Introduction: War in Cyberspace

Authors

  • Ralph D. Berenger

    Guest Editor
    1. Journalism and Mass Communication
      The American University in Cairo
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    • Ralph D. Berenger is an assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he teaches courses in international communication, ethics, media management and communication theory. He has published numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, and book reviews, and has more than 30 years of professional experience as a newspaper and magazine reporter, editor, publisher, and international consultant. His latest book, Cybermedia Go to War: Role of Converging Media During and After the 2003 Iraq War, was published in September, 2006 by Marquette Books.

      Address: Journalism and Mass Communication Department, 115 Kasr El Aini Street, Cairo 11511 Egypt


Abstract

Nothing defines a civilization more than how it conducts itself in war, which, to paraphrase von Clausewitz (1833), is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Why men turn to arms to settle disputes and resolve threats is a matter for international relations experts, but how information about war is disseminated and how audiences are affected fall under the purview of media experts and academicians. This special section of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication examines the introduction of networked communication technologies and the effects of the digital world, and how the Internet has been utilized to cover international conflicts, primarily, the 2003 Iraq War. The seven articles included in this special section represent the efforts of scholars from different research traditions, orientations, and cultural backgrounds. The common thread running through this tapestry of research interests and methodologies is the desire to understand the dynamics, structures, and effects of global digital war coverage.

Introduction

Much of what the world learns about conflicts around the world comes from non-traditional, digitally disseminated news sources. Legacy media, in turn, often report stories originating from the Web. While still in a neophytic stage accessible primarily to the computer literate during the 1991 Iraq War, the Internet was widely available to the average computer user a dozen years later, and it played a large role in how people accessed, internalized, formed opinions, and shared information with others about the 2003 Iraq War. Nearly one billion people across the planet were digitally connected by 2005. Emails had already replaced posted letters by the mid-1990s as the interpersonal communication of choice, and digital photographs and messages could be sent around the world with the speed of a single keystroke. Weblogs (blogs) allowed professional journalists and amateur writers alike to communicate with huge mass audiences, sometimes numbering in the millions, with links to other blogs and computer sites for those interested in learning more about topics discussed and opinions offered. The use of these media during the 2003 Iraq War led Rodney Weideman of IT Net, among others, to conclude that it was America’s first global Internet war (Weideman, 2003). Moreover, during subsequent conflicts such as the Israeli-Hezbollah war in July 2006, digitalized information from war zones—from professional and citizen journalists alike—has continued to influence public opinion and public policies.

At the same time, the digital realm of cyberspace has its share of rapscallions and scoundrels. Internet users have to develop a skeptical as well as a discerning eye, particularly about information coming out of war zones from sources that have chosen sides. When verified as truthful, images potentially have a sledgehammer impact on viewers’ opinion formation by creating iconic images of an event (Perlmutter & Wagner, 2004). Yet even visuals, digital still photographs, and video, once highly regarded by audiences as depictions of reality, are no longer reliable in today’s PhotoShop world. Sound and light can be altered and manipulated by photo and video editing programs. Hoaxes abound. A new word has entered the lexicon of cyberspace: fauxtography, a term coined by blogger Charles Johnson (www.littlegreenfootballs.com) in August 2006 to mean altered or staged photographs or videos, or purposely misleading captions under photographs. Bloggers uncovered half a dozen examples of fauxtographs during the month-long Israeli-Hezbollah war in July 2006. Bloggers also scrutinized examples of faked or misleading photographs during the 2003 Iraq War and the 2000 Palestinian Intifada (uprising). In addition to bloggers acting as a “fifth estate” by checking the accuracy of mainstream media stories (Cooper, 2006), fact-checking sites such as http://www.snopes.com were kept busy during the Iraq War tracking down email misinformation and disinformation passed from one inbox to another.

