Deep Fakes

When people started to realize the full potential, a program like Photoshop could have, it seemed as if a revolution was on the horizon. Our trust in photography as evidence could not be rescued and a dark age of uncertainty would emerge. Some time ago, I was talking to a judge who told me about meetings and conference they have had back then, where they were discussing the bleak implications. It seemed, as if there could be no other possible outcome than to get rid of photography in the legal system altogether. But what might be there to replace it?

In retrospect, digital photography in general and photo editing software like Photoshop in particular, did have an influence on how photography is being used. But contrary to the fears, the role it plays is bigger than ever. Even in courtrooms and the legal setting.

I mention this, because I had a déjà vu recently. At the moment, there is quite a lot of fuzz about a piece of software called Deep Fake – since it has “Fake” in its name, there has to be fuzz about it in the media. This program relies on deep learning algorithms to automatically replace the faces of persons in videos, with the faces of other people. The software manages to match the facial expressions and lighting. Some of the results are more convincing than others, so there is definitely room for improvement. But undoubtedly the software will improve over time.

Naturally the first usage people have found for this new technology is porn. It always is porn. The faces of celebrities have been used to replace the faces of people in porn videos. As said, some of the videos are more convincing than others.

Many of the videos disappear quite quickly, since they seem to violate the guidelines of the porn sites they are uploaded to. But I wonder why exactly. Is this really a violation of copyright, since the videos are clearly edited from the source material? Or is it a violation of privacy rights? But here, the argument is weird. The outrage these videos cause, is precisely because they do not show the real people. Rather the faces shown are merely based on the celebrities. Sure, the title then claims that a certain video shows a certain celebrity. But this is something that is done constantly. When Sarah Palin, back in 2008, was running as vice presidential candidate in the US election, a whole flood of porn videos was created, where actors posed as Sarah Palin. On the Internet, quite a few videos were marketed as the real deal. But even, if something was called “Sarah Palin real porn”, it still wasn’t Palin, that was to be seen in the video.

These deep fake videos do not claim to be the real deal, but rather they are clearly marked as deep fakes. Sure, over time that might change, but right now even the URL of these websites mentions the fake. People seem quite proud about this new toy and deep fake seems something worth mentioning. So where is the real harm in these videos? Take the Melania Trump video. It is clear that this is not her. And as a matter of fact, it is not her. The body isn’t, since that belongs to some anonymous porn actress and the face isn’t, because this is merely the result of a calculation that was loosely based on some real video footage of Melania Trump.

As a quick side note. At the moment of writing, I have yet to encounter a video, where the celebrity, whose appearance is being used, is male.

Some actors have already begun to get trademarks on their own faces and we might finally have reached the point, where this becomes relevant. So, the liable aspect might be a mere violation of a trademark, yet that should normally not spark too much outrage.

I think the outrage has a lot to do with the current fake news debate. People are just afraid that fake news might become indistinguishable from the reals news. And every report that might support that fear, is amplified. And technology seems quite scary in general. In 2016, for instance, Adobe (the manufacturer of Photoshop) presented a new software Adobe VoCo. This program was called “Photoshop for audio” and lets users create new voice tracks from pre-recorded audio. The clue here is, that the software is able to create entirely new sentences with a voice that resembles the source material.

This is similar to Deep Fake. Source material is analyzed and used to create something new. Since we have become so used to photo editing software, the parallels might be a bit hard to spot, but this is exactly the stuff Photoshop enabled the inept layman to do in his basement. Photoshop made it possible for almost everyone to alter images more or less convincingly. The fact that Deep Fake or Adobe VoCo use deep learning algorithms to some extend is insignificant. To the normal user all three programs are a black box and very few people have a clear understanding, what Photoshop actually does, when its filters or tools are used. Deep Fake automatizes very difficult crafts and so does Photoshop.

We, as a society, have proven extremely resilient to the dangers posed by Photoshop. Never do I get the feedback from friends after posting or sending an image, where they question the authenticity of my post. Debates on the authenticity of images happen, and they happen quite prominently, but taken that Photoshop exists on millions of computers and in every news room around the globe, these debates are quite rare.

Fake news is a buzzword currently, and everything that could support the argument that fake news is on the rise, gets vastly amplified attention. But disinformation, false claims and denial of evidence are not new. They are at least as old as interaction between bigger groups of people.

Sure, the way fake news spreads is evolving, and so are the tools used. But every tool in the media toolkit might be used that way, even pen and paper. And if the tools do not work to your liking, you can always claim that a piece of evidence is false. Denial is the most important weapon for people trying to spread fake news. And for denial, no one needs special skills.

