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Burgas, Egypt, Gaza, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah, jihad, Mitt Romney, terrorism

In viral video, the medium’s reach is the message

A review of some of the biggest news stories in Israel in the last few days shows just how much of an impact viral YouTube clips and other online videos have on the news.

One such video, which appears to have had some influence on Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel this week, captured a rather embarrassing moment by an Obama administration official — White House spokesman Jay Carney. In the video, Carney is seen struggling when a reporter asks him which city the Obama administration recognizes as Israel’s capital.

Caught off guard, Carney dismisses the question by telling the reporter that “our position has not changed.” When the reporter persists, the spokesman makes a few more bungles, ultimately saying “you already know the answer,” and quickly moving on to another question.

Carney’s gaffe was seen by many, not least of all Romney’s campaign team, as a chance for the Republican presidential hopeful to yet again demonstrate how “opposite of Obama” he is on Israel, in a bid to attract more Jewish voters.

Days earlier, Obama’s attempt to upstage Romney’s visit to Jerusalem by signing an act to strengthen security with Israel in a publicized ceremony at the White House was only clouded by Carney’s blunder — one of the White House’s own couldn’t even say what Israel’s capital was. The fumbling Carney was apparently much more of a hit on YouTube (354,963 views as of press time) than Obama’s signing of the Israel security act (4,964 views as of press time).

The embarrassing incident at the White House, and the video that subsequently spread like wildfire online, must have given Romney’s campaign team a wake-up call. Realizing that political observers would be watching closely to see whether Romney falls into the same trap, Romney’s aides apparently told him to take a clear stance on the issue of Israel’s capital — something he had previously been elusive on. On Monday, Romney told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “A nation has the capacity to choose its own capital city, and Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

Another video that featured prominently on Israeli and international news sites over the weekend depicts Hezbollah operatives preparing to abduct Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in 2006.

The video was released by Hezbollah, and while the clip does not contain any gruesome content, the families of the soldiers (whose bodies were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange deal in July 2008) expressed that it was difficult for them to watch the footage, and Israeli military commentators were quick to point out “how easy” it was for Hezbollah to penetrate the border with Israel.

Zvi Regev, Eldad Regev’s father, asked Israeli media outlets to stop showing the clip, saying, “how much can one guy take? We are the families, we have feelings, please be considerate.” Tomer Weinberg, who was wounded during the same abduction incident told Army Radio that watching the video brought back bad memories for him. “I still can’t digest what I saw there. It was shocking for me to see the ease with which [Hezbollah operatives] crossed the border. I was right under the noses of the abductors — two steps past the Humvee and they would have found me,” Weinberg said.

Hezbollah’s video, and the frequency with which it was replayed on Israeli TV and shared over the Internet, apparently had a bit of success in emotionally terrorizing some Israelis, an outcome that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was surely pleased with. But did the video — released six years after the abduction, and long after Goldwasser and Regev were already tragically returned to Israel in coffins — really show anything groundbreaking?

Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud’s widow, reacted differently to the clip. She said the release of the video was just another attempt by Nasrallah to “manipulate” Israel and that “the video did not show anything new,” thereby diminishing its effect on the Israeli public.

Col. Dror Platin, who served as deputy chief of the Israel Defense Forces Galilee Division during the abduction, echoed Karnit Goldwasser’s sentiments, saying that “the video [allegedly] showing the kidnapping is part of Hezbollah’s psychological warfare. We didn’t need the documentation to learn the lessons we have already learned.”

Then there was that CCTV video of the Bermuda-wearing, long-haired man who was believed to be the perpetrator of the suicide bombing in Burgas two weeks ago, in which five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver had been killed.

Bulgarian and Israeli TV repeatedly played scenes from the video almost every day before reports emerged that the man responsible for the attack may, in all likelihood, have been someone else.

Another terrorist group, Magles Shoura al-Mujahddin, a jihadi group based in Egypt’s Sinai, was also busy releasing videos over the weekend. Like Hezbollah and its attempt to psychologically disturb Israelis with the release of the abduction video, the Sinai-based group posted a video claiming that it was behind the cross-border attack in June that left an Israeli contractor dead.

The nearly 40-minute video shows the group’s members detecting a weak point along the border fence through which they can infiltrate into Israel. They are then shown selecting two Israeli vehicles and a nearby border town on the Israeli side as their targets for the attack.
So what is the meaning of all these videos, and what is their impact, or lack thereof, on the public?

These videos are part of a growing trend that, according to the Pew Research Center, is affecting how the “news agenda” is being shaped more and more by citizens. In a recent analysis of news videos on YouTube, Pew researchers found that more and more citizens were producing and supplying their own footage of news-related events (39% of news videos on YouTube come from average citizens rather than news organizations) and that citizens also share on YouTube more than one-third of the videos originally produced by media outlets. “Audiences on YouTube are reshaping the news agenda, but they are also offering more exposure to the content of traditional news outlets,” the Pew study concluded.

In today’s world of “citizen journalism,” it seems citizens not only have the ability to contribute to the news, they can also make or break a story.

In effect, the trend shows that online video viewers are increasingly determining what stories will be newsworthy and how they will be consumed. The Pew study noted that “YouTube is a place where consumers can determine the news agenda for themselves and watch the videos at their own convenience — a form of ‘on demand’ video news.”

Pew researchers referred to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year as an example of this trend. The disaster stayed among the top-viewed news subjects for three consecutive weeks and, based on YouTube’s weekly listing of the most-watched videos, it also became the biggest news story on the site for 2011, according to the study.

In the case of the Hezbollah video from this week, we saw that it had varying effects on Israelis. While major news outlets in Israel seemed to create a lot of hype around the video, others tried to play it down. It has so far received far fewer views (around 10,000) on YouTube, than, for example, the video released by Magles Shoura al-Mujahddin (about 113,000 views).

The video of Jay Carney’s faux pas from last week, however, seemed to be pretty newsworthy, just based on the amount of times it was viewed on YouTube and posted and re-posted all over the Internet. Its “viral” status — or the people around the world who spread the clip at a dizzying speed and volume — could be said to have played a role in shaping Romney’s visit to Israel: Ultimately, he felt compelled to declare that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital to avoid appearing like Carney.

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