Photographs intended for archival or personal use have also been intercepted from online photo albums, supporting the notion that nothing is truly private in the public sphere of cyberspace. An example is the Seattle-based contractor whose .jpgs of flag-draped coffins in a cargo hold provoked immediate outrage by United States government officials, as a result of which she was removed from Iraq for breach of a confidentiality agreement. Digital photos posted online by guards at Abu Ghraib prison and downloaded by newspapers and websites around the world triggered an immediate outcry by already-angry Arabs around the globe (Davenport, 2004). Those pictures fueled media frenzy in the U.S. According to a Google search in 2005, among the 118 million websites that discussed the war, 5.4 million referred to the prison abuse. Email messages from military sponsored cybercafés and soldier blogs also provided grist for the mainstream media mills.

Leading up to bombs and boots on the ground in Iraq, a cyberwar of sorts broke out on the Internet. The English Al Jazeera website was hacked shortly after its launch in March 2003, with a picture of an American flag superimposed over a map of the United States (Rageh, 2003). As it turned out, the hacking was only the opening salvo. Thousands of chat rooms with millions of hits a day hosted debates about the merits of the 2003 war and its outcome (Hamdy & Mobarak, 2004). Converging toward the newest medium, traditional news sites reported an increase of between 30% and 150% in visits to their websites during the last two weeks of March 2003, when shooting broke out. BBC’s website recorded 150 million visits alone; CNN Online posted similar numbers. Responding to the demand for up-to-the-minute news regarding the war, the BBC broadcast around the clock to a global audience via its website (Kornblum, 2003).

Even after U.S. President George Bush’s “mission accomplished” pronouncement on May 1, 2003, the rationale for going to war in the first place continued to be debated in chatrooms, listservs, and email exchanges. Did Saddam Hussein really threaten regional peace? Did Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or did American and British governments lie to their peoples to get their support for the war? Can democracy be imposed? Did Iraq provide aid and comfort to terrorist organizations? Are the Iraqi people worse off under the American occupation than they were under Saddam? Is any country in the Middle East capable of civil, democratic societies given their histories and cultures? Was the war all about America’s thirst for cheap oil? Or was it about the political ambitions of George W. Bush to win a second term, and his desire to finish the job his father started in 1991, by removing Saddam Hussein from power once and for all? Or were there grander issues? Was Iraq invaded because Israel felt threatened by the growing economic and military capabilities of neighboring Arab states, sworn enemies of the Jewish state? Were Afghanistan and Iraq only the first two dominos to fall in the Near East? Who would be next: Syria or Iran? Since the two invaded countries were Muslim, was this an abject example of Samuel Huntington’s (1996) clash of civilizations and a gloomy portent of things to come?

The Internet is no respecter of national borders, of time, or, for that matter, unquestioned patriotism or nationalism. Charges can quickly be matched by counter charges; simple assertions can be stripped away by clicking on the next link. Cyberspace is both a vast reservoir of information—useful as well as trivial—and a babbling brook of streaming consciousness. All is there for the world to see and ponder, to ignore or absorb. In short, the new media offer users an unparalleled array of choices to become either passive or active consumers of information. For traditional news consumers during the Iraq War, this blizzard of conflicting digital images, facts, sources, and access to information from all sides of the conflict was as unsettling as it was satisfying. In the case of this information blitzkrieg, Neil Postman might have been prescient when he warned that too much information could be as debilitating as not enough information on an individual’s comprehension of events and knowledge-building (Postman, 1985).

Of course, information consumers are selective in what they seek out. Psychologically, individuals are more apt to choose information that strengthens and supports their preconceptions, biases, ideologies, and core beliefs. Rarely does selected information alter individual schemata. Information that challenges a person’s belief system can result in what Leon Festinger (1957) called “cognitive dissonance.” Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Daisy” in The Great Gatsby (2004 [1925]), most individuals are simply incapable of holding contradictory viewpoints of equal weight and importance, and they will reject, rationalize, and repress cognitive stimuli that cause psychological discomfort. Selective perception and cognitive dissonance are two possible explanations of what happened to audiences during the 2003 Iraq War. Those who strongly favored the war, either out of revenge for 9/11 or fear that Iraq posed a threat to world peace, were supportive to the end, although they tended to rationalize the reasons for going to war in the first place. War opponents sought out information that supported their opposition, especially in the Arab World, where a generation of media consumers has been “cultivated” by media systems controlled by authoritarian regimes to accept certain precepts as “true” and contrary viewpoints as “false,” because they come from lands that allegedly are ignorant of Middle East cultures and whose media systems allegedly portray Arabs and the dominant religion, Islam, unfavorably (Wheeler, 2004).

