Can you control the Internet? Most people reading this will have answered that with a resounding “no” but what happens when people try to achieve control and what methods do they rely on? As the last truly free, unpoliced and uncensored vehicle for expression the Internet holds a lot of potential, and those who wield power properly can make an impact.
Jon Ronson is a successful Welsh-born journalist, filmmaker, radio host and author who wrote the hit film The Men Who Stare At Goats and has produced nearly 20 documentaries over the last 20 or so years. In 2011 Jon started Escape and Control, a Web documentary exploring whether or not it is possible to control the Internet and use its ability to control others to their advantage.
His signature style of interviewing, reporting and presenting is a delight to watch, and the subject matter at hand and unfolding story is a very interesting one.
Episode 1 – The Search for Omer Gershon
Escape & Control is a well-paced, cleverly edited ongoing documentary series that picks up several stories and points of interest along the way – regardless of subject matter, the idea here is to examine bids for control that go hand in hand with freedom of speech online. The series opens with eyes turned on a video from a man who claims to be “Marc Pax”, a gay rights advocate who was apparently refused by a Gaza strip aid organisation when he asked if his network could play a part in their flotilla.
“Marc” apparently emailed an office based in London only to be rejected, so Jon visits the Free Gaza Movement – the only group in the flotilla with an office in London – who claim to never have heard of him. So who is Marc? And why did he create this video in a bid to smear aid foundations?
Episode 2 – Astroturfing
What Marc, later revealed to be Omer Gershon, was doing is a tactic known as Astroturfing. The practice is well-known in all walks of life, from government to business and beyond. By creating fake “grass roots” blogs which claim to be on one side of the fence, the opposition to the cause can smear from the inside – a practice revealed through the tragic story of one LA teenager, Nataline Sarkisyan, who in 2007 lost a battle with Leukemia after winning her initial battle with health insurance giant CIGNA.
Episode 3 – Two Weeks Later
The quest for Omer Gershon takes Jon Ronson all the way to Tel Aviv, Israel after several tell-tale signs spotted by a reporter from the Jerusalem Post suggest that the original Marc Pax video was indeed filmed there. Here he conducts interviews with a group that makes satirical, pro-Israel videos from a bomb shelter who claim to never had heard of Gershon. As Jon ventures further, he contacts a branch of the Israeli government established to help educate and inform, who immediately invite him in for a chat.
Episode 4 – Egypt’s Arab Spring
Of course control isn’t just about seeding information, but also withholding it. That’s pretty much exactly what Egypt’s government led by ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak was planning only days before demonstrators took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to demonstrate against the regime. In this episode, Jon talks to Vodafone Egypt’s director of external affairs who was present in a meeting where he was told that if asked to do so, Egypt’s telecommunications should be switched off. Also interviewed is one of the demonstrators who originally found the holding cells that the government had used to torture people, while officials relaxed in lavish accommodation only a few floors above their heads.
Episode 5 – Friday
Patrice Wilson should know a thing or two about controlling the Web after he wrote a song and directed the video that sent it to the top of YouTube’s all-time top viewed videos with more than 200 million hits and counting. Sung by Rebecca Black, “Friday” is one long Internet meme in the making and Patrice takes time out of his songwriting schedule to speak to Jon about manufacturing exposure on a grand scale. To prove it, Patrice even writes a song for Jon which seems like a very well-placed advertisement for himself.
The rest of Jon Ronson’s investigation has been embedded below as a playlist, so click the video and sit back. If you’ve watched up to this point you will surely be interested in how it all pans out over the final 8 episodes. Web documentaries (Webumentaries?) such as this demonstrate how journalism is having to change as more of us put down the paper and switch off the TV in favour of online content, YouTube and other on-demand services. There are a total of 13 videos in the series, and it’s worth watching for the conclusion of the Omer Gershon saga as well as some more dealing with Patrice Wilson.
Escape & Control is a shining example of what is no longer an emerging trend, but a hallmark of the digital age. If you know of any other great straight-to-YouTube documentaries or other series, stick them in the comments below.