Institutionally Empowered Tinfoil Hats
On January 29, 2013, a user named Timic posted a new thread on the Guns and Ammo Forum titled: "Tinfoil hats on - Preparing for civil war?" Timic's post contained a link to a video. He noted:
This is very interesting video... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ri9ioCbqJCU&sns=fb Military practicing strafing civillians? Preparing for civil war? you be the judge. Normally I am not a right-wing conspiracy theory wingnut but lots of things starting to make the hair on the back of my neck tingle! (1) (Timic 2013) The Guns and Ammo Forum is an online location associated with a mainstream commercial gun magazine Guns and Ammo. On this forum, individual users share ideas and techniques about recreational gun use. Contributing to these sorts of discussions, Timic's post might seem like a straightforward sort of everyday communication. In it, he is playfully expressing his sense of unease at the news that the US military is conducting military operations in the midst of a major North American city by imagining himself (and inviting his fellow forum users) to metaphorically don the iconic "tin foil hat." The tin foil hat is associated with the paranoid conspiracy theorist who hopes the headgear will block the high-tech mind readers she or he imagines are secretly used by the military industrial complex. Timic's post is, in some ways, not that much different than sitting at the bar with a friend and nervously recounting a news item read about earlier that day. Both the everyday chat at the bar and the online forum post are probably mostly just a way for participants in the communication event to gain some sense of assurance that it would be a bit silly to be worried about US military exercises in densely populated US cities... Right?
Whether we should be worried or not, there are some major differences in the two communication contexts. The potential audience for the online post is far greater than for the face-to-face conversation because the post persists over time where the momentary performance in the bar does not. As a result, potentially many more people might witness the post. This increased power to reach people is, of course, a result of the use of digital network technologies. These technologies also enable the poster to closely link his words to a professionally produced video that gives further gravity to his expression by encouraging individuals to open themselves more fully to his experience of anxiety by following the link and seeing the same video. With a simple copy, paste, and post, this individual's everyday communication is empowered by technologies that allow more people over more time to experience a communication that is amplified by video.
That video, though, is not actually on the Guns and Ammo Forum. Instead, the link leads to another institutional website, Google Corporation's YouTube. Following the link to YouTube, the user can view the 3 minute and 16 second clip of a local Miami television news segment titled "This Just In: Blackhawk Downtown." In it, a seated newscaster in a suit and glasses exclaims: "Blackhawk choppers soaring through the night sky! But this is only a drill!" The scene cuts to apparently live video from downtown (THISISZION42303 2013).
There, another reporter dramatically enacts the motions of an aircraft with his hands and exclaims: "If you've seen one of these drills, it really is like a scene out of one of those action movies; choppers stalking the sky in downtown Miami and the like." The camera turns to capture several police cars speeding by with sirens blaring and lights flashing. The newscaster explains that the helicopters are part of a joint training exercise between local law enforcement and the US military. He tells us that these exercises are intended to: "meet some of the requirements they have to do, also to prepare, for the military side, for some overseas drills, also so that they can make sure all of their equipment is in check" (THISISZION42303 2013).
Then, noting that some people around downtown had been able to capture video of the goings-on with their mobile devices, the scene cuts to grainy footage of helicopters flying by Miami skyscrapers. The newscaster instructs the audience to listen to the audio. Suddenly, we hear the bleeped profane exclamation of the video taker as resounding sharp pops of what sounds like machinegun fire suddenly echo off the buildings. The newscaster comments: "[The police] want us to tell you it is just a military training exercise. But hey, if you happen to see some of this stuff going down, take some video, take some pictures and send it our way!" (THISISZION42303 2013).
To imagine that Timic's post is just an online version of sitting at the bar would not fully account for the several layers of action that work together in this post. To fail to account for this action would be to miss that this increased reach and power is made possible by the Guns and Ammo website. It would also miss the entanglement of interests emergent in this post. Because Guns and Ammo is a commercial media enterprise that has designed its technology so that it can sell advertising, Timic and his fellow posters are creating the content that Guns and Ammo uses for those sales. In return, the posters and users get access to the more advanced communication technologies.
Guns and Ammo has created this network location for the purpose of drawing individuals who are interested in guns together into a community and showing them advertisements for guns and gun accessories. While sales are a necessary part of the system in any commercial forum like this, the example of Timic's post demonstrates how not just these two interests (his own and Guns and Ammo's) but potentially many more different interests shape a single post. This post is not just the product of the choices made by the poster and the Guns and Ammo Forum. The YouTube poster who chose to put the video up on YouTube enabling Timic to then link to it post has also shaped Timic's communication.
This YouTube poster is named THISISZION42303, and she or he hosts a YouTube page or "channel." THISISZION42303 has posted almost no content in their "about" pages so there is very little known about them as an individual. However, they have posted 4,430 videos since 2009 and generated over 10.5 million hits (THISISZION42303 2009). The posted videos are mostly if not all recycled content from news media and other sources. Though the religious connotations of choosing the name "This is Zion" and a pattern to post news events both suggest this individual might have ideological reasons for posting videos, another likely motive is to make money.
Because the payment structure that YouTube uses has changed over time, we can only speculate, but, based on the number of views. it is possible that this user has earned as much as $80,000 by recycling this content on YouTube (Priestley 2015). They would have made this money by posting videos, drawing users to view their videos, and those users potentially clicking on the different advertising links that Google Corporation offers through YouTube. This means that the Google Corporation has also shaped Timic's post because it has designed the YouTube platform in such a way that it can monetize the posts that THISISZION42303 makes.
In order, though, for THISISZION42303 to have had any video for Timic to link to, the Miami news team had to first produce the original news spot for TV. It is safe to assume that the original live news video was produced in the hopes of selling advertising to the wholly different audience that was watching live news. In addition to the blanket motive to sell advertising, the newscasters in the video stated their intention to let the public know "this is only a drill" and we need not be concerned about military helicopters apparently firing blank ammunition over downtown Miami. The Miami TV producers also shaped Timic's post. So we have now noted that the TV news producers, the Google Corporation through YouTube, THISISZION42303, and Guns and Ammo Forum are all shaping Timic's post. We have not yet, however, accounted for all the actors here. There are also the everyday people who recorded the video of the helicopters with their mobile phones.
Their amateur video was embedded in the news broadcast that the Google Corporation hosted through YouTube that THISISZION42303 posted and the Guns and Ammo Forum linked to through Timic's post. However, the reasons that the person shot that video with their phone and then chose to send it to the news team are separate from any of the other actors in the network that manifests as Timic's post. Maybe they wanted to help out by sharing information or maybe they just wanted to get themselves on local TV. Either way they had no way of knowing that when the news team redeployed that amateur video to make their own commercial content for the local news, it would enable a chain of actors to extend the communication: the Google Corporation through YouTube, THISISZION42303, then Guns and Ammo Forum, through Timic's choice to post the link would all eventually be caught up in different redeployments of that footage; each with its own interests.
Tracing these associations across the network raises a deceptively simple question. Who created the content of Timic's post? In a sense, of course, Timic made Timic's post just as he would have performed his face-to-face communication at the bar. There at the bar, we could have also traced back the associations that emerged in the face-to-face communication event by asking things like: How did the bar shape the behavior of the people gathering there? And how did the language the two people shared give them the means communicate? In this way, we can consider the similarities and differences between the offline and online performance contexts.
At the bar or online, its not new to note that its difficult to imagine any...