This was the case in the controversy over the 2005 Danish political cartoon that was believed to depict the Prophet Muhammed, a portrayal that is a cultural taboo. The digitalized cartoons were widely distributed by Islamic activists over the Internet, thus expanding globally the reach of these drawings and eliciting violent protests in places that were densely populated by Muslims around the world (see Lynch, 2006). Access to vast repositories of information over the Internet does not necessarily change hearts and minds, because individuals “choose” message frames that reinforce what they already believe (Berenger, 2004).

Scholarship has affirmed the concept that opinion formation is enhanced if the receiver of a message knows, trusts, and identifies with the sender. The stronger the affinity and identification, the stronger impact messages have on recipients’ opinion formation (Rogers & Bhowmik, 1970). Given that email messages and forwarded Web links are often sent to individuals in a sender’s address book, the impact of those messages on opinion formation cannot be disregarded. Messages from original recipients are often forwarded to friends and relatives, with a predictable impact on the second, third and consecutive receivers, thus contributing to a multi-step flow of the message content to information consumers.

Characteristics of “New Media” in times of war

The characteristics of the “new media”—usually defined as anything digital that communicates to known and unknown audiences in actual (synchronic) or delayed (asynchronic) time—fall into several broad categories. All of these are evident in times of conflict and war.

Convergence

Nearly all new media use or have the capability to use a variety of different media that converge or synthesize into a new type of communication medium. Of course, there is no such thing as “new media” in an absolute sense. When telegraph messages sped the process of communicating from far-away places in the 19th century, the telegraph could have been regarded as a new medium. The same could be said of commercial radio when it emerged in the first quarter of the 20th century, and television as it became the dominant mass medium in the last half of the 20th century. The Internet, with its combination of words, pictures, sound and video, and with its interactive potential, is only the latest technology to be classified as “new media,” while its predecessors are relegated to the category of traditional or legacy media. Some skeptical scholars assert there is no such thing as new media, only “preconvergent media” (Berenger, 2006).

During the 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath, websites demonstrated convergence by carrying text messages, audiovisual material (some of it created specifically for those websites), and links to similar sites with multi-media formats. A recent development has been multimedia material downloadable to iPods and hand-held telecommunications devices such as inexpensive mobile phones, personal computers, DVD players, and Blackberries, transported into conflict zones by reporters as well as by combatants (Anderson, 2006; Donaldson-Evans, 2005).

Ubiquity

The exponential growth of cyberspace and its asynchronous/synchronous nature make information and analysis available to more people than ever before. Common persons can connect to the wide information reservoir at home, in the office, at their university, or at the cyber cafés that proliferate even in remote locations. Wireless technologies, which were available during the 2003 Iraq War, allowed millions of users to access information on the Internet from a park bench or a parked car, or even while walking down the sidewalk. Advances in computer science have allowed for more user-friendly programs and interfaces that anyone, young or old, can use. Governments and non-governmental organizations, concerned about the digital divide, are stepping up global efforts to make computers and Internet connections accessible not only to the elites in developing countries, as is the present case, but to the average person as well. In Iraq, the new technologies are apparent everywhere as soldiers take their iPods into battle and on patrol, listen to MP3s and watch DVDs on individual computers (Anderson, 2006).

The ubiquitous nature of the Internet fueled dialogue about the 2003 Iraq War (Rainie, Fox & Fellows, 2003). In some regions, such as the Middle East, which lags behind everywhere else in the world except Sub-Sahara Africa in Internet use, growth will have to be exponential to catch up (United Nations Development Programme, 2002). However, Internet access between 2003 and 2005 more than doubled in the Middle East in the midst of armed conflict in the region (Berenger, 2006b).

Agenda setting

Mass communication scholars are fond of saying that the media does not tell people what to think, but what to think about (Lang & Lang, 1959). Stories covered in cyberspace often set the agenda for mainstream media, and monitoring websites and blogs is an essential weapon in the arsenal of contemporary reporters. Search engines such as Google, Ask, Netscape, and Yahoo! are used in newsrooms to fact-check stories and collect story background. Stories carried on blogs and websites not only set the tone for “water cooler” discussions for general readers, but often show up on listservs that target specific interest groups, as well as influence mainstream media reporters.

