Operation Genoa vs Tailwind, HBO's 'Newsroom' Meets At The Corner of Topsy & Vine

Newsroom, the HBO hit series created and written by Aaron Sorkin predicates its storylines on actual news that's taken place in the real world, about 18 month prior. Having cut his social networking teeth on his award-winning movie, "The Social Network," Sorkin takes full advantage of weaving social media references into his yarns, whenever he can.

Whether having Leona Lansing (played by Jane Fonda) label bloggers as "pajama people," or using Foursquare to track down the whereabouts of an "Occupy Wall Street' organizer, social media is as much a part of the storyline as the story itself.

This type of plot construction allows in many instances the viewing audience to know more about what comes next in each episode then the characters themselves. And of course Sorkin has the perfect opportunity to turn hindsight into foresight in approaching news events from a more loftier perch. In essence, it becomes easier to report on the reporting of the news when you know the outcome.

Season two however seems to be shaking up that formula somewhat, as Sorkin has chosen to fictionalize a news event that never really happen - (well, that is ) at least not in the timeline the screenwriter has set it.


"Operation Genoa' is a continuing narrative arc that will dominate this season. In the episode titled, "Willie Pete," Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) turns to social media to support a tip revolving around an extraction operation. The tactical disclosure presented to the fictional ACN news team points to Americans using sarin gas against the enemy in Pakistan to help save their trapped fellow soldiers.

The multiple moral dilemmas that ensue are the underpinnings of a brewing lawsuit that unfolds throughout the season. From 'friendly fire' and 'collateral damage' of innocent Pakistani civilians on the battlefield to releasing a story that's not been fully vetted in the aftermath makes for intriguing theater at the deft hand of Aaron Sorkin.  

At the crossroads of social media and history, there are also some significant blurred lines. While Sorkin actually sought out an historical antecedent for Operation Genoa, the social media platform he references is not the one used by the government.

CNN's reporting (the network Sorkin patterned ACN) in 1998 on 'Operation Tailwind' is the basis for Operation Genoa. However the war was Vietnam and the location was Laos, not the War in Afghanistan. And Quantum Leap is the social analytics technology the government uses to uncover geo-referenced tweet data, not Topsy Pro.


Operation Tailwind was a covert incursion into southeastern Asia during the Vietnam War, conducted September 11-13, 1970.

Nearly 30 years later on June 7, 1998, Peter Arnett narrated a CNN/Time Magazine report produced by April Oliver, Jack Smith and Pam Hill. The "Valley of Death" report claimed sarin nerve gas had been used, and other war crimes had been committed by U.S. forces during Tailwind, kicking off a controversy that didn't end well for CNN or their news team.

When CNN/Time magazine undertook an internal investigation, after three weeks, they concluded that the journalism was "flawed" and the report should be publicly retracted and apologies were demanded. Two key CNN producers of the report, April Oliver and Jack Smith, were fired outright. Senior producer Pam Hill resigned. Reporter Peter Arnett was reprimanded and soon left for HDNet and then NBC.


One of the “most heavily used specialized tools” employed during what was called the Quantum Leap experiment was a program called “Social Bubble” which “summons data via the Twitter API to display Twitter users, their geographic locations, posted Tweets and related metadata.” The program was developed for 'Quantum Leap' to be used with a geospatial information system program employed by SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and other government agencies called Raptor X, which can import, exploit and display different data.


In the episode "Willie Pete" (season two, episode three) Jerry Dantana (playe by Hamish Linklater) turns to social media to find out if that fictional village in Pakistan was attacked by nerve gas while trying to get Americans out.

The “Willie Pete" refers to military jargon for white phosphorous, a substance that obscures troop positions and inflicts horrific burns. Nasty as WP is, a special ops team allegedly used a far deadlier weapon -- banned sarin nerve gas -- when rescuing Americans from a remote village in Pakistan.

ACN uses Topsy Pro, figuring if a village was attacked by nerve gas, someone from that part of the world reported it on Twitter. Why Topsy? Topsy infers geographic location for hundreds of millions of tweets via their unique geo-inferencing technology.

A translator begins faxing tweets into the newsroom from a user named @Hamni8 which references "Willie Pete," the white smoke, unmarked helicopters and burned bodies.

The following VINE video clip (supplied by Topsy, who was thrilled they got a name mention) highlights how Topsy Pro became the selected social media platform that was used to vet validy of Operation Genoa.

The the recent disclosures of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency collection of everyone’s telephone records and storing them for five years has caused a debate as to how far the government can go when keeping its nation safe.  Sorkin's tale while flawed in many respects is a cautionary one as it points to the validity of sources.

The gathering of such data, whether by news teams, private commercial enterprises, hackers or governments — ours or foreign ones — comes today part and parcel of our 21st-century milieu. And no matter what social media platform we choose to gain access, the moral dilemma remains what we do with the private data once we have secured it.

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