Dr. Strangelove, anyone?
Jack Bratich is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. He is also a zine librarian at ABC No Rio in New York City. This summer he will be co-teaching a course on Affect and Politics at Bluestockings Bookstore through their Popular Education program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org