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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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… 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.

War is strange

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I think I have to give up, reality is just to creative for me to challenge it as an artist. I am still following the visual output of ISIS quite closely and I came across a short add for an ISIS app for children. They are supposed to learn their letters and religious war songs. Please note the ISIS flag on the phone. I must say, I was quite baffled, when I stumbled upon this today.

It was especially strange to look at this short, animated clip, since it was on one of the official looking ISIS feed, that at the moment is full with images from Fallujah and other places of war and death.

War today is strange.

The Lazy Side of Corruption

This now might get somewhat angry…. or maybe frustrated.

I struggle with the fact that higher education in the arts is utterly broken in Germany. At least that what it seems like to me. And at least it seems broken, if it comes to the question of how professor positions are filled.

It might be jealousy on my side, since I really would love to teach at a university level and therefore I do, from time to time, apply to certain positions. But I have to be realistic and realize that my chances are zero.

If you apply at an art school, one of the key qualifications that is asked for is something called experience in teaching. Don’t get me wrong, that would definitely make sense, if there would be open and fair ways to gain this kind of experience. But maybe they do not exist. The easiest way would be, if one of the professor you have been studying with, invites you to teach a course at your old school. Maybe after that, you teach another and so on. There is no need for you to go through a tedious application process and that seems very convenient for the professor as well.

Another way would be, getting invited as a guest professor at a certain institution. If there is a application process at all – most of the time there is not -, that would be on invitation only and might be limited to two or three people. But again, most of the time, just one person is invited and that person is to teach for a limited time.

It is quite strange that public institutions – and that are almost all universities in Germany – seem quite happy with such an internal selection process. In both cases, the selection is made by professors behind closed doors, out of a pool of people they already know. That is what one might call a perfect example of networking. To me it does drift into the murky waters of corruption. Sure, if you already get along with someone, the chance seems quite high, that things work smoothly for you. But that is the exact definition of corruption. If you use your position in your interest, that is it.

This system also creates self-replicating networks, I know for instance of one case, where the child of a professor is now the assistant of a former student of that professor. How do we know, that this person is the best choice for this position? We do not know and I am sure, that no one cared to inquire.

Sure, the universities are not breaking any rules, since most laws allow them to fill positions in precisely this way. I still think this is problematic. These lax laws were meant to make life for university staff easier, but the system is broken. Take for instance my alma mater in Berlin. If I trust the information on their website, there are times, when close to fifty percent of the professor positions are filled with guest professors. And I am not even counting the assistant positions, which fall in the same intransparent category. Everything is filled from within the network of knowing-each-other.

I think it becomes a massive problem, once “teaching experience” is a requirement for any chances in an application process for a real professorship. I have to compete with a closed and intransparent network – and I can’t. The system requires a skill, which only members of the system receive. I do not see a conspiracy theory at work here, rather it is a classic example of laziness. But still this causes me quite some troubles.

Yes, yes, it is much easier to just choose someone you know over spending a lot of time looking for someone you do not know already. That is the path of least resistance and this path is a friendly looking, once you are operating on the inside.

A couple weeks ago, I ran into a student at this university and since I did study there before, of course we ended up talking about the way things are going. He mentioned the fact, that some students are currently fighting to keep one of the guest professors as a real professor at the school. Fuck it, the path of least resistance looks so easy. Even these students seem to follow it. The guy they want to become a professor has never applied for his current position and in a way, I was never able to compete against him, no matter how skilled I might be. And now the students want to deny me another opportunity to prove my skills. In some moments that makes me sad, in others I can get quite angry. Currently I feel resignation.

We should stop using quotes

I mentioned this before, but I find quotes a strange thing.

Yesterday I visited a conference/lecture series at a fancy place in Berlin – or at least I tried to do that. I just survived two lectures and then I had to leave. Maybe the nice weather played part in my decision to go somewhere else, but to be honest, it was more the academic style of the two lectures that drove me away. Especially one of the two talks was just a collection of quotes and it remains unclear to me, whether there was actually a unique idea hiding somewhere in this talk or not.

