Fancy drones and not so fancy ones

I have to go back to the developing drone war that involves homemade drones that were first introduced by ISIS, since this currently develops quickly and that makes me think. It might be two years ago, when the first remote controlled drones – little quad copters with cameras – had been used by groups surrounding ISIS to document suicide attacks involving cars. Mostly the car could be seen speeding through a desert landscape towards apparent enemy positions, before exploding. Sometimes, before the final blast, smaller explosions could be seen as an indication of an attempt to stop the attacker. Sometimes even tiny figures were visible running away from incoming mayhem.

The more classical use of remote controlled camera drones. The documentation of a suicide attack.

When the first videos of this kind showed up, that was something that changed the visual language of these videos for good. It was quite sexy to be frank and that might be the main reason why these scenes quickly became a new norm for the creation of terrorist propaganda. More and more suicide attacks were presented in exactly the same way – a long shot from the accidental documentation of terror attacks via surveillance cameras or the shaky footage taken with cellphones.

The first example of a suicide in Afghanistan that has been filmed with a drone. Please note the markings that try to resemble those of a conventional airplane.

For maybe a year or so, these new visuals were a Syria and Iraq (i.e. mostly ISIS) exclusive. The fact that then, groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, managed to catch up, by producing their own drown footage reveals that there is a visual arms race at works, when it comes to propaganda. This is not new and whenever there has been an innovation in propaganda, every side involved in the struggle attempted to catch up as quickly as possible. This predates any modern form of visual creation by far. An example would be the use of woodcut prints during the Thirty Years War. But it is still interesting to look at the extremely fast pace of these developments – and it still baffles me that many of the groups involved yell “Death to the West”, while holding Japanese Cameras and uploading the videos to YouTube and Co. War is corrupt and getting involved might corrupt you – that is not new either.

A couple months ago, the next step in the development became visible. To this point, these gimmicky drones had only been used to document attacks – be it by suicide bombers or regular attackers -, or to provide reconnaissance; all things that mostly utilized the capability of these drones to record and send video images. But this changed when makeshift attachments were developed that enabled the operator to attach explosives to the drones that were then dropped on enemy targets. The first video that shows such an attack, at least the first one I have encountered, is of quite a low quality and the missile shaped bomblets seem quite crude. If the meta information of the file I have is correct, this video was created in early September 2016. The video show two attacks and does not include much more. Neither the drone itself is shown, nor anything prior to the attacks themselves.

The first video of a remote controlled drone that has been used in an attack with explosives – at least the first I came across.

Even though these were some of the first instances, where the drones themselves became part of the warfare, the claim that they did was made much earlier. While documenting attacks by suicide bombers in their cars, the propaganda videos containing drone footage tried to emulate visual effects one might expect from “real” drone strikes. Even though not necessary when flying a little camera drone the videos very often included different displays and markings. Like the ones one can see in computer flight simulators or in footage from real planes. So, the claim was made that the flying objects were more real than they actually are.

This became more evident, when quite recently – if I am correct, on January 24th 2017 – a video was released that showed extensive use of drones in battle. I discussed this video in particular earlier, so I might repeat myself, but this here is a more in-depth text. This video shows two ISIS fighters launching a remote-controlled plane. One that is made to resemble the newest generation of American stealth drones. Ever since one of these drones was captured by the Iranian Armed Forces, the shape of these drones became something of a prototype of what drones are supposed to look like. The drone used by ISIS is much smaller than the original, but that seems of little importance in terms of its propaganda value. The drone is even shown dropping two small bombs, which are in fact modified rifle grenades.

The drone that is shown it the ISIS video.

It is quite interesting that, upon a closer look at the video, it becomes clear that the drone shown in detail, the one that is made to resemble the American stealth drones, is not the one that drops the explosives during combat. It is quite clear that whatever drops those bombs is hovering and therefore must be different from the one shown. These shitty little helicopter style drones, might make good bomb-dropping-devices, their visual appearance is the one of toys. I find it quite funny that there is a group that has a deadly weapon at hand – the quad copters – but for propaganda purposes they need to show something that is far less effective. If they are effective at all.

