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.

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.


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.


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.

Image Primacy

So two guys attacked a church in France today, beheading a priest before being shot by police. That alone seems almost normal at the moment. But there is one thing that has become another part of the normal routine that keeps sparking my interest. According to some sources, the attackers forced the priest to kneel down and the filmed his decapitation. So it seems just a matter of hours, before this material is available in some dark corners of the Internet.

Some time ago, it seemed as if the measurement for the success of a terrorist attack was the body count, the number of people killed (and to a lesser extend the number of those wounded).  Maybe that is still somewhat the case – and the number of people killed and wounded has definitely a clear relationship to the number of front pages filled -, but to me there seems to be a shift.

I know, it is more complicated than that still, the calculation goes like this:

Amount of Fucks

Today, the measurement for the success of a terrorist attack seems to come mostly from the images it produces. Otherwise two dead terrorists for one dead priest would not sound all that successful.

But images become more and more important and therefore more and more powerful. It is just a matter of time, when the first terror attacks are streamed live. So far this has only happened in the aftermath of these events, but tools like Facebook Live or Periscope make it seem to be the logical next step. I guess the war in Syria would already be streamed live, if the mobile Internet in this war torn nation would just not be that bad.

But for me the question goes deeper. If it is true that images become the deciding factor (even though I make the argument here that they are, of course I can not be sure) – So if this is true, could we argue that  this is then  something we could call “image primacy”? With this I mean that people are not killed to be killed, but rather they are killed to produce images and therefore produce “news”. Otherwise, why bother killing a 86 year old priest? Something I have already argued for, when collecting images taken by snipers, while killing their victims. The victim does not seem to be important anymore, but the image itself seems to matter. That way it does make perfect sense to kill a priest inside a beautiful old church. It is the perfect setting to produce images that stand out.

The whole thing makes me sad.

Artificial Intelligence and Orange Jump Suits

I was searching online for the site, where I found a certain ISIS execution image, since I can not remember – and I forgot to write the link down. It is this one:AI and the Iconic1


Sure, the results were what I have expected and looked like this:AI and the Iconic2

It goes on like this for quite some time. Execution upon execution. But if you look closely, it gets quite interesting and somewhat complex. It does not show the same execution over and over again, rather it shows different, very similar stills. This tells me different things. First of all, whoever shot these videos for ISIS, has been very careful setting them up, so to create an iconic image of the scene. The one still seems enough to tell the whole story. This gets so far, that some media outlets use these images and completely forget to tell the name of the victim. These videos – and the stills from them – have become archetypal. They illustrate “terror” and the details seem almost unimportant.

But then there is the fact that these videos all show “western” victims (I use quotes, since Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto were Japanese). Maybe they show “our” victims. What I mean with that is the fact that I have seen so many videos with men in orange jump suits kneeling on the ground, before being executed, and most of them use a similar composition.

I think there is a feedback loop at play here. Since western media mostly report on western victims, the image search algorithm values these images higher than others. But is it OK? Mmmhhh, I think one could definitely argue against it and call it media bias. Then again, of course members of what we consider our own society are more deeply connected to us, than “strangers”. It is biased, but maybe understandably so. And ISIS gets this as well. This is exactly, why Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians or Libyans are often executed “by the dozen” whereas the execution of a westerner becomes its own feature film. Some of these films that show the execution of westerners, also show the execution of groups of other prisoners – but this happens as a byproduct. I don’t think it should come as a surprise when we realize that ISIS – among many other things – seems to be racist.

But back to the image search. One thing the results do not show is this:


This is an image from the early 2000s that was taken at Guantanamo prison. We almost forget that this is actually what ISIS is referring to, when using these orange jump suits. But maybe they overdid, what they did. OK, I am writing from my own, western, perspective, but to me it seems as if the orange jump suit does not so much represent the atrocities by the West. Rather perception has shifted towards associating this iconic piece of clothing with the atrocities committed by ISIS and Co. I wonder if they realize this. The more they use it, the more they are the ones associated with this icon of injustice.

The same seems to be true, when searching for the term “orange jump suit”.AI and the Iconic4

On the first page, there is almost no mentioning of Guantanamo – there is one image of an Iraqi prisoner threatened by a dog though. “Orange Jump Suit” mostly seems to be connected to the american prison system and – oddly – sexy ladies wearing them. That might have something to do with the TV series “Orange is the New Black”. But there is a link to a further search in relationship to ISIS at the top of the page.

Another somewhat strange example I encountered was a video from 2013, that shows rapper and actor Mos Def (or Yasiin Bey – the name he uses now). In this video he undergoes the routine of force feeding that was used at the time in Guantanamo (maybe it still is) and caused quite some media outrage. It is interesting that to fully undergo this treatment he apparently also had to wear an orange jump suit. Maybe this gives the whole procedure more authenticity, but I find such details quite often slightly absurd.mos defI wonder if it is more or less painful, if you are wearing orange. OK, that is cynical. But I would get the fact, that this is torture, even without him wearing this symbolic piece of clothing.

While thinking about this, I was wondering how clever the algorithm actually is and if it manages to understand the icon in its most basic form. Jihadi

This is what I came up with very briefly. But unfortunately neither Google, nor any other image search site I tried came up with any result.  So maybe AI has still some way to go.



