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New Global Olympic Event: Asymmetric Information Competition

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There's a cornucopia of reasons for the eruption of global interest in the torch relay, but I want to focus on one. Think of the Olympic torch coverage in a context beyond Tibet, beyond China, beyond the Olympics -- namely "asymmetric" information warfare. The torch coverage is an example of non-force combat -- between the super Gullivers of the world and the myriad, seemingly unaccountable Lilliputians.

An example of this preoccupation is Donald Rumsfeld's speech in 2006 at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adapted. ['Terrorists']... have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets but with words. They've proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world. They plan and design their headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communication to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.

Rumsfeld was talking about what drove him and a number of U.S. Senators and others crazy in the Long War and what is also undoubtedly plaguing the Chinese. How is it that powerful states (democratic or authoritarian) can't deal adequately with a large set of agents who are shaping the global agenda and do so by wit and wile rather than by huge expenditure of resources?
My co-editor Daniel Dayan (Owning the Olympics, Narratives of the New China, University of Michigan Press, 2008), building on work with the famous scholar, Elihu Katz, has used the word "hijack" to describe the seizure of world attention by intense groups that alter the expected and legitimated narrative of singular moments like the Olympics.

I'll say more about this in future posts, but I can point to a few very interesting recent writings. One is an article in Monday's New York Times, which traces how splintered groups prepared for this month's events, while China had difficulty registering a coherent response ("Tibet Backers Show China Value of P.R.") And I would be remiss not to mention Edward Rothstein's brilliant piece, also April 14, on the creation of the torch relay as a powerful, dominating metaphor by Germany in 1936 ("The Relay of Fire Ignited by the Nazis")

One other perspective, worthy of note, was spotted by Lokman Tsui, a PhD student at Annenberg and a China media scholar. The BBC has done an important curbside analysis (here and here) of reaction within China of its coverage of the torch relay, noting (unscientifically) what appears to be the gulf between domestic and international coverage and reading of the torch-relay events. Part of this comes from recognition that more people are reading the BBC online and it's become more available in China.

Asymmetric information warfare occurs in the Olympics setting as the Tibet groups and others seize the extraordinary benefit of huge investments in platforms established by others, and take advantage of the fabulously structured forum, created by others, to advance their political and commercial messages. In an essay in Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China," I refer to this as a kind of public relations jujitsu. Small, seemingly powerless groups gain momentary attention and enduring strength by storming (literally or figuratively) a platform media event so as instantly to control the narrative (the Palestinian gunmen in the Munich Olympics).