That way, I believe, that the bigger impact these new tools might have in this debate, might come from the claim that they were used in the first place. They will certainly become part of the denial game. Comparable to the way people nowadays claim that a picture is photoshopped and should therefore not be seen as real evidence. This can easily taint every real evidence and therefore it becomes quite damaging.

Using these tools in a fully convincing fashion is always too difficult. With a picture that has been doctored with Photoshop, people always seem to find the source material. Or they spot minute irregularities that give away the fake. I am not paranoid, so I don’t believe that there are too many fake images out there, everyone believes in. The positive feedback someone receives for proving that a picture is doctored is just too tempting, and since these photo editing tools are so widely available, too many people know what they can do and how that then looks like. Someone always spots the fake.

But the danger lies more in the doubt these tools can create. Tools like Deep Fake and VoCo might in the end become household names, just like Photoshop. And when this happens, too many people might expect these tools being omnipresent. Everything becomes doubtful.

 

 

Herostratus on Steroids

The more I think about it, the more I have to realize that many of my works are somewhat problematic in respect to the topics they are dealing with. The same, I think, is true for other works by different artists, dealing with similar topics, so I would like to try to phrase my concerns.


When Herostratus laid fire to the Temple of Artemis in the 4th century BCE, it is said, that he was aiming for eternal remembrance. So, the reaction by public figures to punish him with damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of memory, seemed quite sensible, even though this attempt has failed miserably. The names of the people that did condemn him have long since been forgotten, yet the name of the criminal lives on.

If we take the story for granted, Herostratus was no terrorist. The people he was aiming for were not his enemies and he was not trying to instill fear in them that other such acts might inevitably follow, he was rather extremely selfish. He wanted his actions to be remembered and his name to live on. If he would have been a member of a bigger group, that threatened similar acts, the story would be different, but he was giving his life merely for his own cause. He wanted to be glorified – sure, he did something most people would have hated him for, but glorification works in the negative as well as in the positive. The arch villain is a hero in of itself.

I guess, there is little real information on the reaction of his contemporaries, but I would doubt that there had been widespread fear that his action could have merely been the start of an upcoming series of similar events. If bureaucracy worked in a similar fashion 2500 years ago, some guards at the temple were reprimanded for their lapse in security, but that would have been it. The guy who actually did it had been apprehended and executed and no one was ever to mention his name again. That was it.

When looking for the right way to deal with contemporary acts of terrorism. Many media outlets struggle and quite a few resort to a damnatio memoriae for our current media environment. The acts themselves are still reported, but certain news sites for instance stopped to show images of terrorists and refuse to mention their names.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/27/french-media-to-stop-publishing-photos-and-names-of-terrorists

If terrorists would be motivated by similar urges than Herostratus, this seems an adequate way to cope with terrorism. But there is more to that, than just the individuals need to leave traces.

For once, the fundamental claim of terrorism is that there are more things to come. Things that are going to strike us out of the blue. The individual terrorist might indeed partially be motivated by the selfish urge of becoming a glorified hero, but the fact that the claim is made, that his actions are part of a wider movement, is essential. Interestingly, this claim is very often not made by the attacker him- or herself, but rather by the group that defines his whole existence through an ongoing series of attacks. ISIS for instance, keeps claiming attacks for themselves that have little connection to the real planning of this group. To the person who feels under threat, it makes little to no difference who makes this claim.

Whether the above-mentioned response, by some media outlets, to retract the names and images of violent attackers, is a valid response, is up for debate. But maybe this response does not even go far enough and the story of Herostratus might teach us some valuable lesions for the conflicts of the 21st century.

Compared to the role remembrance plays in contemporary conflicts, the actions by Herostratus seem almost like child’s play. He wanted his name to be remembered to become immortal, but today it is all about a continuous place in the 24-hour news cycle. He was up for what we would call today 15 minutes of fame, while terror groups aim for a never-ending state of fear.

Today’s conflicts aim at our perception as the crucial battlefield. Terrorism, for instance, only works once it is been perceived as terrorism. If the single acts of murder are understood merely as acts of a criminal nature, the feeling of terror most likely disappears. If a drunken guy stabs some people in front of a club and is then killed by police, the whole thing is merely reported as news. Something that has happened and that is now over. Just something the public might want to know about. If there is a growing number of such incidences, politicians might face some tough questions by their constituents and might fear for reelection. But little else comes of it.