“He said this, and he said this, then she said this” … what is the point of a talk like this? Of course, in academia, people are supposed to quote in the right way and using as many names as possible during your talk, you might be seen as someone who knows the texts you are supposed to know. Not only do you prove your literacy, but maybe you can show off your great ability in memorizing.

Besides that, what’s the point? Very often, while talking to friends and colleagues, the term academia or academic is used in a negative way, describing the thing I am trying to talk about above. Many academics seem to see their role in being hard to understand to appear prolific. The problem seems to be that philosophy and other genres of cultural science are inherently open to everyone. Everyone could ask questions about the things philosophy or sociology are talking about. And everyone might be able to find answers. Maybe not everyone finds good answers, but who could be the judge if one answer to an abstract question is “better” than the other.

So the answer to the problem of openness of the field seems to be to make it artificially more difficult to participate. That might be called professionalization. Art seems to do the same thing. Since, in theory, everyone could produce art, the response is, to make the field less accessible and make references more crucial for your role as an artist. Even art in high-school does the same thing. You want to talk about art? Well you better know you Picasso, Cezanne, or Beuys, or you are not qualified to participate in the debate. Of course this is the problem on a very basic level. Once you enter academia, your “Picassos, Cezannes and Beuyses” are different and definitely more complex.

Along with this come certain texts you are supposed to know, certain thinkers you need to admire – or hate – and certain quotes you need to know by heart. IF you want to participate in the debate. Very often in such debates the actual content seems not to be that important.

This now might sound cheesy, but I do believe that most ideas could be explained in an easily understandable way. Not too complex and not too boring. Maybe one two paragraphs should be enough. But sure, if you are judged by the size of books you publish, or you are paid by the number of words you write… then it might be another story. I am not calling for a tabloid newspaper style of writing and actual events might be very complex and thus require extensive analysis. I am talking about text that take hundreds of almost indecipherable pages to explain one simple idea the author happened to come along.

But the problem I see is multi-layered. Why is it, that someone who wishes to be worthy of participating in philosophical conversations is supposed to know much about the history of philosophy? One might argue that you should know where ideas come from, or who came up with a certain concept first. I think this is bullshit. Just because an idea or concept has a name attached to it, it is not important who thought about what first. All that is to it is that this is some kind of eternal branding – once a philosopher has uttered a word and someone wrote it down, it seems as if there is now a weird copyright to a thought – a copyright that never expires. That is wrong on many levels.

This is connected to the issue I am having with quotes. Why do ideas need to be branded? Why is there no need to quote everything? Like:

“Wipe your ass till the paper is clean, or your butt hurts.”
Mom ca. 1981

Only the “important” ideas need to be properly addressed? I don’t like that. If a concept is good, there is no reason why just one person should come up with it. Plus, everything I know, every thought I have every concept that guides me through live is to at least 99.99% a composite of things I have experienced through other people. And the same was true for folks like Immanuel Kant or Karl Marx.

The Internet, our possibility of a constant access to all human knowledge, just makes things here more and more difficult. With the help of Google, every idea could easily be identified as plagiarism. Even the sentence with the ass wiping (without the quotation marks) results in something like half a million results – so it seems possible that my mum was plagiarizing the concept of butt wiping.

I’d say, let’s try to engage in conversations about interesting things, not giving a shit, where certain ideas might have come from – once they fit into your argument or your view on the world, they have already become entirely yours. I know it is hard, I myself have been conditioned by academia to follow the weird rules and hunt for mis-attributed quotes others use.

