Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pictures and Propaganda

I apologize for the disturbing nature of the image I've included below, I know it's not pleasant to look at, although heaven knows it's hardly the worst kind of thing that can turn up on the internet, or on the evening news even.


But perhaps you've seen it already, identified as the picture of a Palestinian girl wounded in an attack by the Israeli army or air force? Maybe just recently, or may in years past? If so, and if you've felt anger, or outrage, or shame regarding the Israeli military, you've been propagandized.


This is not to say that the Israeli Defense Forces are free from committing offenses, no military is without error or sin, after all.  But in this specific instance, the little girl was injured in an accident on a swing, and this picture has been used repeatedly, during different conflicts, spread in viral fashion via email, websites, Facebook, and Twitter, and picked up repeatedly by respectable news organizations that seem to be no longer capable of fact checking.


But the fault lies not so much with our newscaster stars, and supporting players, but with in the nature of images as a medium, a type of analogical communication, and a form of what Susanne Langer referred to as presentational symbolism.












Simply put, the image in and of itself, carries no set information about its date or place of origin, about the circumstances of the moment in time that it depicts.  No context.  Any statement that it makes must be made via words, which is why we look to captions in print media or online, and look at the title of paintings in museums.  Pictures are not worth a thousand words, nor are they worth a single word.  Pictures and words are apples and oranges. 


Verbal statements can be evaluated as true or false.  Pictures may be judged faked or genuine, but otherwise, they are what they are, entirely concrete, referring to nothing else but the surface impression that they capture.  In this sense, images are not facts that can be checked or evaluated (facts can be proven true or false, meaning that there is such a thing as a false fact).  Images can be used as evidence, but the claim that they are used to support must be made in words.

So, with that in mind, you can take a listen to a little interview I gave to Kol Israel English, which is Israeli radio, on March 14 of this year.  I was in Israel at the time, as a guest of the College of Management and Academic Studies, specifically their School of Media Studies, thanks to Dean Eva Berger.  Maybe you remember my previous post, Talking in Tel Aviv


 So, while I was there, southern Israel was getting the rocket attack treatment from Gaza.  Over in Tel Aviv, where I was staying, life was completely unaffected, but closer to Gaza, citizens were moved to air raid shelters over and over again.  And again, I don't want to get into the complex politics of the situation, suffice it to say that Israel was giving as well as getting, hence this image.


So anyway, I took the audio clip with my interview, broadcast on March 14, 2012, around 8:40 PM, and turned it into a video for YouTube, adding a scrolling transcript of my radio interview as the visual, although I was not able to sync it up exactly. You can see it on YouTube under the title of Pictures and Propaganda (Israeli Radio) or just watch it here:









And here's the transcript again, without the motion:




Newscaster: The Palestinians in Gaza have been gearing up their propaganda machine with a string of photos, showing the alleged violations of the Israeli army.


These photos are being released on Facebook, Twitter and to news agencies like Reuters, who, for example, released a picture of a bleeding girl, carried by her father. Later on they had to issue a correction, when they discovered the picture had already been released three times: in 2006, 2009 and now again. And the girl had a swinging accident, nothing to do with a crisis in Gaza.


Now, another picture is in circulation of what looks like the boot of an IDF soldier stamping a young Arab girl, who's lying on the ground. An officer from the special unit in the IDF spokesman's office, who looks at the provenience of these pictures, told Channel 2 TV News, the picture comes from Bahrain and has nothing to do with the Mid East crisis in this region.


Well, is this a known phenomenon?  That is the question we asked Lance Strate, Professor of Communication at Fordham University in the US, who is in Israel presently as a guest lecturer at the School of Media Studies, College of Management and Academic Studies in Rishon LeZion.


Lance Strate:  It comes down to the fact that pictures, first of all, have an enormous impact, well beyond words. Simply, words leave us distanced from the topic. And pictures speak to us in an immediate way, and in a powerful way. They elicit emotional responses, and particularly pictures of that sort elicit anger and moral outrage. So, they are a very powerful weapon to be wielding.


Reporter: Now, a respectable network, like Reuters, has used the same picture three times, in 2006, 2009 and now once again. A picture of a child with a bleeding face being carried by her father. And in the end they found out they have to issue an apology that this has nothing to do with war or fighting, she was actually hurt by a swing or something. Why can''t a respectable organization like Reuters, check their pictures.


Lance Strate:  It's a great question, and actually one problem would be just turn over of personnel.


But the bigger problem is that you simply cannot do a search on images the way you can for verbal statements. If you think about doing a Google search, for example, you can say, if you have a quote, let's do a Google search and you can find out where that quote comes from. But if you have an image in front of you, there's no way to plug it into Google and find that image on the Internet. And there's nothing in the image that helps you to identify where and when it was taken necessarily.


And I know, they're developing technology that is going to solve this problem or, at least, alleviate the problem, but we are not quite there yet.


Newscaster: Professor Lance Strate, a specialist in communication and media studies.


I should note that I posted a link to the archived radio segment soon after the broadcast, and I received a comment from Rinat Korbet, an Israeli information specialist at IVC Research Center, where she is a colleague of my friend from MySpace, the poet and writer Moses Roth.  Rinat, who has an MA in information science from Bar-Ilan University, and had some familiarity with media ecology, made the following point:


There are technologies/sites/applications that help identify the source of images by simply uploading them: 
http://www.tineye.com 
http://images.google.com/ (also on google) 
But: A. most people don't use them. 
B. It's hard to find the "zero patient" picture, or where it all began. 
Reprint and distribution of pictures spreads like an epidemic and a lot of sites/people don't bother to share the source they copied from. It's easier to understand in the case of texts...


And of course, the bottom line is that finding the images elsewhere on the web does not guarantee that you can identify the source, and may in fact reinforce the false attribution, one of the pitfalls of crowdsourcing.  And, of course, quotations can also be misidentified, as discussed in my Neil Postman post from last year, Children are the Living Messages We Send to a Time We Will Not See. But quotes are much easier to identify than images, that should be obvious, and their impact is not the same as the immediate and emotional effects of the visual image, a pointed that Neil Postman made most pointedly.


Anyway, I do think it was altogether appropriate that this subject was covered on radio, a medium that is entirely devoid of the visual image.  A sound decision, I'd say.  Do you see what I mean?

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