If advertising would work, it would be prohibited

I know that the power of advertising apparently lays in the unconscious manipulation of our minds to guide us towards chose one product over the other. But I am not so much talking about what we call advertising, but what has been classified as propaganda. I would argue that propaganda – at least today – is just a word that is used for your opponents advertising.  That way, advertising and propaganda are pretty much the same.

But propaganda is treated as if it works perfectly. As if it in itself is dangerous. Like the idea of crack cocaine. Once you use it, just once, you are hooked and lost forever. Therefore access to it has to be prevented.

But I don’t think that this is the right approach. Especially not today, when everything that is prohibited can still be found somewhere hiding in the Web.

I am not saying we should let companies do whatever they want, since – as I am arguing – advertising does not really work. Markets are never going to regulate themselves and if tobacco companies, for decades advertise their products as pure lifestyle objects without any negative side effects, it is quite difficult for a society to compete with these billion dollar marketing budgets. Therefore I do believe that certain forms of advertising ought to be restricted.

But looking at islamist propaganda, at first one can be astonished by the sheer amount of material that pours out of Syria or Afghanistan. Upon closer inspection though, it is easy to realize that the material that is flooding Twitter, Telegram or Youtube is mostly copies. From what I have seen so far, I would guess that rarely more than ten new videos are posted each day. And most of these videos are not the highly edited and scripted videos, that are extremely professional looking . But it is the way these videos are shared, that makes the amount appear much bigger. Since many sites take the videos down as soon as someone flags them, they are uploaded on as many sites as possible. Quite often in multiple versions with different names. That can be confusing and overwhelming.

Sure, if this outpour is compared to the release of government funded PSA videos that try to inform young people of the dangers of groups like ISIS, ten videos a day is a lot. But if you look at the 24hour new circle and the general media production in the West, ten videos a day is nothing. I think limiting access to this material gives it a broader scope than it would otherwise have. It become special and interesting. Maybe we should let it drown in the stream of videos and photos that appear on the internet with little to no effect.


The Propagandists Problem with Propaganda

We all know that propaganda lies, and who knows it better than the propagandist himself. But in a way, propaganda is always the other sides propaganda. Most people would not classify their own media output as propaganda – at least not to the outside world. That used to be different and I keep stumbling upon the fact that Joseph Goebbels was head of the “Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda“ … what a title! But today, propaganda sounds bad and therefore it is mostly used to classify the outpour of the other side.


What happens though, when two groups utilizing propaganda collide? It might not be enough to classify the other sides productions as propaganda, more might be needed. An interesting case is a video from Yemen, that has been released recently, entitled “The Hollywood Reality of Al Bagdadi Group” (sic!). “Al Bagdadi” refers to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. This video has been released by a group associated to Al Qaeda, which has a deep rooted hatred for ISIS.

The video shows a guy, who’s face is blurred, claiming to be a former ISIS member, who discusses the way he was involved in the staging of a recent propaganda video. In front of a monitor, he explains certain scenes from the video and how they are manipulated Later he is shown in a house that was apparently been used as a set for the video and he even reenacts a scene, where on of his ISIS colleagues was posing as a dead Houthi fighter. The blood, that can be seen in the original video, he claims, was not blood, but merely Vimto, a dark red soft drink.

I find it quite fascinating, that this kind of “educational video” is produced by a group that uses the same techniques to produce their own propaganda. I wonder if the people watching this video are going to be more doubtful about the next Al Qaeda video, they encounter.




Glitter Taliban and the wonders of slight differences

I find images to be a wonderful tool to find details, that would be missed otherwise. Images are far less manageable than words it seems, so a press release might be a much better way to carefully transmit the story you wish to tell – but I might be wrong on that and maybe that needs more thinking. Still, I am amazed by small details I discover that seem to tell a bigger story.

I found the first two screenshots in a video that has been released by a group that belongs to the Afghan Taliban and the way the fighters pose in these images is very different from what you get through official ISIS channels.



Pink seems to be quite a fashion statement and not only is it a suitable color for your cloths or your cap, but also you Kalashnikov might  benefit from some glitter.

On the other hand, ISIS fighters quite often try to imitate actions seen in western (AKA US) propaganda videos and movies.



Sure, you will also see ISIS fighters wearing more traditional clothes, but for the sake of my argument, I am going to stick with the two images above. In these videos, ISIS tries to look more western than any western military ever would.

But to me, the difference between the two sets of images, tells another story as well. Sure, choosing pink might be something cultural and I am quite sure, that in the view of these Taliban fighters, this color is extremely suitable for its purpose. But it also reveals that they – in contrast to the fighters in Syria and Iraq – are quite detached from our media world.

I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry, but it is worth repeating myself. It seems to me that for some time, the Taliban were struggling to keep up with ISIS and its affiliates in the media war. One one hand, access to the Internet is much more difficult if you are living in the remote mountains of the Hindukush than if you are fighting in the Levant. But more importantly, I would argue, that has to do with history. There are remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where radical Islam was the law of the land for the past decades and where media access therefore had been strictly limited. So the fighters in these videos never “learned” what the color pink might represent. The same might be true if it come to the “right” way to express your masculinity.

In a way, the media war fought in the middle east is a very western dominated one. Even though the underlying moral structure might be very different and even though the west is considered the root of all evil. It is the root for the common media language as well.

But of course, once you look beyond official media channels, things break apart. But you can not control every image that ends up on Facebook, even if you are the ones you believe god chose to create his kingdom on earth.


… but we have to be careful, when looking at such an image. The guy on the far left, an Australian, was 18 when he blew himself up in a suicide attack.