It turns out though, that “close inspection” is not necessarily what one has to be afraid of, when producing propaganda videos. The fact that murder via drones isn’t a monopoly of America any longer has been noticed by some media outlets. Guess which images are used to illustrate this development? Of course, it is the two guys launching a dysfunctional killing machine. So, the propaganda has been successful in this respect. The article shown here describes how the drone shown is the one that attacks soldiers and bystanders. That is wrong. People are attacked and maybe people are killed. But it is not by the drone shown. Does this make a difference? I would argue that it does. The fact that someone made the effort to make the drone look much fancier than it actually is, shows us that this is an attempt to appear more sophisticated. ISIS wants to be recognized as a global player and not like the random – and incredibly lucky – terror group, which they are. For a fight against a group that utilizes mere toy drones for their terrible deeds the United States would not need to raise their military budget by 54 Billion Dollar, but to fight a group that is capable of using these “highly advanced” drones? Well, take our money – right?!?

This is an article from the German newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel”. The article claims that the drone shown is the one the performs the attacks. Looks certainly scary.
These is the kind of drones that is actually used in these attacks. Definitely more deadly, but not as sex looking. Please not the plastic rings that would hold the rifle grenades – scraps of plastic bottles and not that sophisticated looking.

So, it seems as if one has to be careful with propaganda. I would argue that this is true for everyone involved.

This form of drone warfare seems to be extremely tempting and as it seems, ever side pretty much has started to implement these techniques. You’ll find a huge number of images and videos that refer to the use of quad copters to drop small amounts of explosive by the Iraqi Armed Forces for instance. Quite often it seems as if they just use the drones sized from ISIS forces, but things are already changing and the development is not going to stop here. Not matter how things develop from this point on, some changes are already quite apparent to me. This is the point where I believe that propaganda might come back to hunt the propagandist.

When ISIS used the first drones to produce their videos – the ones that did not kill but merely capture -, they quickly felt tempted to include the appearance of US drone strikes by adding some graphics to the videos that made them appear as if “real” drones had been involved in the attacks. By the way this was also done in the very first drone video from Afghanistan.

As with the use of orange jump suits when executing prisoners and hostages, this was done as a reference to American atrocities. We consumers of videos online are taught to expect certain looks in certain cases. We have a vague idea of what a drone strike might look like. It certainly includes some infographics. Like the ones, a pilot would see. Or the ones, that would be added afterwards to make videos released by the US Armed forces easier to decipher. In a way, this is funny, since most of the videos one can find searching the Web that are labeled as “drone strike footage” haven’t been taken by the cameras mounted on drones. Most of the material is from attacks by regular planes or more often attack helicopters. The real visual language used by real drones remains invisible and classified. Maybe this would reveal too much of the capabilities of these weapon systems.

That doesn’t really matter. We have a somewhat fixed idea of what drone strikes have to look like and ISIS and Co try to emulate it. But what happens if you overdo it? I mean the fact that the “real” drone war, the one over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – well, pretty much all over the globe, where you find people with brown skin and the wrong faith – remains invisible, while ISIS creates an visual overabundance of examples of their “do-as-if-done-war”, might come back to harm the propagandists. Already, in the West, the outrage over the American drone warfare is quite limited, but now the term “drone” and “drone warfare” becomes more and more associated with the things the other side does. Plus, the more professional the images look that are created by the new players, the easier it becomes to use them in reports by the media in the west. All the CIA and the American Armed Forces have to do is to further limit their visual output and ISIS ends up flooding all channels with their propaganda.

Another example of a mock drone. Maybe this one can drop its bombs, but I have yet to see footage of an attack by a remote controlled plane like the one shown here. These are always carried out using small helicopter style drones.
And even drone control centers are re-enacted.

What had been intended as a carefully produced reference to Western atrocities is going to be a reference to one’s own atrocities. This has already happened with the use of orange jump suits, which was originally intended as a justification towards the terrible things that were done by foreigners to Muslims in places like Guantanamo Bay, but the images that were created were far catchier than the source material. Imagine a guy kneeling in an orange jump suit. What does this remind you of? An execution by ISIS or a prisoner in an American prison camp? Right now it still might be both, but things seem to shift quickly.