This agenda-setting function of the new media was evident during the 2003 Iraq War, as Internet discussants often quoted blogs with the same authority as they would cite newspaper and television reportage or academic studies (Kaye & Johnson, 2004). Iraqi bloggers such as Salam Pax were often quoted in newspaper and magazine reports and were accorded the same attention as governmental sources of the war.

The rich variety of alternative information sources available directly to information consumers calls into question the “social control” function of media and their hegemonic ability to set national and international agendas (Cooper, 2006). Groups allied to the Independent Media (Indymedia), such as the Victoria Peace Network in Australia, mobilized tens of thousands of anti-war protestors, while counterparts around the world helped organize the huge February 15, 2003, anti-war rallies in national capitals (Cannon, 2006). These groups helped set an anti-war agenda that still sends political ripples around the world. Governments that are strong advocates of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are facing political difficulties at home. Pro-Iraq war governments in Spain and Italy have been replaced, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is leaving office under intense criticism for his unbridled support of the wars, and pro-war Republican majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are at risk in the upcoming November 2006 federal elections.

Credibility

Puzzling to some scholars is how blogs seem to have acquired instant credibility with a large audience, even though they often mix analysis with interpretation of news stories, and the bloggers themselves often lack professional or academic credentials. Blogs are credible because they are there, in cyberspace for the world to see, without mediation from journalism professionals, and without the pressures of advertisers and clients, elites, routine newsroom practices, and customs (Wall, 2005). Unlike physical space, virtual space does not need place, time, or an acknowledged controlling authority such as a government to have a presence. Anyone with a computer, modem, and a perspective can find a home in virtual space and potentially attain instant credibility.

Along with believability, the most common components of media credibility identified in past studies are accuracy, fairness, lack of bias, completeness, depth, and trustworthiness (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000, 2001; Johnson & Kaye, 1998, 2000, 2002). However, these aspects of credibility might be more applicable to journalistic routines and the manner in which news consumers select and judge news channels (Finberg & Stone, 2002) than to why many people view emails and blogs as having more credibility than traditional news sources (see Dimitrova & Neznansky, this issue). At the same time, hardly a newspaper or magazine is absent from the Internet, and bloggers enhance their credibility by selectively linking to or quoting these mainstream media sites while adding their interpretations of a news story or an issue (Kaye & Johnson, 2004). Credibility helps build public consensus around issues and can even contribute to a sense of community (Norris, 2001).

Interactivity

The new media are interactive, and this characteristic may be what sets them apart from their predecessors more than anything else. Anyone with access may express his or her views, often without mediation or editing, on topics raised by Internet sites or weblogs. In contrast, traditional mass media still struggle with the problem of feedback. Newspapers encourage letters to the editor, but few readers actually submit one in their lifetime. Those that are received usually are tightly edited for content and space, and “hot topics” are often limited to several issues, and then further responses are rejected by the editors. Timeliness is always a problem for letter writers, especially if the publication comes out weekly. While readership studies rank letters to the editor high on the list of subscriber favorites, letters to publications are an unreliable barometer of reader sentiment and can be manipulated by interest groups to demonstrate support for a particular self interest disproportionately. More accurate are public opinion polls, which have become a mainstay of large news operations in the U.S. and Europe, not only to check the opinion pulse of mass audiences, but also occasionally to assess the media organizations themselves. Broadcast media rely on viewer program ratings as a form of feedback, some sophisticatedly designed to measure sentiments demographically. To encourage reader and viewer comments, some large news organizations employ ombudsmen who are independent of management, or even news councils to serve as advisory groups.

These measures to encourage interactivity with mass media had only marginal success until the advent of the Internet. Websites employ more extensive feedback methods that allow users to respond not only to the material contained on the site, but to other respondents in near-real time in some cases. Readers are urged to contact journalists directly with their comments via email links, and to offer their opinions by way of message boards. Some large news organizations, like Fox and CNN, weave viewer comments into some of their programs or present them as opinion blocks at the end of analysis pieces. During the 2003 Iraq War, comments all along the political spectrum ignited vigorous debate in both the traditional and non-traditional media. The question scholars have yet to answer, however, is whether this increased level of interaction actually affected the opinions of anyone who was not already predisposed toward a particular point of view.

