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.