And now think about the images of a drone strike. There is already very little to visualize on the American side and ISIS and Co work hard to define these visuals as well. Just wait for the first drone strike somewhere in the West, where the attacker manages to capture the video feed and propagate it online. This then is certainly going to be one of the defining image when you are thinking about the term drone attack.

Even though the image below shows the fancy drone once again, the drawing of the quad copter above tells another story.

Propaganda is a sign of weakness

I find it strange that the propaganda by groups like ISIS causes such great uproar in western media. Propaganda aims at creating a strong image of the group that creates and circulates it. But I would argue that this attempt to look strong might just be another hint at the fact that propaganda is in fact a sign of weakness. If you are strong and you are fully confident that you are, there is absolutely no need for you to appear strong. Only if you lack the confidence or – god forbid – the actual strength, creating propaganda and spreading it might make sense.

So, when people ask me, whether I am not scared discussing the topic of ISIS in my work and on my website, since “they might come for me”, I reply that this question alone tells me much about the whole issue. The reach of groups like ISIS is very limited and this is precisely the point why they use this aggressive form of PR. The try desperately to appear bigger and stronger – and to some extend even omnipresent. Conflicts today aim at our perception and in this way, propaganda can be a very potent tool to spread fear. This is what they are trying.

Of course, someone could always “come for you”. But that is true to the same extend as a with multitude of things that might happen to you at any moment now. Since there is a psychiatric term for it – paranoia – we should be careful before implementing these strategies in our daily lives.

Contemporary Art and the Beautiful Clothes of the Emperor

In general, I am not very patient, when it comes to much of contemporary art. To me at least, quite a huge chunk is bullshit and I always wonder how artists manage to present it without either being so embarrassed that they do not attend the opening or so thrilled about the way they have fooled everybody that they cannot stop laughing manically.  But neither happens very often. Artists attend their openings and little laughter is to be heard.

I know that this expectation might be a deficit on my side. I might just not be able to understand quite a bit of what is shown in galleries and museums. Maybe this is true, but certainly I am not alone in this lack of understanding.

But recently I was amused, when two people on separate occasions made a connection from contemporary art to Hans Christan Andersens “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. I made that connection before, but here it was from someone else. Plus, the two persons I am mentioning here are both working in museums for decades and are normally much more open if it comes to looking at art.

When Marcel Duchamp presented his work “Fountain” to the public, this might have been a critique of the institutions and committees that control the art world – at least this is the way I understand it. To that it was certainly an important statement. But the question of how successful it has been might remain open, even 100 years after its creation. The urinal is just one of many works that before and since then questioned these structures within the art world, but the revolution they have caused did something else.

These works are now symbolizing the idea that everything is possible in art. That much might be valid, but the next step is that, since everything is possible, there should be no way to judge and distinguish. That Is bullshit.

So much of contemporary art does not matter and does not even try to matter. Much of the works that try to matter fall in the first group though. If someone, who works in the art field for decades and who has kept his curiosity ever since, walks out of a performance work that has won a huge award, feeling not just confused, but utterly disillusioned, there is certainly something wrong with the art world. Yet, the artist shown there is going to present her work in Venice this year. And there are definitely going to be many claqueres who keep telling everyone how amazing this work is. This is precisely what the story Andersen was telling is about. When my friend left the performance, there were certainly many people who stayed. And the artist felt acknowledged in what she did.

There is currently so much at stake if we look at democracy and value systems, but so much of the art world does not really care. Just take another urinal and call it “revolutionary work” for the millionth time, that does not serve as the basis of a revolution.

Maybe Duchamp or Beuys had the best intentions, but maybe their revolutions failed entirely and caused more damage than good.

I think I was called mentally deranged – But how would I know?

Last week I met a curator to show her some of my work on Islamist propaganda. I wrote her an email and asked if we could meet and the fact that she replied, let alone the fact that we met in the end, is an almost unheard thing all together. But that would be a different text in of itself.

