Jihadis in the Intertubes

The futility of propaganda in the age of information


The watchful eye of Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has identified yet another seemingly innocuous threat to the republic: YouTube. Shuster last week introduced "sense of Congress" legislation intended to urge video-hosting Internet sites to be wary of "jihadist propaganda" and take steps to take down and restrict the availability of such material.

A sense of Congress resolution does not carry the force of law, but Shuster, a member of the House Anti-Terrorism Caucus—is there a pro-terrorism caucus?—clearly harbors the view that hampering the availability of anti-Western demagoguery on the Net somehow advances the causes of freedom.

"The war against Islamic radicalism is both a shooting war and a battle of ideology. Our enemies understand that they cannot defeat us face to face on the battleground, so they have created a new battlefield on the Internet," Shuster said in a press release.

"Terrorists hope that by opening this new front, their view of the world will prevail. It is up to the owners and users of video-trading sites to remain vigilant and help to deny our enemies this victory," Shuster added.

If equating the mere existence of grainy, lo-res harangues with "victory" by terrorists wasn't outlandish enough, Shuster invokes Godwin's Law just to be sure.

"I doubt that the American public in World War II would have accepted the major media outlets of the time distributing Nazi propaganda at face value," Shuster added.

Major media outlets. Here's the disconnect that extends far beyond Shuster's anti-terror concerns and infests much current policy-making in Washington. YouTube, despite all the eyeballs it might attract, is not a major media outlet in sense of America's major media outlets of 1942, or even 1992. There is no centrally planned programming at YouTube, Google Video, or LiveLeak.

If eight people are watching jihadist propaganda vids, you can bet at the same moment 16, maybe 17 people are watching a spacey, out-of-focus Hawkwind performance from 1971. Mere availability and bandwidth does not automatically translate to influence.

In fact, the staggering increase in the Net bandwidth of Americans in recent years provides a built-in safeguard that any one narrow world-view might have unimpeded access to a wider public. That increase is easy to overlook, but difficult to overstate.

Back in 1998, a survey by Parks Associates, a research and consulting firm, found that 75 percent of American households were not on the Internet. In 2007, Parks Associates projects a key change: For the first time a majority, 55 percent, of American households will have broadband Net access.

Some 60 million households with a consumer-directed, high-speed information pipe is the exact opposite of the classic Orwellian vision of a mono-medium propaganda organ. Information has always been the mortal enemy of propaganda, which can only take root and gain influence in the absence of objective facts, debate, and dissenting opinions.

Even granting that objective fact might be hard to come by on the Net, which is more a function of going to wrong sources, raucous debate is surely not in short supply. Jihadis depending on the Internet to supply an air tight conduit for their views are bound to be disappointed to find that some 15-year-old's MySpace page is at least as compelling to would-be recruits as their call to war.

Worse, directing vid sites to cut off access to propaganda—of any kind—will merely drive extreme messages underground, making it harder for open-source intelligence analysis to find them, understand them, and disarm them. Besides, Shuster and company should not assume that the mere fact that extreme views are floating around necessarily means they will find an ever-wider audience.

Just because jihadist propaganda is out there does not mean anyone is watching.