Tweeting Every U.S. Drone Strike Is Taking Way Longer Than Expected

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The MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle taxis into Creech Air Force Base, Nev., March 13 marking the first operational airframe of its kind to land here. This Reaper is the first of many soon to be assigned to the 42nd Attack Squadron.
Photo: Corbis

When 28-year-old New York University grad student Josh Begley first decided he would tweet more than a decade of reported U.S. military drone strikes and their aftermaths in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, he thought he could finish rapid-fire in ten minutes. Four weeks later — with his pace slowed a bit over the holidays — Begley is just nearing the end of 2010. The @dronestream project, conceived as part of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, is a follow-up to Begley's Drone+, an iPhone app mapping every drone strike in real-time that was banned by Apple, and draws constant, methodical attention to a hush-hush reality. Wondering just what Begley was hoping to accomplish with what's now become an extended part-time job, we e-mailed him a few questions.

Why tweet all the reported drone strikes if they’ve already been reported? Where did this idea originate?
The idea came from a conversation with [NYU professor and media theorist] Douglas Rushkoff. In his class, Narrative Lab, we talk a lot about narrativity and the way stories are told on the web. It also came from a love of how Teju Cole uses Twitter; his "small fates" project is so beautiful and devastating at the same time.

When I started reading all the reports of drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, one thing stood out: the flatness of language. There are words like "militant" and "compound" and "hideout," which come to mean very little when you read them in such volume. I sincerely didn't know what the contours of our drone war looked like. So I wanted to dig into the data set about every reported U.S. drone attack and try to surface that information in a new way. (Dronestagram has been a big inspiration in this regard.)

Dronestream turned into more of a journalistic feed, of course — and you're right to say that the strikes have already been reported. I'm just pulling them from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and inserting them into a different medium.

You originally planned to cover ten years of history in ten minutes, but you're only up to 2010. What happened?
My friend Daniel Alarcón probably put it best: "Fail to plan, plan to fail." Or something like that.

What equipment are you using to tweet? Are you inserting them all in real-time or are you scheduling them? And what are your hours?
The short answer is I'm doing it all manually. I'm reading anywhere from three to fifteen news reports for each strike, trying to pull out the one that is either the most detailed or has proven to be the most accurate, and distilling it into a tweet. The heavy lifting, of course, has already been done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. They've aggregated just about every report that exists for every U.S. drone strike since the first one in 2002 and put it all in one place. I'm simply repackaging their data. [Note: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are not included.]

As you can probably tell from the timestamps, I haven't been able to get a whole lot of sleep.

You're up to just over 19,000 followers now, whereas something like @SeinfeldToday, which started the day prior, has more than 325,000. Is that discouraging?
Not in the least. I started this Twitter account because I expected no one to follow it. In some ways, that was the point — I didn't really think anyone wanted to be interrupted by all this data. The fact that 19,000 people want their timeline to be flooded with reports of old U.S. drone strikes is beyond surprising to me. I would've been pleased with eighteen followers.

Now that the tweeting has taken so much longer than originally anticipated, how do you think that's changed the way it's being absorbed?
For those who haven't unfollowed the account yet, I imagine it's become less about being shocked by volume and more about noticing patterns. (Thinking of the Business Insider article on "double taps" here, for example.) The core question I started with was simple: Even if we have access to the data about drone strikes, do we really want to be interrupted by it? Now that the tweeting has taken longer than planned, I suppose an answer to that question will start to emerge.

Are you scared people have lost interest in the project? The initial splash it made, followed by a subsequent drop-off in media attention could be seen as an unfortunate metaphor for the discussion of the drone program by the American public — it's shocking, yes, but the outrage isn't sustained. How do you think such a phenomenon can be combated?
Not really. I think you make a good point about the metaphor, but I truly am surprised this many people want news about old drone strikes interrupting their day. The purpose of the account isn't necessarily shock-and-awe or outrage; it's to pose a question. And I think people's interest (or lack thereof) will be the closest thing to an answer I could've hoped for.

Have you altered your strategy at all in the meantime?
I haven't. Now that there's a bit of an audience, I've tried to be more meticulous about which link to choose or how to write each tweet, but I really am moving as fast as possible.

What's next?
For now, just tweeting as fast as possible. Once we get through the remaining tweets, the account will roll over into something resembling a real-time feed. Right now, though, it's just bearing witness to the immensity of the archive.

Do you have any thoughts on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA chief? He was the first official to publicly acknowledge the drone program and has defended its legality, but according to the Washington Post, "is leading efforts to curtail the CIA's primary responsibility for targeted killings. Over opposition from the agency, he has argued that it should focus on intelligence activities and leave lethal action to its more traditional home in the military, where the law requires greater transparency."
From what I understand, he coined the phrase "disposition matrix." And I've always loved his quote about there not having been "a single collateral death." So in a self-ironizing, Frank Luntz kind of way: John Brennan is my hero.

More seriously, I'm no national security expert. But since Jeremy Scahill hasn't gotten back to my DM about a pithy Brennan one-liner, I guess I'll have to say I look forward to him stewarding the CIA as it drops BlackBerry for iPhone. Maybe he wants to download my app.