Transferability

The cut-and-paste function of digital media allows large blocks of information to be forwarded as well as linked. Material contained on websites can be cut and pasted into emails and sent to other users who might have missed the initial posting. Since individuals appear to be influenced by opinion leaders who they perceive share their worldviews, interests, and similar societal, political, or sociological orientations, these messages when transferred to familiars are generally given a high degree of credence by their recipients. The person-to-person flow of information has never been as evident as it is in the digital age. The ease with which Internet consumers can transfer messages distinguishes the new medium from traditional mass media that relied on copying or retyping stories or cumbersome recording of broadcast programs on tape, often muting the impact of immediacy in opinion formation. In contrast, as soon as they popped up on the Internet, war news stories and commentary were posted on “portal pages” like Lucianne.com, drudgereport.com, freerepublic.com, and a host of indymedia.com sites. Search engines such as Google News captured news minutes after initial postings. With a click of the mouse, such digitalized information could be sent immediately to like-minded friends and relatives, who could then forward the stories to their mailing lists (Brooten, 2004a, 2004b).

This snowball effect resulted in an exponential dissemination of information in a matter of hours, if not minutes, during the 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath. A less-studied aspect of this transfer of digital information is whether individual recipients processed the information before passing it on to others, or if any of the individuals in the multiple-step flow bothered to fact-check the information they received from obscure news agencies, bloggers, and political interest groups on the Internet, who might have been furthering their own agendas.

Organization of this collection

The seven chapters collected in this special thematic section of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication were written by scholars representing various disciplines, including political science, media studies, journalism and mass communication, and international relations. They use a variety of methodologies to study war in cyberspace.

Leading off the collection is a provocative article by Lucas Walsh and Julien Barbara from the Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Walsh and Barbara discuss the ways in which States mobilize mass support for their conventional pursuits of geopolitical objectives. Drawing on contemporary international relations theory, the authors introduce the concept of “securitization” and discuss how war coverage in cyberspace has been used to securitize international threats, such as “global terrorism,” to justify State intervention, including war. The authors conclude that one of the paradoxes of war coverage in cyberspace is that States have coopted information and communication technologies to facilitate new forms of mass mobilization. This study has implications for those interested in how States manage information, even in countries with a liberal-democratic media tradition.

In contrast to Walsh and Barbara’s macro view of cyberspace uses by governments, Junho H. Choi and James H. Watt and Michael Lynch examine the wartime usage of cyberspace by individuals. Their cross-media study, which includes an online poll, finds that war opponents perceived information retrieved from the Internet to be more credible than information from traditional news media. They also find a general skepticism towards official government news about war.

Seungahn Nah and Aaron S. Veenstra and Dhavan V. Shah also use an online poll to collect data for one aspect of their study of how traditional and Internet news use, as well as face-to-face and online political discussion, contributed to political participation during the period leading up to the 2003 Iraq War. Their Web-based survey of political dissenters conducted at the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq found that newspapers and Web news sites played a more important role than television news in spurring face-to-face political discourse that led to increased political participation.

Differences in online news and traditional media coverage were investigated by Daniela V. Dimitrova and Matt Neznanski in a comparative study of 26 international newspaper websites and their use of Web-specific features such as hyperlinks, animations, multimedia content, and interactive elements. The online newspapers were, by and large, extensions of their parent publications. The authors extend to online war coverage a three-stage model of convergence, and conclude that while steps are being taken in the right direction, online coverage of the 2003 Iraq war had not yet reached the point where convergence had resulted in a different form of communication. The move to full convergence, they argue, will require additional resources and imagination.