The meeting itself was quite disastrous, since she absolutely hated what I had to show. It is not the fact that she hated this work that disturbs be slightly, but rather some of the reasons she gave for her distaste. The moment she looked at the material, she instantly replied “why would anyone ever look at this?”. If I understood her correctly, she was talking about two things. First my work, but also the source material itself. She told me that to her understanding only mentally deranged people would ever be caught by this kind of propaganda and never “someone with a college degree”.

I could easily live with her thinking of me as morally or mentally deranged. But since she is in the position of an educator – she happens to run a publicly funded exhibition space -, her views on people who might fall for propaganda are dangerous. It is easiest, I know, to look at your opponent as someone being stupid or morally completely out of line. I think if you do this, it is quite certain, that you and your opponent can at least agree on this one idea – since he definitely thinks of you the same way. But beyond this fictitious agreement, there is little we have learned from this encounter.

She did not even seem to try to understand the mechanisms at work here. For her, all the young men who watch these videos are stupid and all the people who make the videos are evil. She did not really express that, but since I look at the material and work with it, to her, I might even fall in both categories.

One of her arguments was quite striking. She said, the people who create these videos burn innocent victims and are therefore purely evil. At a first glimpse, that sounds like a sound argument. But upon close inspection, I find it funny that she goes for this argument. Since she does not watch any propaganda of this kind – something she made quite clear – it is certainly unknown to her, that this is precisely the argument that is used in some of the propaganda videos. Quite often you see footage of burned and maimed civilians, very often of innocent children, before the video shows the execution of accused spies or foreign soldiers. They seem to look at us in the West as those who burn and maim the innocent and therefore the evil ones.

So, does it help if both sides call the other evil? I guess not. But this is also not the question I am interested in addressing with my work. Taken the decision aside who might be more evil and just take is as a given fact that not everyone who falls for propaganda lacks a degree of higher education, what can we learn from these videos? How do they function? And what could be a societies response to counter them? These are questions the curator should not come to easily, if she is really that quick in dismissing all that is shown.

One reason for her lack of understanding might be that she has a hard time looking beyond the brutality in these videos. But while writing this, the question pops up, how this could matter, since she does not watch any of these videos. From a first-hand perspective, she has little knowledge about how brutal these videos truly are. I guess we are in the realm of the slogan-ized “decapitation video”. It is claimed constantly that these videos are so brutal that no one should watch them and therefore they are somehow removed from an open debate. Many of the videos are absolutely horrible – don’t get me wrong on that – but most are not really beyond the brutality level of Hollywood. Maybe she can not stand R-rated movies either.

To her the brutality might appear to be so outrageous that there is little left to understand. But she is, from what I see, certainly not the kind of person these videos are targeted at. Years ago, when the first Kill Bill movie came out, I went to see it with two Japanese friends. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of violence, blood and gore shown. To my Japanese friends this seemed quite normal. To them, it was a normal way to tell a story about violence. I, on the other hand, grew up with something we might call “more subtle”. Maybe “less revealing” might be a better word for it. Tell the same violent story with less blood and the story might win you an award in Cannes.

But this does not mean that one way to tell a story is the better way. Communication always has a sender and a recipient. And both sides must come to terms on the language they use. This is true for written or spoken language and it is similarly true for a visual form of storytelling.

I would guess that the curator would be amongst those people who complain about young people and the “degenerate” way they speak. The slang youth uses seems to be disturbing for every generation of adults. Languages evolve.

These violent propaganda videos, fast paced, brutal, are just not made to recruit someone like her. Once you grow up in a visual environment that contains the Internet, contemporary action movies and computer games though, you certainly understand the visual language much better. This is no argument to prohibit violent movies or violent computer games. Even without them, the world would not become a better place but rather this would merely alter the visual representation of violence. The Nazis did not share images from their concentration camps, since that was just not something you would do back then. This lack of visual PR-work did not stop them to do any of the things they did.

Drones seem to work better if they look like drones

So, a couple years ago, the Iranian Military got its hands on one of the newest American Drones. One, where the people who sell them claim that they are “stealth” and therefore almost invisible for radar and perfectly suited for espionage and clandestine killing. The whole event was an embarrassment on the American site and cause for celebration for the Iranian government.

Schematic drawing of the drone the Americans “lost”.