Images, Relics and Nike Shoes

Rocket

Unfortunately the image shown here is of relatively bad quality. It appears to show a rocket that has hit a truck. The rocket failed to explode, leaving a huge gash in the side of the vehicle. No matter how amazing the image might look, the truly astonishing part to me is its usage by different media outlets to document different wars. Depending on your source for news, the picture either shows a truck in the Ukraine, hit by a Russian rocket, a truck in Russia, hit by a Ukrainian rocket or a vehicle in Israel, hit by a Palestinian rocket.

Sure, we can all agree that, at most, only one of these stories could be possible true. But things are more interesting than that, if we just ignore this little detail.

In a way this problem isn’t new. In the middle ages, people in Europe went crazy about Christian relics. People died for them, wars were fought and pilgrims crossed the entire continent just to have a glimpse at the bones of a saint or two. But of course this also presented the perfect business opportunity for fraudsters. Dig up some random bones, put them in a nice reliquary, add the name of a saint in high demand and if you find a willing buyer, you can end up with a huge profit. The problem with this was, that there were more fraudsters than profitable saints and that led to the point, where the same body part of one saint was worshiped in different places. So apparently some saints seemed to have had more than one head, more than one right hand or more bones than a body would normally fit. This inflation was not limited to body parts though. Calvin suggested “if we were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.”

But of course this created a problem. People believed that by touching the relics of a saint, or even by looking at them, they could somehow use the power resting on the saint to their own advantage. Or maybe through the saint they could get a more direct access to God. But what if the bones are not the real ones? Not only would this not work as a direct path to the saintly, but worshiping the wrong bones might even be sacrilegious, since you might even, unknowingly, worship the bones of a sinner. Intellectuals were puzzled by this and came up with a – if find – beautiful solution. They argued that God would not allow you to worship the wrong bones, while you were truly believing that these were the bones of the saint. God would take care of that.

That means that if there are two heads of the same saint, worshiped in two different locations, under the right circumstances both are the real one at the same time. It might not be the case that both are the real one for the same person, but both could be looked at as if they were the real one. On a very deep level, they did become indistinguishable.

To me, that does not sound quite as absurd as one might expect and I find it easy to draw parallels to our world. If we, for instance, take counterfeit Nike sneakers. Which part of “Nike” are they lacking? Maybe they were produced in the same factory, or at least a similar factory with similar machines. They look the same and so does the logo. But still, the Nike company would declare them to be fundamentally different. But what about the person who buys them and believes in their authenticity? To him or her, they are the real thing – maybe until someone raises their doubt. In a way, they can be real and fake at the same time. And the same is true for the “real” Nike shoes.

That might explain, why companies like this shoe maker are so afraid of counterfeits. The part that makes an object “real” in a brand sense, is always artificial.

And maybe – back to the image mentioned at the beginning – we are moving towards a point where our perception of reality in general becomes closer to this problem. What does it mean, if an images is supposed to show a random event in the Ukraine anyway? How could we understand the “reality” behind it? When was it taken? By whom? What was the situation like? What was it like if you looked to the right of left? Who else did see it? And so on, and so on. There is so much that is not covered by the image that might be considered part of the real setting of it, that the pixels present on our computer screen become almost irrelevant.

So maybe, like the relic, and like the company logo, images become a mere illustration that illustrates our expectation of an abstract thing that has no physical imprint in the object itself. In that respect, all three images show the reality they help create and are therefore similarly true.

The Icon becomes an Icon by declaring it an Icon

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I find it interesting, that it takes media today just a couple of hours to declare an image of a terrible event “iconic” and then to discuss the iconic nature of said image. The attacks on Brussels took place March 22nd and the first version of this article ran the same day. Normally one would say, that “only time can tell”, but here things seem different. Maybe this would be another example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since by declaring an image “iconic” it becomes iconic – especially if this is done by important media outlets like Time.

