Videos on Web Widen the Lens On the Conflict

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Here's how the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is playing out on the Internet's latest window into the human experience, Videos of young girls driving around smoking and joking about Hezbollah, next to shaky footage of grieving men toting dead bodies through rubble as sirens wail. Old propaganda films alongside homemade documentaries about the conflict.

Internet video sites such as YouTube became a hit this year, as people shared their funny homemade movies with the world. Now the site serves as an unfiltered look at a wide spectrum of experience as rockets and bombs are falling on Israel and Lebanon.

In a matter of weeks, YouTube has become a video Dumpster for a global audience to share first-hand reports, military strategies, propaganda videos and personal commentary about a violent conflict as it unfolds. Anyone can post movies for free, and the site boasts that 100 million videos are watched daily. It is a disorganized bazaar of images that requires visitors to search for a specific topic; searches for both "Hezbollah" and "Israel" yield hundreds of videos, some of them violently graphic, others not so serious.

In a message to Hezbollah, a man asks: "I was wondering if you guys have any nuclear bombs, and if so, what are you planning do with it? How's the war going over there? Do you guys ever go to Peace." Another video warns to "proceed with caution" before viewing because it shows a bloodied man who appears to be dead. Some groups have posted gritty black-and-white footage of bombs hitting targets in Lebanon.

Dozens of TV news reports from the Middle East are offered alongside those from the BBC and CNN. Some of the commentary is serious but slightly detached from day-to-day events.

One man who goes by "Geeb" posted a video about the conflict showing the sunset over the water near his house in Hawaii, saying, "It's about time that we live life to the fullest as hard as we can because there aren't going to be a lot of these sunsets left at the rate things are going." According to YouTube's running tally of visitors, the video has been viewed 1,957 times.

Others are much more immediately connected to the conflict. Andy Ratto, a 22-year-old American on his birthright trip to Israel, had a video camera last week when he heard rockets outside his hotel in Tiberias, in the north. When his group was told to gather in a hotel bomb shelter, Ratto filmed the confusion as people gathered in the lobby and as the group sang a peace song while crammed into a windowless room to take cover.

One of the most popular videos on YouTube this week is one of Beirut posted by a 27-year-old man named Mohammed, who captured bombs lighting up the night a short distance away. He wrote on the Web site: "Listen to the horrifying blasts of israeli bombs exploding in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. This video brings back haunting memories from the 82 israeli invasion of Beirut -- I was then only 4 years old -- But the lasting impact of these blasts has never left me.. For those lucky enough to have not experienced a war during their lifetime, it may appear to you that you understand all about it by watching CNN, BBC, or reading the papers.. This video is an attempt to give you a more realistic sense of how terrifying a war can be on innocent civilians.. and kids, just like me, 24 years ago."

Mohammed, who did not give his last name, said in an e-mail that he is safe in London.

YouTube said it does not monitor the content of video submitted by users, though it prohibits videos that are violent. The site relies on users to alert the company to offensive videos, and YouTube reviews requests for removal. The site's home page yesterday ignored the conflict and instead featured videos of Japanese Elvis dancers and a laser light show.

The company did not seem to mind the more serious content coming to the site. "YouTube is providing a valuable service for people around the world to share what is really happening in their regions, including the Middle East," said marketing director Julie Supan. "Video allows people to have an immediate and intimate understanding of events that are taking place and the impact of these actions."

Although the amateur videos provide an appealingly intimate account of what's happening on the ground, it can be difficult to determine authenticity. The videos are often posted under pseudonyms or screen names that do not contain e-mail addresses.

Supporters of citizen journalism, the idea that ordinary people are best positioned to provide information and reports about current events, say that verifying information is often difficult but that eventually there will be a way to make doing so easier.

"The next generation in this will be people who recognize we need a YouTube that has some kind of identity verification behind it, to assign credibility to particular sources," said Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review at University of Southern California.

The issue is taking on more weight every day, as YouTube gains viewers to the Internet's most popular amateur video site. YouTube's audience "in real numbers, I think any broadcast executive would consider it a huge audience -- it's just dispersed around the globe. It would probably challenge hourly ratings at NBC or CNN," Niles said.

"People turn around and cover what's going on in their lives, especially if they feel their side of the story isn't being told -- that's an especially prevalent attitude in the Muslim world."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company