The apparent success might have something to do with the very distinct appearance of this fancy drone. Far remote from the makeshift look many current drones share, with an old-fashioned looking propeller on the back and bombs and sensors sticking out everywhere; this one does look like Sci-Fi. So even though the drone was damaged during the capture, it created quite a number of images that were eagerly used by the press worldwide.

The captured drone is presented to the media.

Sometime later, after the Iranian government had declared that they had reverse engineered the drone, images of an Iranian copy of the drone made their round on the Internet and in certain media outlets. The fly worthiness of the drone was instantly questioned, but that did not really seem to matter. This was about a propaganda coup. Again, the very distinct appearance of the drone made it quite easy to rip it off. The round shapes, the rough edges, all quite easily copied with some fiberglass and the fact that the shape of the original drone hides most of the intricate internal working certainly made things easier.

The Iranian “reverse engineered” version of the drone.

So, the new drone, even though possibly not able to do anything, did serve its purpose. Plus: since this had been a highly classified American drone, there had been no (or very little) footage released of it flying before the capture, so why should the Iranians not follow the American lead? Propaganda is normally not aimed at those people who can easily decipher it as propaganda. Therefore, in terms of propaganda, good enough is all you need. This makeshift drone copy was certainly good enough.

The distinct shape of the drone became even part of the local propaganda folklore

A few months ago, there was a grainy video from Syria or Iraq, that showed explosives being dropped by a remote-controlled drone on some fighters below. Even though this was done by certainly using one of those enthusiast level hobby drones, this was in a way an escalation. For quite some time before drone footage was more and more used to document attacks. But these were limited to enabling the viewer a different perspective on the battlefield. A new vantage point. This first “drone strike from the oppressed”, looked quite crude. The video quality was low and the whole device seemed wonky.

A couple of days ago, there was some fuzz on the channels I use to find the videos I download over an upcoming film that was going to show a number of drone strikes by ISIS on targets in and around of Mosul. But the biggest news seemed to be that ISIS was using a high-tech drone, close to the one the Americans had lost. At least that seemed to be the claim.

The ISIS version.
Note the three GoPro cameras used to film the flight. These are not present in the image above.

In a way, the video, when it was published, was in deed very scary. It seems as if the technology here has developed to a point, where it is possible for insurgents to utilize remote controlled drones to kill people from a distance. And this the video shows at some length. Several groups of people are attacked – and from the looks of it people are certainly injured and maybe even killed.

But what strikes me in relationship to the story above goes beyond that. In the video, you see two guys operating a remote-controlled drone that carries two little bombs and it even shows the bombs being dropped mid-flight. The shape of the drone, which is little more than an RC plane, is made to resemble the high-end drones used by the Americans and copied by the Iranians. Sure, that might be a mere coincidence and could just be done to achieve better aerodynamics, but if you look at the video closely, it becomes clear that the drone shown isn’t actually the drone used in the attacks.

The attacks are shot from a stationary vantage point and therefore would require the drone to hover. So, it is more likely that the attacks were undertaken with tiny little helicopters. Sure, they had been as deadly and as scary. But my question would be why bother and built a completely different drone if you do not use it in the attacks altogether? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show the drones you use for your attacks? Maybe not. If you want to call something a “drone strike”, maybe you need something that resembles the common idea of what a drone looks like. You have to follow the drone archetype and make it your own.

The helicopter stile drone might be far better in dropping bombs and killing people, but “real armies” us real drone and due to the Iranian propaganda, real drones have become an image that resembles them. The fact that the size of the ISIS drone is off by a factor of ten does not really matter. The drone has merely become a shape and form and neither its final size nor its real capabilities seem to matter. To the visually driven outside world, both look the same. Most people would not bother to research such an image any further. They might have a vague idea of what a modern American drone might look like – since Iranian propaganda was everywhere and the images from this source had been used in Western media as well – and if the shape somehow fits, well, that can only mean that ISIS now has modern drones. This is all propaganda needs.

 

I always thought the idea behind language is, that it functions as a means of communication – stupid me….

