It ain't over now!"
Who fought the war behind the lines.
They had forgotten all the soldiers;
The brandy puts them way behind the times.
--“Wildest Dreams,” Asia (1982)
In his famed handbook of military strategy, The Art of War, ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu made a key point that resonates across 2,600 years of history: “All warfare is based on deception.”
No doubt there’s plenty of that going on in the current brouhaha between Viacom Inc. and DirecTV over subscriber fees, a dispute that led the satellite-television provider to yank Viacom’s channels on Tuesday. (For those who manage to get through life without Spongebob Squarepants and are out of the loop, click here for the details.)
As is the norm in this online age, the two have taken to social media to plead their respective cases. But what’s fascinating—and more than a little disturbing—is how each is fighting the war by effectively drawing their troops from the masses.
In effect, battles are waging across the Internet trenches, fought by John and Jane Q. Public, with Viacom and DirecTV awaiting the outcome.
Securing public opinion in a war is hardly a new approach. (Indeed, part of the history of public relations was the work of the Four Minute Men, volunteer speakers who advocated for U.S. efforts in World War I. Their name came from the time limit they had in delivering their speeches—the four minutes needed to swap movie reels in theaters.) But in the no-holds-barred battlefield of cyberspace, anyone with a computer and a wireless connection can take up arms.
And that’s exactly what Viacom and DirecTV are counting on. They are the generals. They assemble their troops with sentimental pleas (“We’re always by your side,” “We are ready to talk at any time.”) and rallying cries that don’t quite reach the level of Churchill’s (“Imagine the impact on your bill if we just simply accepted those demands for one network,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t let Cartman get a satellite lodged up his a**”). And then they let the soldiers fight the war.
Given the Internet’s ability to allow this warfare instantly and openly, and given the fierceness that its anonymity allows, we all have the opportunity to play Rambo without actually shedding blood.
I’m certainly not against using communication tools like the Internet to accurately and truthfully inform and influence perspectives. That’s what public relations does. But I’m uncomfortable with the “really-futile-and-stupid-gesture-on-somebody’s-part” approach that draws out the worst in so many people.
And as in real war, the generals are the ones who gain the glory. As SunTzu also said, “It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”