Lifestyle & Belief

Gaddafi’s end: how cell phones became weapons of choice


A Libyan rebel uses his mobile phone to film his comrades as they destroy the walls which used to surround Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli on Oct. 16, 2011.


Marco Longari

BOSTON — It was nearly simultaneous: the news of Gaddafi’s killing and the proof.

How could you doubt the infamous Libyan leader had fallen when, whether you liked it or not, a peek at your laptop meant you were staring at a graphic cell-phone video of his bloodied face?

The answer is you couldn't. It was right there, in your face and in the flesh. Libyans with their cell phones were all over it.

Even after the fact. (Check out this latest one of the late dictator stashed in a shopping center freezer.)

Now, citizen journalism is hardly a new concept — some even date it back to the '80s — and it's hardly a groundbreaking use of mobile-phone technology.

Libya: Decoding cell phone footage of Gaddafi's death (GRAPHIC)

But the bevy of videos available on Gaddafi, and the speed with which they began circulating the web Thursday marks a significant shift.

Media experts are hesitant to call it a game-changer where the news is concerned. But many point out that cell phone videos add bulk and immediacy to the pile of information avaliable to journalists, thus raising the stakes of their reporting.

And, with 5 billion of the world’s nearly 7 billion people using the gizmos (more Africans have mobiles than clean drinking water), cell phone videos will continue to intensify the stories we tell.

Libya: Like battlefield tourists, Libyan rebels film the fight

Here's what a couple media experts had to say on the matter:

Regina McCombs, faculty for multimedia and mobile at the journalism think-tank Poynter Institute, said the cell phone videos of Gaddafi are mostly interesting because, “they have in a short period disputed the official line.”

“Originally, they were saying Gaddafi had been killed in a firefight. But watching these videos, it was pretty clear that wasn’t true.”

They provide hard and fast evidence. Or do they?

“They’re low quality and jerky," McCombs said. "I don’t think they answer any questions, but they raise questions and cast doubt on things people say. It’s good to have them, but to say they prove or disprove anything is a stretch.”

They add to the pile of knowledge.

"There's a ton of information in there about how people are reacting and how they're treating him," McCombs said. "It's interesting, useful information ... just really unpleasant."

Most of the videos of Gaddafi's capture on Thursday are chaotic. There is a lot of screaming and cursing and people getting in the way of what the person with the cell phone is trying to film. Gaddafi's harried visage comes in and out of view.

It can be hard to make sense of the raw footage, and media commentators stress the importance of fact-checking the videos no matter how compelling they may seem.

“When you see something on video, it feels really, really true," said McCombs. "The only caution is that we still have to make sure it really is true."

Megan Garber, assistant editor at Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab, said the videos need to be properly verified and crafted into a narrative.

“We wouldn’t have the footage if we didn’t have that cell phone,” she said Friday by telephone. “The more people who have that impulse to film, it’s more raw data.”

Of course, raw data is different than a fully reported story.

“These videos aren’t vetted. They aren’t journalism with a capital ‘J,’ but it’s information … and more net information is a good thing.”

Garber acknowledged a few downsides to the ubiquitous citizen journalists with their cell phones.

The videos of Gaddafi tend toward the graphic, she said, and they haven't all been labeled as such on the various websites where they wind up. Once you see something like that, you can’t unsee it.

And, of course, there is room for people to game the system and create false information.

But both Garber and McCombs agree that the videos are doing more good than bad overall. Plus, the truth is that they aren't going anywhere. Nearly everyone has a cell phone these days and most people like to use them.

With the proper filters in place, cell phone videos will add to the data pool and make it harder to hide the truth.

When Osama bin Laden was offed in Abbottabad back in May, there wasn't a single picture provided despite the public clamoring for evidence. Skeptics said no images meant no proof.

It was the same when Al Qaeda’s PR man, Anwar al-Awlaki, was reported killed in Yemen last month. For some, Awlaki still lives on.

Not so for Gaddafi.