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Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf - A Weapon of Mass Instruction?

You can’t hide talent in the 24*7 news society and the man of the month wasn’t George Bush or Tony Blair but Iraq’s information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf.

I find it ironic, that thanks to the presence of a global information network, al Sahaf has had a greater impact than Joseph Goebbels ever could and in the first week of the conflict, he was arguably more of a threat to the progress of the coalition's war effort than a division of the Republican Guard.

In the second week of the war, Sahaf, with his outrageous statements, arguably became the most popular single source of optimistic prediction in history, eclipsing a very dry-humoured Donald Rumsfeld in the process. Unlike Rumsfeld however, al Sahaf had a limited grasp of the true power of the mult-faceted news technology confronting him and I very much doubt that he was aware of the influence that the Internet was exerting over the direction of this first of the ‘Webcam wars’ or even the existence of the ‘Baghdad Blog’, a 21st century version of the Russian ‘Samizdat’, a Web journal, ostensibly from a home in Baghdad, authored by someone using the pseudonym Salem Pax.

I had placed a link into the Baghdad Blog from my website earlier in the year and although the author demonstrated a detailed knowledge of Baghdad, I had my own doubts over its authenticity, if only because of the risk that was being taken in writing it. Just before the invasion, the media ‘discovered’ Salem Pax’ or at least his Web Journal and its content became part of the overall justification process for going to war against the regime. When he went off the air in the middle of the ‘Shock and Awe’ bombing of Baghdad, everyone assumed that Iraq’s very limited Internet connection had followed its telecommunications infrastructure into a very large hole.

Not only can politicians and government learn from the media revolution of the last month but also so can business. The lesson we can draw from the experience of the last month, is that armed with a Webcam or even a Weblog (a Blog), a single person can exert a disproportional, 'asymmetric' influence on a global audience using the truth as a highly flexible commodity.

When Al Sahaf said “"I blame Al-Jazeera, they are marketing for the Americans!”, he revealed a weakness in his own understanding of the reach of media in the 21st century. While Al Sahaf showed a natural dramatic talent for ‘the soundbite, he lacked the manipulative brilliance of a Joseph Goebbels and for that we can be thankful.

Given the explosive growth in WebLogs and the way in which more and more people rely on near real-time news from the Web during the working day, business needs to be more aware that the impact of negative spin or comment on a popular website, can be far more damaging in the longer term than its equivalent on paper. After all, if your name happens to be Claire Swires, a moment’s indiscretion remains on the Web forever and so does the name of your employer.

In 2003, business in general should start re-evaluating the nature and purpose of public relations in an increasingly information rich environment. What do people read? Why do they read it and what characterizes the Internet as a unique communications medium? My own impression is that the wider world of business and even government still fails to grasp the true potential of the Internet as an opinion-forming medium and so perhaps, in a strange expression of irony, history will judge Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, not by the regime he represented but by the technology of ''mass instruction he failed to take advantage of.


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