Carol B. Schwalbe examines how U.S. news websites visually portrayed ongoing, contemporaneous coverage of the 2003 Iraq War, and explores the potential role of images in shaping collective memory by analyzing how the websites, following the convention of most parent media companies, commemorate past (resurrected) events through anniversary retrospectives. Through a content analysis of images on the home pages of 26 mainstream news sites, she finds that during the first five weeks of the Iraq War, the visual emphasis shifted from the official U.S. war machine to the more personal face of those touched by war, both Americans and Iraqis. Images published on websites tended to support the “master war narrative” of mainstream media, not an altogether surprising finding given that access to war zones was limited to “accredited” journalists and photographers, and given the mainstream media’s proclivity to “rally around the flag” in time of war.

The article by Mark Tremayne, Nan Zheng, Jae Kook Lee, and Jaekwan Jeong examines the predictors of preferential attachment in the war blog network by conducting a multiple regression analysis of links to 79 blogs and original reporting content as significant predictors of incoming links. They also mapped the war blogosphere to reveal two distinct sides, fairly evenly divided: liberal and conservative. However, “measures of network centrality identified key blogs, some of which served as conduits between the two spheres,” they write as they examined other differences between the sides. This analysis constructs an Iraq War blogosphere and shows how liberal and conservative bloggers during the war tended to link more to ideologically similar sites than to ideologically dissimilar ones. The authors also found that while actual news reporting was low, opinion was expressed in a majority of blog posts, followed by what they term “surveillance.”

An overview of Iraq War coverage would be incomplete if it did not include a perspective from the Arab World. While most studies about online media in the Middle East seem to concentrate on the well-known Al Jazeera website, Yeslam Al-Saggaf examines the online public sphere by using the Saudi Arabian Al Arabiya website as a case study. The study finds that despite its claim to be building a public sphere for Arabic discourse, the site falls short of its goal to help construct a civil society, because it is a public space where opinions are mediated by gatekeepers, accepted cyberspace practices (“netiquette”) and, in some cases, authoritarian governments that block access to sites and blogs they consider political or culturally unacceptable.

A closing thought

The intent of this special section on coverage of war in cyberspace was to demonstrate at this point in time the directions being taken in scholarly inquiry into how new digital technologies are used as information sources during times of armed conflict. Although this collection of articles contributes to the literature on technology and conflict, it is by no means exhaustive. It is also inevitably limited by its methods and its scope.

Despite the newness of the Internet as an object of study, researchers are using many of the same tools to assess it that they used to evaluate the traditional media in times of war. It is not surprising, then, that nearly every hypothesis in the articles in this collection that tested broader theories of mass communication, such as the multi-step flow theory and agenda-setting theory, affirmed previous studies conducted on traditional media. It is possible, however, that new methodologies dedicated to digital media would produce different findings and theories about how consumers get their information, what they consider important, and what the long-term effects will be.

We know from the articles in this section and elsewhere that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people can be mobilized through email, listservs, blogs, and websites. The anti-war protests that took place around the world on February 15, 2003 demonstrated that mobilization ability. Yet despite these protests, the death and destruction in Iraq continues to this day, 41 months after it started, and 38 months after President Bush declared “mission accomplished,” which raises a larger question about whether global audiences can viably affect a single nation’s war policies, given the dynamics of a political system, such as the one practiced in the United States, that is based on satisfying local needs, not international ones. This aspect of the political effects of new media to change or modify war policies is an area for future researchers and for theorists to ponder.

Acknowledgments

Appreciation is extended to the 16 authors who contributed articles for this collection, and for their ongoing interest in studying the behavior of computer-based media and audiences in times of international conflict. Thanks are extended to the extremely busy 10 academics whose reviews offered specific and solid advice to improve the articles for publication. Finally, special kudos to Susan Herring for her patience with, if not tolerance of, the many questions about procedures and process thrown at her as the project came together over the nearly 18 months from its inception.

About the Author

  1. Ralph D. Berenger is an assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he teaches courses in international communication, ethics, media management and communication theory. He has published numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, and book reviews, and has more than 30 years of professional experience as a newspaper and magazine reporter, editor, publisher, and international consultant. His latest book, Cybermedia Go to War: Role of Converging Media During and After the 2003 Iraq War, was published in September, 2006 by Marquette Books.Address: Journalism and Mass Communication Department, 115 Kasr El Aini Street, Cairo 11511 Egypt

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