It might be that this was one of the first readily available images of this event – and maybe one of the first of a decent quality. As the story is told, it was taken with a phone by a Georgian news reporter who just happened to be at the airport, when the attack took place. But to then declare this image the defining image of the whole event – that leaves a slightly weird sensation with me. I get it, that the news cycle get shorter and shorter, and once you produce a news article today, there is an urgent need for images. But by declaring one of the first images you get your hands on to be definite, you almost declare the story to be fully told. There is nothing else to be seen, so lets all move on.

This image here does not really strike me that much. That is personal taste and maybe this IS the image that captures the event best. But once a site like Time declares it iconic, everyone seems to want to use it as well and that leaves less room for other images to show. And less room for us as a group to find the defining image that describes this event, the way it felt to us.

ISIS reacts to ISIS

Father

I came across this recently uploaded ISIS video. Its style is part documentary, part storytelling. It tells the story of a young by, 12 years maybe, who blows himself up in a car bomb attack. As If this were not brutal enough, he is assisted by a guy who seems to be his father.

There is one quite interesting piece of footage towards the end of the video. It shows father and son riding in a car on the way to the battlefield – i.e. the rigged car the boy is going to kill with. The father, sitting in the passenger seat with a laptop on his lap is watching another ISIS propaganda video, apparently as part of the preparation for the coming attack. Maybe as justification as well. The boy watches the video over the fathers shoulder. So when a propaganda video serves as evidence or justification for another propaganda attack, that is a circle I think is strange.

Often this self-reference can be seen in other videos as well, but most of the time it is done by using footage from other – apparently well known videos – inside the new video. Very often this footage is in black and white or altered in other ways to give it the appearance of a flashback. Sometimes, you can see groups of people watching other recent propaganda films and being interviewed for the new video afterwards.

But in this case, the video seems to trigger a direct and violent reaction. Of course it is staged, but the way this is done is quite interesting. It is as if the person who created this video wants to convince the audience – and maybe himself too – about the power these videos can have. Videos like the one the viewer is watching at the moment this statement is made.

Computer

Another interesting example would be this still from another video. It starts with this scene shown here. A young man at a computer looking at Islamist social media sites. The next scene shows a group of soldiers arriving in what looks like the land occupied by the Islamic State. There they are happily greeted by guys carrying weapons. Later the fighters who just arrived are trained and then you see them fight – one unfortunate soul has to blow himself up with a car.

But again, the video in a way references to itself by showing some of the material the audience is encountering while watching the video. But the first video, the one with the young suicide bomber, goes even one step further. After the attack, the father figure, is back in the car, back on the computer. Just this time it appears as if he is using the computer to feed the events that just have happened back into the propaganda machine. So the endless circle of self referencing continues.

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Invisible Images as Documents

BBC Mexico

Media has a very strange relationship with images. On one hand there seems to be a general distrust in them, but on the other side, there is no way really to avoid them. I found this image in a short BBC video about kidnapings in Mexico. The guy shown is supposed to be a kidnapper. So what does this image actually show? Well nothing really. It shows a guy who apparently does not want his face to be seen and so he represents someone who does not want to have his face seen. Every actor on the planet could function as a stand-in for this guy. Oddly, even though the image only shows itself in that way, it seems to be necessary to make the video more trustworthy.

I am in no way saying that the BBC is faking anything, but this image pretty much represents the state we are in, if it comes to image use. We need images to tell stories, even if the image does not show anything. It serves as a placeholder. But even an empty image seems to have the power of authenticity. The image here can easily be read as a photographic image – I know, it is a video still, but to me that is the same – and therefore it is the placeholder for the photographic document it could be. So we look at this image, and the person shown could in theory reveal himself at any moment, and that seems to give the image some basis. It remains absurd though.

There is an even more extreme form of image use I stumble upon from time to time. I might have mentioned this here before, but I think it is crucial. Media outlets often handle highly sensitive images and most of the time, the label “sensitive” has to do with violence. Images they would like to use, but their own guidelines prevents them from doing so. So from time to time you can hear a newscaster stating something like: “the images in question are available to our staff, but after a long discussion, we have come to the conclusion that we can not show them to you, due to their violent nature.”. I find that amazing. Even a news program that does not use images, needs them as a reference point to become more authentic. That is really the one part of the nature of images in the 21st century, that fascinates me the most. Images are needed, even though they remain invisible.

