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Understanding the Information Reformation that's Changing your World
By Hugh Hewitt
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2005 Hugh Hewitt
All rights reserved.
BLOG SWARMS AND OPINION STORMS
"Burying the lead" is a great sin of journalism. It means putting the most important fact in a story deep into the body of the story, where the average reader or viewer might miss it. The "lead" fact should "lead" the story. Don't bury the lead. Lead with the lead.
Many books bury the lead. In their earnest plodding along through the facts to support their conclusions, authors build and build toward a conclusion that most of their audience never reads. The attention span of most Americans—never long to begin with—is getting shorter and shorter. Authors cannot afford to hide their most important points in the back of the book.
So, to the conclusion, arguments to follow: When many blogs pick up a theme or begin to pursue a story, a blog swarm forms. A blog swarm is an early indicator of an opinion storm brewing, which, when it breaks, will fundamentally alter the general public's understanding of a person, place, product, or phenomenon.
Blog swarms formed around Trent Lott and Howell Raines in 2002 and 2003 respectively, around details of John Kerry's Vietnam service in August of 2004, and around Dan Rather's forged documents in September of 2004. Opinion storms followed.
There was no shared plan of attack among the blogs. There was no coordination between them and their allies in talk radio and a few corners of MSM such as FOX News. There was, however, a network and there was an understanding of what mattered-facts—and a desire for speed and, crucially, a target. The destructive energy of the blogosphere is fierce indeed when focused.
This development could also have been predicted by anyone who followed the work of John Arquilla, a leading theorist of war and conflict. Arquilla has written extensively on "netcentric" warfare, and his books are available on Amazon and should be read by anyone in any competitive situation. The best summary article on netcentric warfare was written by Arquilla and coauthor David Ronfeldt for Aviation Week & Space Technology on September 29, 2003, and is reproduced with permission here:
Technological advances often give rise to new types of weapons, but the achievement of lasting breakthroughs in fighting power requires organizational and doctrinal innovation as well. Invention of the internal combustion engine more than a century ago, for example, led to the tank and airplane. Yet these weapons systems did not realize their potential until the 1930s, when the Germans concentrated their armor into panzer divisions and articulated a blitzkrieg doctrine that tightly coupled maneuver forces on the ground with attack aircraft above. Today, the U.S. military is fielding awesome new technologies, but it is still far from figuring out the right organizational structures and doctrines for best applying them.
Advanced information technologies have revolutionized U.S. forces' abilities to communicate swiftly, monitor enemy movements in real time, operate vehicles remotely—on land, at sea, or in the air—and guide weapons in a way that effectively decouples range from accuracy. Yet, only modest attempts at organizational and doctrinal innovation have been tried.
The U.S. Air Force is experimenting organizationally by creating "composite" wings and tailored "air expeditionary forces" that mix different types of air platforms in the same tactical combat units. A concomitant new doctrinal emphasis on supporting advanced ground operations is bringing modern air power tantalizingly close, after so many decades, to realizing its fullest war-winning potential. The Marines have also engaged in field exercises in which the units of maneuver have been radically altered by creating autonomous units as small as eight-man squads. The Marines (not to mention special operations forces) understand that connectivity coupled with air mastery greatly empowers even the smallest combat formations.
For the most part, though, the bulk of the U.S. military is still wedded to heavy ground divisions and aircraft carrier battle groups. Almost all the technological changes of the past two decades have been folded into the Pentagon's existing understanding of war, summed up in the doctrine of "AirLand Battle." This concept of operations—originally intended for use against Russian forces if the Cold War ever got hot—is but a small upgrade to the aforementioned World War II-era blitzkrieg doctrine. Indeed, Norman Schwarzkopf's "left hook" in the Iraqi desert in 1991 was a virtual clone of Erwin Rommel's panzer sweeps across the North African desert in 1941.
Meanwhile, the world keeps moving into the age of networks. Networking means much the same for the military as it does in business and social-activist settings, not to mention among information-age terrorists and criminals: monitoring the environment more broadly with highly sophisticated sensors; expanding lateral information flows; forming and deploying small, agile, specialized teams; and devolving much (but not all) command authority downward. But it also has a doctrinal implication that these other types of actors are learning faster than the U.S. military: It's a good idea to become adept at "swarming."