During a conversation, I have had a couple days ago, with a person maybe 10, 15 years younger than me, she mentioned that she was working with a group that does projects in the GLOBAL SOUTH. I guess I might have heard the term before, but this time it struck me somehow. In my youth, I was always very left-leaning and participated in several quite radical groups, one way or the other. Back then there were many debates on what we should call poorer nations and regions of the world. The term GLOBAL SOUTH made me realize that this debate is still ongoing.

While I was participating in such debates, it seemed clear, that the term Third World was bad, so we used Developing Nations or sometimes even Trikont (for the three continents Africa, Asia and South America) to describe the poorer nation that differed from the place we were living in. We had the best of intentions and distanced ourselves from racism and such as much as anyone could. But apparently, the development always goes further and now the young women I was talking to, felt to be in a position to tell me that Developing Nations is a very negative term and has to be avoided. One might call it evolution, I call it a problem as well.

It seems to me as if every generation suddenly realizes that there is still racism in the world and that this racism is somehow embedded in certain words used. So far, so good. But then comes the point, when suddenly someone comes up with a solution. The same solution, that is always implemented, let’s get rid of one word and use another instead. So, Third World becomes Developing Nations, becomes Global South … and in some years, this then becomes something else. It has to, since Global South, from the way I understand it, definitely includes Australia and New Zealand and certainly excludes all of Central Asia. How dare they!

I always thought that the idea of communication is to transmit information from one individual to another. So, pointing your finger at something and make the other person understand that you want to draw attention to this something; to my understanding, that would be the most rudimentary form of communication. Both sides have to agree that pointing means pointing though, but beyond that, it makes little difference, how crooked your finger is. But here, in the example above, it is almost like the other side explaining “well I know what your pointing means, but we should do it differently, since pointing like you do is very offensive”. One can do that, but I think that this somehow undermines the way communication works. Communication is always highly abstract and always very open for interpretation. We can be extremely happy, if we reach the point, where the other side gets some of what we are trying to communicate.

Sure, there is the issue of racism, sexism, fascism, etc.. We will certainly never get rid of that. I think it is part of who we are to attempt to find our place within the surrounding multitude of groups. We have to define us by defining otherness. The others are in part what make an individual part of a certain “us”. We are not like them, that make us to the us we hope to be. I am not saying that this makes racism something positive, but rather something that is deeply rooted in our programming. Maybe so deep that we will never get rid of it.

But blaming language is just wrong. Once you bring enough people to use a new term, that definitely gives you a gratification. It fells as if you made the world a better place, but in fact all you did is change language and not the underlying problem. Since words are absolutely abstract, there is always enough room to project negative thinking into them. Every word and every gesture has the potential of being offensive. What is happening here is far from being the natural development of language and communication systems, but rather the attempt to control minds through the control of words. That is not going to work.

The issue with a word like nigger has nothing to do with the word nigger being offensive in itself, but rather the fact that there is so much racism and oppression towards people with African ancestry. The word nigger becomes a symbol for that and the fact that every new word quickly becomes a new symbol for oppression might just be an indication that the world hasn’t really changed that much. There is still oppression and racism felt directly in these communities. Changing the words people use to describe “them”, or for them to describe “us” did not change anything.

I think the more problems a society has with racism and prejudice, the more people demand quick action to be taken. Changing language has always been an almost instant gratification system. It is like giving the racists a new flag and pretend for a while that they are gone.

There has recently been the bullshittery of white guys to complain about being called white. It seems as if they are trying to hijack the system. If I look at myself in the mirror, I must say that it is not really white what is reflected there. Even my ass – and that rarely sees the sun – would be classified as white. It is also a very long time ago – I guess – that my ancestors left the mountains of the Caucasus. So, calling me Caucasian is a little off too. But I perfectly get that you are talking of people “like me”, when you are saying “white” or “caucasian”. I also get it, when you call me “boy”, because to the outside, that would be a sensible way to classify me amongst a group of people. I have a vague idea of who I am. But most of you have none, or an even far vaguer one. Sometimes it can not be avoided to talk about other people, sometimes people we have only looked at once. And then we have to refer to stereotypes and rash classifications, just to make communication work. And my god, isn’t it amazing that commination works to the extent it does?

