On July 23, 2006, two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances were attacked by Israeli forces, causing injury to the ambulance crews and the patients aboard – one of the patients, Ahmad Fawaz lost his leg in the attack. The incident generated a fierce burst of media attention because the attack on a marked Red Cross vehicle was a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.
This media attention generated a wave of citizen media “debunking” of the incident, making an argument that the attack on the ambulances had been staged by Hezbollah sympathizers to frame Israel for war crimes. The debunking was led by the author behind Zombietime, whose analysis was picked up by prominent right-wing blog, Powerline, and later by conservative commentator Oliver North. This claim was later repeated by Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer, who stated “it is beyond all serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.”
Zombietime’s argument centered on published media photos of the damaged ambulances – commentators concluded that the vehicles had suffered minor damage, while a missle strike would have destroyed them, and that rust around the missle entry hole proved that the hole had existed well before the alleged attack.
Human Rights Watch has just issued a 25-page refutation of this analysis, based on visits to Lebanon, interviews with all three ambulance patients and four of the six ambulance crew. (The Zombietime analysis was based on analysis of the photographs – the debunker did not travel to Lebanon or interview eyewitnesses.) They conclude that the ambulances were both struck by missles, one of which removed Fawaz’s leg, but that the missles were likely Dense Inert Metal Explosives fired from an Israeli drone. Other attacks from Israeli drones caused substantial damage within vehicles without destroying them entirely – larger missles, fired from Israeli helicopters and airplanes tend to obliterate vehicles entirely, leaving large craters.
Human Rights Watch had a definite interest in clearing up uncertainty about the events of July 23. The illegal attack on the ambulances was one of the violations of international conventions that Human Rights Watch reported in their first report on the Lebanon/Israel war – once the attack had been characterized as a “hoax”, some commentators used this characterization to call into question HRW’s other accusations about Israeli conduct during the war. And HRW’s report does include a major correction – they no longer characterize the attack as coming from a manned Israeli aircraft, but now believe the attacks came from a remote-controlled drone.
I’m fascinated by the incident, the “debunking” and HRW’s response refutation of the debunking (a “rebunking”?) because it raises interesting questions about what citizen media can and can’t do. I’ll happily acknowledge that the debunking of the Bush National Guard memo was a high point for the idea of bloggers as fact checkers of the media, even though the incident was seen as a victory for right-wing bloggers. (I’d prefer to see it as a victory for the idea of blogs as an oversight mechanism for the media.) I think it’s very important that photographs which were digitally retouched to enhance smoke, making the destruction in Lebanon look more apocalyptic were debunked, and I note this even though the incident was very embarrasing to Reuters, which is a substantial sponsor of the main project I work on these days.
But this is a case where the armchair pundits apparently got it very, very wrong… and may not have gotten it wrong in especially good faith. The bombing of marked Red Cross vehicles is very damaging to the narrative embraced by the American right that the Israelis are standing up to “global terror” with the sort of care and restraint one would hope for from a democratic state. (Then again, as an American, I haven’t gotten a lot of care and restraint from my democratic government lately.) There’s a strong motivation for pundits supportive of Israel to analyze the photos closely and offer an explanation that absolves Israel of a major breach of the Geneva convention.
What’s disturbing to me about the situation is the timeframe. Zombietime and affiliated rightwing commentators got their story out very quickly, offering their analysis within days of the incident. HRW’s response is coming almost half a year later. This makes sense – HRW actually went to Lebanon and interviewed people who saw the incident, while Zombietime looked at press photos and offered theories. While HRW’s analysis is critical in determining what really happened on July 23rd and demanding accountability from the Israeli government, this report is hardly likely to call as much attention to the incident as it recieved when it was initially reported. Zombietime et. al. already accomplished their rhetorical goals – they gave an explanation that let some readers dismiss the reporting of the incident and cast doubt into the mind of other readers. It’s unlikely that many of those people will wrestle with the issues again as a result of HRW’s report, as much as I’d hope otherwise.
This raises an interesting question about the future of factual disputes in the age of citizen media: should we expect partisan refutation of all inconvenient facts? If this is the case, is it a victory for dispersed global fact-checking, or for rhetoric? Pro-Israel organizations like Honest Reporting are closely monitoring media for stories they consider critical. If they subject these stories to careful, factual analysis and reveal sloppy reporting, like that conducted by Dan Rather on the Bush memos, this is a good thing. But if they do their own sloppy reporting and the assertions they offer can’t be challenged until six months after the fact, we’re in for a very ugly chapter in the history of news media.
Organizations like HRW are going to have to get better at responding to situations like this one in a way that’s both fast and careful. HRW can’t respond as quickly as a blogger because they’ve got a long track record of offering careful research and analysis before publishing reports. But maybe they need to consider mobilizing their own affiliated bloggers – I am proud to be one – much earlier in the process, not just when they’ve finished their analysis.