Swarming is a seemingly amorphous but carefully structured, coordinated way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable "pulsing" of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. It will work best—perhaps it will only work—if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. The aim is to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, attack it, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse. Unlike previous military practice, battle management is now mainly about "command and decontrol," as networked units all over the field of battle (or business, or activism, or terror and crime) coordinate and strike the adversary in fluid, flexible, nonlinear ways.
Early examples of swarming appeared with the great mounted armies of the 7th century Muslims and the 13th century Mongols, both of which mastered the technique of omni-directional attack. In modern times, British fighter planes swarmed from dispersed airfields all over southeastern England to harry massed Luftwaffe formations during the Battle of Britain, while at sea German U-boats were widely distributed when scouting, then converged to attack allied convoys. What's different today is that advanced sensing, communication and weapons guidance technologies make swarming possible in any terrain, against any opponent, 24/7.
While the American military remains officially wedded to AirLand Battle, its latest field campaigns exhibit the beginnings of a potential "BattleSwarm" doctrine. In Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, slightly more than 300 special forces soldiers, who were networked with each other and with various air-based attack assets, quickly toppled the Taliban. These same elites did it again in much of Iraq, striking all over the country from the outset, saving the oilfields in the south, knocking out the Scud Box in the west, coordinating with the Kurds in the north, and securing the approaches to Baghdad.
Will the U.S. military build on these first steps toward developing a truly networked "swarm force"? To best counter the adversaries bedeviling us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those we may confront in other terror-war theaters, it is advisable to innovate along these lines. Right now, many military leaders are attracted to the concept of "network-centric operations," a vision of wiring together all our sensors and shooters. In some circles, however, swarming is being viewed narrowly, as a specialty notion, associated mainly with the use of autonomous (i.e., artificial intelligence-driven) systems. But as a deeper vision emerges and fixations on technology ease, serious questions will be raised about how best to give network-centric concepts operational life through organizational and doctrinal innovation. When these systemic questions get some traction, it will become evident that swarming is a big part of the answer.
All of this short article is directly applicable to any sort of conflict or competition, whether for a consumer's allegiance, a political candidate, or a religious belief. Part of succeeding either in the ascendancy of a brand, a candidate, or a cult is the destruction of the opposition. Blogging has been demonstrating for two years its destructive energy, and it is beginning to show its building potential as well, as demonstrated by the Northern Alliance of Blogs in Minnesota, which has coalesced, matured, founded a radio show, attracted sponsors, hosted events, and boosted candidates and events. Then two of them, Captain's Quarters (CaptainsQuartersBlog.com) and PowerLine, were credentialed to the Republican National Convention. Then those two plus Lileks (Lileks.com) helped bring national attention to the Christmas-not-in-Cambodia Kerry debacle. Then PowerLine, with a prompt from Free Republic and assists from Little Green Footballs (www.LittleGreenFootballs.com) and others in the blogosphere brought down Dan Rather.
It is thus the destructive power of the blogs that has got to be first on the mind of a reader. A senior journalist for the Los Angeles Times told me in the middle of "Rathergate" that he writes with the fear that he will be "blogged," meaning exposed as careless or agenda-driven, thus mocked and shamed and perhaps fired.