The filter bubble and self-fulfilling prophecies

Most of the talk about filter bubbles seems directed at the consumers – the ones who read the news. But I think that modern technology also creates a similar environment for those who create the news. Maybe with even more dangerous consequences.

A couple months ago, I had an encounter with an American couple – both veterans of the US Armed Forces. During our conversation, we ended up talking about politics. As a matter of fact, it was the day after the US election. The two kept complaining about the corruption of the media and how media is controlled and directed by some unnamed force. It was not really a conspiracy theory, the way they are talking about it, but quite close. They could not really name the force or entity controlling the media.

I think the media controls itself. Here, I am not talking about positive tools and guidelines to control the ethics of the media – like a media watchdog -, but rather mechanisms that might, from the outside, look like the stuff the two Americans were complaining about.

Many news sites look as if someone is constantly finetuning their news outpour to reach as many potential readers as possible. That makes sense, since more readers mean more add revenue and at the same time the Internet makes this almost unavoidable. If I’d be really interested in it, I could easily track the viewers on my website. It almost takes some effort not to do this. But I think that this then creates a feedback loop. With everyone involved constantly able to check with story sells and which does not, it becomes too tempting for many to follow the path of least resistance. This is all too familiar and one might boil it down to “people like to get positive feedback”. People want to be loved, because quite frankly, this is easier than being hated.

So, I guess, both, the readers and the creators, envelope each other in a filter bubble. The readers read, what they want to hear and the news sites write what their readers expect to read. This isn’t a deliberate process, nor is it a fast one. I think it more comparable to a slow evolution. These effects might have existed long before the Internet, for instance a newspaper editor notices dwindling sales and finds out that the audience is more interested in one topic over the other. But this was always a slow and tedious process and one that was easily outpaced by other, more current events. Now on the other hand, one can track the attention of the audience almost in real time. This is why you see headlines change, articles being rewritten or disappear altogether.

This almost feels like there is no real need for journalists anymore. Just write something and let the feedback from the audience (clicks, links, messages, etc.) guide the article to where it is supposed to be. I know that this is not the way it works, but we are getting closer.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that on average, journalists are of the intelligent kind, but they are still human beings. And there are some very simple and very rudimentary effects that guide our behavior. And taken as a big group, no matter how intelligent, a bunch of journalists can behave quite indistinguishable from a bunch of cheerleaders. We are animals and we follow the path of least resistance. And looks as if this can be utilized against us.

J.M.W. Turner and the Islamic State

I came across this image on Telegram, which threatens the UK with a terror attack on London.

It might not be the best of all Photoshop worlds, but I had to smile. Oddly enough, it reminded me of the painting by J.M.W. Turner and especially the ones of the burning Houses of Parliament. I am not saying that the Islamist who did the image above took his inspiration directly from Turner. I would rather say that Turner has been so inspirational that traces of his work could even be found in Islamist propaganda. Or maybe it is just me who sees the connection. I still think it is funny.

 

2016 and the idea of the “Terrible Year”

It has been quite a while, since I wrote something here. So apparently, I missed out on the US election for instance. But at the end of the year, people tend to look back at the twelve months that just gone by to conclude the year. What seems quite obvious, at least if I look at other people attempting the same thing, is that 2016 must have been a terrible year. Most people seem to agree on that and so do most media outlets. But maybe I should phrase it differently. Most media outlets seem to agree on the terrible nature of 2016 and so many people agree with the media.

My guts tell me that there might be a problem with that. I am not saying that the things, people and media outlets mention, when talking about 2016 and how terrible it has been, did not happen, or were not important. I rather think that the conclusion itself is problematic. To me, the debate on fake news and the complaining about the terribleness of 2016 seem somehow interconnected. Fake news and the filter bubbles that come along with it, have made it to the center stage of media attention. But isn’t the conclusion that this has been a terrible year not just another example of a filter bubble? How many of those who complain about the shittyness have really been affected. Don’t get me wrong. The election of Donald Trump or Brexit made me feel scared as well. But feeling scared is rather different from being really affected by something. So far, neither Brexit, nor the election of Donald Trump, had a real impact on my live.