Terrorism, on the other hand, lives from being reported in a different way than that. To fully function, it needs to be understood as merely part of something bigger. As something that might happen again in a different setting, but that has to be understood as part of the same storyline. Terrorists work hard to make their actions seem as if they were connected. But this connectedness is artificial. What we experience as a constant threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe at the moment, is in fact a series of incidences that are quite few and far apart. Even if it were true that most or all of the attacks were orchestrated by the same group, following the same narrative, this struggle has bears little resemblance of an all-out war. But to many people, it feels like it. Why? Maybe because every incidence is talked about over and over again. And this way, the groups claiming responsibility for these attacks are given constant media airtime.

So, when some news outlets decide not to show the faces and names of the perpetrators, this solves only a small part of the issue. The attacks are still given ample airtime – much more in fact, than many other events, that have a comparable number of casualties.

What reminds me here of Herostratus is the fact that terrorism seems to depend on us thinking about it, for it to stay alive. The more we talk about it, the more the whole issue grows and thrives. Oddly enough other issues are quite similar in this respect. Take for instance mass surveillance. Sure, Big Brother could watch you without your knowledge, but it has always been the more cost-efficient approach to pair surveillance with a heavy dose of paranoia in your targets. Have them be afraid and therefore enforce some control on themselves.

In that respect, “knowledge” can be a curse, since what you believe to know, is in huge parts a construct that only exists in our group consciousness. There might be a terror attack any moment or there might be Big Brother watching over my shoulder right now, but the chance that this just isn’t the case is so much bigger. Us, being afraid, easily fills the gaps between accidents or acts of surveillance.


The more attention these topics get, the more important they seem. This is a problem. Not only the classical media outlets do a far too focused job, reporting on terror or surveillance, but it has also become a staple topic in other cultural fields. Movies, documentaries, books, theater plays – I just guess that there are even operas – are dealing with terror. And many visual artists, like me for instance, spend a lot of time drawing even more attention to this issue. The way this is done is very often quite fanciful and therefore gives the whole thing some street cred. Surveillance, war and terror have become cool topics for the coolest kids around.

We might come with the best intentions, but I am not so sure anymore, if we are actually doing a good job. We might have to deal with the idea of us being complicit, when dealing with topics, where the actual danger is not so much out there in the real world, but rather in our internal response. By shedding even more light on these topics, we serve the agenda. When ISIS, for instance releases new videos, people like me instantly flock to them and make them part of the debate.

If it comes to these topics, there should be debate, but the question is, which debate. I have no conclusive answer, but I want to show that I am struggling.

Maybe we should look at ISIS in the West as a youth revolt

— This is something I just wrote down, without planning too much. I realize that it might be a little bit confusing. This is just me, just rumbling on. —

Time and time again, fascists try to rebrand themselves to regain traction. They look for new symbols, to replace those, that have become too easily recognizable as belonging to their despicable agenda, or to replace those, that are outright illegal to use. And with the new symbols come new slogans. The change is limited to the outside appearance though.

I have quite some knowledge of how Islamist propaganda videos look like, and when I come across videos by groups that associate themselves with neo fascist agendas in the West, quite often it strikes me how similar they are in appearance. Take for instance the video below from a group that associates itself with the so-called Identitarian movement. The way these men run through the forest and wrestle looks so youthful and modern, yet the same is true for by many of the Islamist propaganda that tries to find recruits in the West. When looking through my collection for a video to pair with the Identitarian, I was somewhat lazy. This was the one I found first and this is why I used it. There are many others, that look more modern than this one here and that utilize a similar lightheartedness, than that is found in the Identitarian video, to spread their hatred.

But why do these groups that seem to aim for a weird sense of stability, one that is promised if you follow conservative values, constantly evolve? Maybe this could be explained, if we look at these groups as part of a youth movement that changes from generation to generation. Every generation that comes of age, has to define itself new. Fashion trends change constantly, and the army boots, skinhead haircuts and bomber jackets of the 90s just lost their appeal to the next generation of Nazis.

Many parties in the West have long ago formed their youth organization. In Germany, every major party has one. That is quite clever. There is the real party, with a grown-up agenda, aiming for real world politics, and then there is the youth wing that is allowed to be more extreme and sometimes even youthfully delusional.

Maybe this is true for ISIS as well. When looking at the propaganda, I have always found it quite interesting, that there seems to be a whole multitude of target audiences. On one hand, ISIS tries to appear like a state that is somewhere out there and that does stately things. Building roads, providing food and entertainment, or even punishing criminals – whoever those might be under their jurisdiction. But then there is also the propaganda that tries to recruit young people in the West and locally. This propaganda has a different appeal to it. This is the propaganda that tries to look young and fresh. Could it be, that this propaganda looks different because it is part of a youth culture?