That fear—a good thing for journalists to carry with them—should also be on the minds of every public figure and corporate leader. If you aren't persuaded, spend some time studying the four episodes that brought the blogosphere to the attention of the nation. Details of each of the narratives differ according to whom you ask, because that's the nature of the blogosphere. With thousands of blogs pursuing a story, credit for a particular advance in the story may not get shared properly. Simultaneous breakthroughs are not only possible, they appear to be routine. Which is one way of saying to the bloggers reading this that if your name has been omitted, it wasn't intentional. A comprehensive treatise of the four founding myths of the blogosphere will have to await some grad student somewhere
Two of these episodes—the exposing of John Kerry's claim to have spent Christmas Eve in Cambodian waters in 1968 and the chronology of Rathergate—were first extensively chronicled by Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard, who serves as the editor of the Daily Standard, and thus as my editor. We disagree as to some details and emphases, but Last certainly gets credit for being among the first to attempt to chart a news story's travels through the far reaches of the blogosphere. "What Blogs Have Wrought," from the September 27, 2004, issue of the Weekly Standard, and "The Not-So-Swift Mainstream Media" from the September 6, 2004, issue are the first two examples of blog archaeology, where a MSM writer goes back through the blogs to chart a story's evolution in details. Last, himself a blogger at Galley Slaves (galleyslaves.blogspot.com), has thus helped pioneer an MSM specialty—blog watching.
There will be many more such stories in the future, because there's no turning back on the open-source journalism power in the new media. For those who need reminding, here are my admittedly incomplete summaries.
THE TOPPLING OF TRENT
James Strom Thurmond was born on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina. One hundred years later, he marked his retirement from serving that state with a birthday party at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Strom Thurmond had served forty-eight years in the Senate, longer than any other senator, and was its first centenarian. Longevity had been something of a theme throughout his life, including a twenty-four-hour filibuster in 1957, also the longest ever.
In addition to the many South Carolina supporters, Washington dignitaries, Senate colleagues, and Bush cabinet members in attendance at Strom's one-hundredth-birthday party were the usual journalists who covered congressional matters (Congress itself was out of session) as well as a few reporters from the cable networks and major newspapers, which had human-interest stories on the party planned for their morning editions. In addition, C-SPAN broadcast the proceedings on TV. "News" was not expected from the event, and none was reported. Initially, that is.
Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the once and future majority leader, was among the speakers. Lott grew rather serious at one point in his remarks and pronounced: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Oops. Certainly, this was a fine compliment to give a man who devoted his life to politics. It even might have been received with acclamation in other circumstances. But the problem was that Strom Thurmond had run for president in 1948 on the States Rights' Democrat, or "Dixiecrat," ticket, which was based on the following promise: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."According to one observer, Lott's apparent reminiscence for the days of segregation was followed by "an audible gasp and general silence." Lott resumed the festive mood after that inconvenient slip, and it seemed that nearly everybody present had soon forgotten. Everybody, that is, except for ABC News reporter Ed O'Keefe.
"When I heard [the comment]," recalled O'Keefe, "I thought, that didn't sound right; that couldn't have been in his prepared remarks." O'Keefe tested the waters by contacting the ABC congressional correspondent Linda Douglass, who called different organizations, such as the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which might have wanted to issue a response to Lott's statement. In addition, O'Keefe spoke with fellow reporters in attendance, but none thought all that much about Lott's comments. Douglass also turned up very little by way of a condemnation. All in all, the consensus seemed to be that this was not a story, and its absence from the news items covering the party reflected this sentiment.
O'Keefe's efforts were not completely in vain. ABC News did mention Lott's comments twice the following morning. At 4:30 AM, World News This Morning aired the comments and referred to a negative reaction by Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, but then moved on. Later that morning, ABCNews.com posted the comments halfway down its hugely influential and lengthy daily news briefing, "The Note." Then the "story," if it could be called that, appeared to die a D.C. death.
Except that the then largely anonymous blogger, Atrios, had mentioned Lott's comments on his blog Eschaton (atrios. blogspot.com) at 1:21 PM on the sixth, simply stating, "Since political correctness is the scourge of society, I won't mention that the problems Lott is referring to are the Civil and Voting Rights Acts." Two hours later, Joshua Micah Marshall, a D.C.-based writer for the Washington Monthly and The Hill, was the second to post about the comments on his blog, Talking Points Memo (www.talkingpointsmemo.com): "There's a sort of agreement in Washington these days—with Thurmond's retirement and hundredth birthday—to sort of forget about all that unpleasantness ... Oh, what could have been!!! Just another example of the hubris now reigning among Capitol Hill Republicans."
Excerpted from Blog by Hugh Hewitt. Copyright © 2005 Hugh Hewitt. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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