Osama

And then there are images outside the reach of visual field of society, but not outside the public perception. These are images we talk about and take them into consideration during arguments, but that are just not visually present. A good example here would be the set of images (apparently) taken during the killing of Osama bin Laden. We, as a society, think these images exist, or we are made to believe that these images exist, but they themselves remain hidden. They become part of the debate, and even part of our visual history, since we all have access to other images of the same nature that can serve as placeholders. This made it quite easy to put together fakes, which popped up online within hours after the news broke. It does not really matter, what the picture looks like, since there seems to be agreement on what it is supposed to look like.

Sure, the non accessibility of this image, these images, seems to fuel conspiracy theories, but even if they were to be presented, the troubling nature of images would leave enough room for conspiracy theories anyway.

The best censorship remains invisible

I had a strange experience today. I did a quick layout for a small booklet I wanted to print, with parts of my works on terror. Nothing special, in fact I am not good in layout work and that is something I do not really enjoy. But I need some printed material with this new stuff, to apply to some things in the future. So I uploaded the PDF yesterday in the evening and this morning I received an email telling me, that my order has been canceled. The email stated, that my content did not comply with the philosophy of the company. Call it what you want, but I think someone thought that this work should be censored.

Even though it does not really show on the surface of society, there seems to be something present underneath, that almost resembles mass hysteria, when it comes to anything terror related – or maybe even Islam related, since too many people have a hard time to distinguish the two.

If we look at the works in question, we might definitely not be able to agree on the quality or even if the work is interesting at all, but I think that it is certainly not braking any laws. Does it brake moral codes? Maybe. But should that be an issue?

I am certain that the person who had to check this PDF saw something Islamic and that did raise the red flag. But lets be clear, I ordered merely 10 copies of the publication, since that is all I need, and that would be a very shitty propaganda operation. Its like dropping five leaflets on North Korea.

OK, in the end I wrote them an email and some hours later, someone left a voicemail message, stating that they thought about it and would print my booklet. So no censorship in the end. But what if I did not write an email? My material would not have been printed of course. And maybe next time, I would have thought more thoroughly about the content I want to print. That would be the beginning of self-censorship. Even now, I have the feeling, that I would look at my layout differently next time. Sad.

Since I am doing a lot research on this kind of material, I watch and collect a lot of it. When I became interested, at first, I wondered where this material could be found. And how should I go about accessing it? I started researching TOR and other forms of surfing the Internet anonymously. Should I purchase a VPN or not? But the more I thought about it, the more I became angry with myself and the situation. As far as I know, it is not illegal to research these things. I am not involved in the making of these videos nor in the distribution of the material itself. What I am doing is research work. Many people might consider what I am doing bad taste, but I think it is important.

So I decided not to hide my tracks and not to use anonymous services. If I end up on some kind of government watch list, this would proof that the system currently is broken.

Why is society so afraid of propaganda? Propaganda is not too different from advertising and we all would agree that watching an advert does not really make you buy a certain car. Otherwise people in debt could always sue car companies for making them purchase cars, they could never afford.

By prohibiting access to this material, it is not going to go away, it just becomes far more tempting for some people. But the more damaging part is that by removing this material from the common consciousness, you remove it from public debate. And that lets people freak out once they encounter a small glimpse. Most of the ISIS material online is boring or unimportant. And then there is some brutal material and maybe a tiny fraction could be considered dangerous. But by blocking all access to all material, everything is labeled the same way … and it becomes far frightening.

In fact there should be public screenings of this material, combined with public debate. Once you inspect this material closely, it quickly starts loosing its aura and reveals things it is not meant to reveal.