We have to keep in mind, that at least in part, ISIS is the result of the Arab Spring, which in itself was driven to a huge extend by a disillusioned youth. Countries, that have been encapsulated by a crust of old elites, with little to no hope for a better future, served as a hotbed for a revolting youth. And when the promises, that were made, were broken, ISIS filled the void by promising an even brighter future.

In my youth, I had been fascinated by radical left ideas. I desperately wanted to fight for a better world. It just happened, that my own endeavor never turned violent, but I guess, I might have been walking a fine line. There were certainly violent groups and players that had an appeal to me; in hindsight though, I have come to realize that the promises they made back then were lies. I wanted to struggle for freedom and liberty and these groups pretended to do fight for the same goals. Yet, the stories by folks like Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh and reality are two different things. But it sounded tempting.

When I was at that age, I might have been just lucky that there were not so many revolutions easily accessible, that were calling for volunteers to fight. Even if they would have, I could have never afforded to book a flight to, let’s say Nicaragua.

Of course, the things done by ISIS and Co are terrible, but I wonder how we will be able to cope with the next way of unrest, if we merely look at ISIS as something solitary. As something that is rooted in some specific issues, of some specific time. There is this aspect as well. The set of problems at work in the Middle East post Arab Spring are different than the problems in Cuba under the rule of the Batista regime. But there is also the struggle of the youth every society has to cope with.

The growing inequality in many societies, the overpopulation, the disappearance of job opportunities, due to the coming AI breakthrough, climate change, these problems – and many more beyond our horizon -, mean that coming youth generations might have even more reasons to feel disenfranchised in the society they live in. Struggling violently, might seem even more tempting than it is now.

I think it is very dangerous, to look at the problems ISIS seems to cause amongst the youth around us, as something that is just linked to groups like ISIS and therefore as something we might be able to defeat on the battlefield. Members of coming generations are going to take up arms again and fight their own fight. ISIS is going to disappear. And the radical forms of religion are going to grow out of fashion amongst many young people. But religion is just some banner to unite under in a world that seems to hate you.

ISIS, Putin and the claim of responsibility

An image from a recent attack on a casino in the Philippines. Contrary to initial reporting and even a tweet by Donald Trump, the perpetrator was no ISIS member, but rather an indebted gambler.

Claiming or denying responsibility for things that happen, seems to have become almost an art form.

Imagining a criminal, confessing to a whole bunch of crimes he did actually not commit, is quite an extraordinary thought. But this is pretty much normal, if it comes to certain terrorist organizations. It appears as if ISIS in particular, claims almost everything at one point or the other. Sure, there are the official looking ISIS channels who seem somewhat more cautious, but even they did claim responsibility for the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando for instance, where the perpetrator in part seemed to have been motivated by his inability to cope with his own sexual orientation. OK, if I think about it, this might exactly be the reason that incites a huge chunk of religious violence, but normally this is not the stuff a group like ISIS wants to be openly associated with.

The point is though, that Islamist terror groups tend to claim responsibility for far more attacks and events, than what they have actually organized. The attacker in Orlando might have mentioned ISIS in a phone call, he made to the local police during his attack; so, he might have been inspired by the Islamic State; but if we look into it, there seems to have been little actual relationship between the attacker and the group he did mention. Inspiring someone and being fully responsible for his actions, are indeed two separate things.

One the other extreme we find Russian president Vladimir Putin. Whenever someone makes any claim of Russia being involved in anything, Putin instantly seems to deny any connection. Be it meddling in the US election, the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine or the killing of figures of the Russian opposition in Russia and abroad, he instantly denies any involvement and frequently calls the accusations conspiracy theories.

Neither Putin nor ISIS are stupid, let alone inexperienced, so rather than dismissing their difference in style as merely a personal preference, one should look at this as a strategic decision.

A terror group like ISIS tries to spread terror and fear, precisely to extend its otherwise very limited reach. Claiming responsibility for a multitude of events – these do not necessarily need to be attacks – does make sense. Especially in a media environment with an ever-shortening attention span. The way events are perceived is decided in the first couple of hours, until the whole media circus moves on. So, by pretty much claiming everything almost instantly, some claims might make headlines and that is all ISIS needs. That way, ISIS is more of a claim-machine than one that needs to orchestrate terror.

To law enforcement or the judiciary system – and to the victims – it is important to determine, if something had been an attack and who was behind it. But the panic element, that makes terror so devastating, relies on fast paced judgements. If prosecutors, weeks after an event, find out that a blast had been a technical malfunction, the battle over our perception has already been lost.