And even if I, myself, would be affected by any one of these events directly, that would not mean that the whole world is going downhill. To me certainly, it could feel like it, but reality does not work based on my feelings. Nevertheless, we have reached a point, where too many decisions are based on fears and feelings. If this affects politics, it really becomes an issue.

There are quite a people that try to counter the bad stuff of 2016, with stories about the good stuff of 2016. I am not going to do that, because it is the same thing. Most of the “good” stuff, that has happened, remains forever as abstract as most of the “bad” stuff.

I am not saying that people should be ignorant of the things happening, but it becomes an issue, if distant and abstract things start affecting our feelings and through this our behavior. This way, the conclusion that 2016 has been a terrible year, might just be another fake news story, in that you have to believe in it for it to become valid and real.

Of course, terrible things did happen to many people in 2016, but mostly these are not the same people who claim it to have been a bad year. The people mostly affected are the ones without a voice. That is not new. But the extent to which people seem to come to the same conclusion almost reminds me of hysteria. But as a matter of fact, it might just be another hint on how our perception of the world has changed. The Internet and a 24 hour news circle enable us to believe that everything that is been told could affect us right here and now. It enables us to feel as if we were embedded in the struggles and catastrophes of our modern world. Even though we are as distant from most of the people or events as ever before.

We feel connected to the people we are virtually connected with, not realizing that there is no connection between us other than the story someone tells. The attacks and elections of the world are just a click away, so they might easily feel more real or important than my neighbor, which I have never spoken to. So his death might affect me less than the death of some stupid movie star.

Islamist Propaganda might be the New Child Porn

Ever time and era in human history had its rules regarding the prohibition of images. And there have always been perfectly good reasons for why these rules had to be enforced. Still none of these rules held true forever and so if we have learned anything, we should come to the conclusion that our own perfectly good sounding reasons might be up for question as well.

I had a conversation yesterday on my work regarding ISIS videos. The two nice guys I was talking to both argued that these execution videos should be prohibited to spread. They even argued that depicting these gruesome acts falls in the same category as child pornography. I think there are quite many things wrong with this argument.

Child pornography is a strange thing indeed. This seems to be the only material that could get you in real trouble on the Internet by just looking at it. I am not talking about sharing, buying, storing, but rather just looking at it. (Please keep in mind that I am writing this from a German perspective.)

So it seems to me, that the two guys I was talking with, are not the only ones that try to throw “beheading videos” in the same basket with child pornography. I believe, I have heard similar attempts from several politicians in the past. They are aiming at islamist propaganda, but call it “beheading videos” – sounds much catchier if you ask me and makes the public easier follow their lead. Of course, no one wants beheading videos and the fact that the huge majority of islamist propaganda does not contain beheadings becomes a mere side note.

I am not saying that this material – child pornography or islamist porn should be treated as any other pictures or videos online. But I would like to question the idea of prohibiting certain images in themselves. Criminal acts should be prosecuted and so therefore should be those people, who produce and share, sell and buy these videos. But merely criminalizing the shear encounter with these images is wrong. They might be breaking any moral codes we have, or do not fit in any of our multitudes of ideas, of what should be considered good taste, but just by making most people avoid looking at something, won’t make it go away.

To me the “child porn” argument seems one of last resort. Something I even learned during the conversation I had. First the two guys I was talking with argued with “bad taste”, something very generic. Later they tried the argument, that decapitations should not be shown, since these videos are violating the privacy rights of those executed. Well, of course they do, but I find the bigger violation to their privacy the fact that they have been executed in the first place. I have yet to encounter a single image from the death camps of the Second World War, where peoples faces are blurred. I find it extremely important to give these nameless victims at least a face. It is hard to look at, but so is this form of brutality in general.

It might not be necessary for everyone to look at these images – child porn or beheadings – but for the society as a whole, it might be important to really know what is out there to fine tune our response. Personally I find the mere idea of child porn so disgusting, that I have no intention to even look at this material. I encountered some in the past by accident and to me this is enough. But there have to be people working on this material and I would definitely want to see a talk or presentation on the way these images look, or how they evolve over time, where they draw their inspiration and if a response to the growing pressure from the criminal justice side can be found in this material.