Images of Gadhafi, and Gatekeeping in the Digital Age
It wasn't long ago that information was filtered for dissemination, deemed newsworthy or acceptable before available for consumer consumption. In the age of the Internet, the news consumer is only a click away from the hanging of Saddam Hussein or the slaying of journalist Daniel Pearl.
Christopher Wilson of Lakeland, Fla., started a website in 2004 with the intent of cataloguing amateur photography, pictures sent in by user's wives and girlfriends. The website grew especially popular with American troops serving overseas. A problem arose when a number of these troops, wanting to view the website, but not having access to credit cards, could not provide payment. Wilson proposed that the troops send pictures from the war in exchange for access.
At a time when the news media was not allowed to photograph the coffins of America's war dead, Wilson provided a unique view of war in all its gory realities.
"When soldiers started posting images like they did on my site, images they wanted us to see about what was going on over there, I didn't stop it," Wilson said. "There were no political undertones to it. It was simply a place where they could show us what they wanted us to see, without having to go through the governmental censors. The result was a real eye opening experience for a lot of people."
Wilson was eventually arrested by local police and charged with 301 counts of obscenity.
Wilson was forced to shut down his website due to the pornographic content, but started up a new one the same day focused on the gory pictures and video.
Larry Walters, the lawyer that represented Wilson, reiterated to me that "all speech is presumed to be protected by the First Amendment, and thus available for circulation on the Internet unless the material falls into a few, well-recognized exceptions, such as; obscenity, child pornography, defamation, fighting words, and speech which impacts national security interests."
Images akin to the ones Wilson posted on his website are now only a Google search away.
In this new age it is the consumer who is now the gatekeeper, left to filter and make conscientious choices on what information to read, what pictures and videos to see and what of all of it they want to believe.
It is also an age where anyone can be a content producer. The first video of Muammar Gadhafi's corpse was unverified, shot from a camera phone and quickly circulated on the Internet.
In the belief of Wilson, it is this technology that is strengthening the citizen's role as not only a gatekeeper but as a watchdog.
"The reality should never be hidden, whether it be images of war, or an email sent to a head of a Governmental agency, we need to, as citizens, be able to make sure the people we trust in government are actually working in our best interest as well as a host of other reasons in various scenarios," Wilson said.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff said these were the very same issues people confronted him with when CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle.
"Back then, people got television news in the evening," Rushkoff wrote to me in an email. "There wasn't news all day long. So there was more editorial control and restraint. People in government could even request that certain news stories be held, since there were only a few networks and newspapers to call."
The "CNN Effect," as it is commonly called, postulates that the extensive news coverage of events might affect the events themselves.
"Cable television put live cameras all around the world, and CNN was regularly criticized for broadcasting dictators or war zones, and ceding editorial authority over news it was thought this would disadvantage America, since any dictator with a few million people waving swords could get on TV," Rushkoff wrote.
Rushkoff, like Wilson, believes that the proliferation of technology has merit because it increases accountability.
"To the extent it creates a globe filled with witnesses, I think it's a good thing," Rushkoff wrote. "People getting murdered on the streets of Syria are not alone. We are witness to the atrocities."