The reaction of denying any wrongdoing seems quite “reasonable” as well. If you deny any involvement in anything evil, that might limit your liability. Every two-year-old knows that. It becomes odd, when everyone knows that you are lying. Take for instance the fighting in Eastern Ukraine that goes on for years now. Putin denies any support for the so-called separatists. That seems odd, since the lack of support by official channels in Russia make it very hard to explain, where all the shiny new Russian tanks and small-arms are coming from.

Everyone knows, that there is support from within Russia and either Putin is extremely naïve, or he is lying. But constantly lying might in fact be a clever political move. People know that you do at least some of the things people claim you do. By appearing untrustworthy to your opponents – in Putin’s case the West -, people might start to believe that you are responsible for almost everything. You might become the focus of a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are funny, since, when you fall for them, they always seem to be directed against you. I have yet to find a person, who thinks that there is a conspiracy going on that aims at making his life better. That way, these conspiracies are always aimed at something extremely powerful, lurking in the shadows. But what if you are at the receiving end of such a theory? To some groups – i.e. the Jews, Freemasons, Communists -, this can have dire consequences. But if you are an organization that holds real power and whose job it is to use that power, people associating even more power to you, might certainly have some benefits.

I believe for instance, that American institutions, like the NSA and CIA, that are constantly under suspicion, do certainly realize that this conspiracy theory that is associated with them isn’t necessarily the worst thing. There are quite a few people, that almost believe in the omnipotence of these US agencies. And you do not want to pick a fight with such a powerful organization willy-nilly. That way, the CIA reaches parts of the world, where there is no agent present.

Strangely claiming everything and denying everything might create a similar outcome. It widens your reach. But the constant claim is the tool of the weak and the constant denial is the tool of the actor, people already think is powerful. There comes the point, where you should start switching from one to the other. If you have widened your virtual reach to a point, that people start believing in your godlike powers, it might become favorable to deny everything.

How to report on terror attacks

In light of the recent terror attacks, I believe that the media is obliged to report these attacks with a high level of care. The reach of terrorism is always extremely limited and terrorist organizations heavily rely on the media attention their attacks create to spread fear. The role of the media should not be to widen this reach, but moderate it.

These are some guidelines I believe might be important to follow.

– Treat it as a crime, until local law enforcement says it has been a terror attack.

– Ignore statements by ISIS, al Qaeda and such. What they are saying is propaganda and should therefore be ignored. By repeating their statements, you spread propaganda and therefore make the attack more successful. Just because they make the claim, that they have orchestrated something, does not mean anything.

– People feel the need to upload videos and images taken during attacks. Other people have the urge to search for these videos. Refrain from using these videos. The information value of these videos for the public is extremely limited, unless your goal is it to show people in distress.

– Images of the perpetrator should only be used when law enforcement asks the media to do so. What you might believe is reporting is in fact a glorification of attackers?

– Report facts and not feelings. Of course, people had been confused and scared during the attack. There is no point in putting emphasis on that, unless you wish to spread fear and uncertainty further.

– Only report things that are important for the public to know. Overreporting makes things more difficult for law enforcement and makes it harder for the public to understand.

– Try not to report everything law enforcement does live. If you want or not, you might help the attackers.

– If the whole event is still unfolding, does the general audience really need to know the names, genders and ages of the victims? Let the families come to terms first and then, later, we might join them in their grief.

– If you make a claim, that later proves to be false, at least have the decency to report your correction with a similar emphasis than your original statement. Otherwise the misleading claim is going to stick with the audience.

Perception Perception Perception

What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.

This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling.  Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.

We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.

What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.

This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.

With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.

I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.

Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?

Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.

So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.

The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.

Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.

 

Terror Propaganda for the Computer Age – And for the Lazy Content Creator … I guess??

Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.

Screenshot from the original Arma III ISIS mod pack.

Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.

I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.

The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.

The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!

It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.

That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.

Very crude example of CGI been used in older propaganda videos.

The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.

What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.

Drone flying into the sunset.

It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.

Real attack.
The CGI version.

Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.

Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.

So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.

Even an execution is included in the video.

But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.

 

 

Interview with Arte Tracks

This is just a video still. To watch the video, please follow the links below.

Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.

The German version is here
https://youtu.be/gAwQTnK9OxY

There is also a dubbed version in French
https://youtu.be/uM1SbbVyVTA

Sorry, no English version available.

One way to look at terror propaganda: Grab a beer and laugh your ass off!

Twice the guns, double the scariness? No, it is just ridiculous. The fact that he shoots two guys at the same time? Even more so!

After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.

I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.

Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.

Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.

Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.

In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.

There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.

I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.

But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.

Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule.  That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.

Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.

We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.

Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.

It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.