Monday, December 15, 2008

A Serious Take on Fauxtography

One of the scandals of the 2006 Lebanon War--ranking higher than Israeli mismanagement of the political-military calculus though lower than the brutal cynicism of the Hizbullah clerico-fascists--was the failure of the press to distinguish between true and patently false information.

Bad coverage resulting from a combination of gullibility and cowardice was nothing new, for it is amply documented in the case of the Lebanese Civil War of the 1970s as well as the Second Intifada. (Exhibit A in the latter case was the myth of a massacre at Jenin: Despite conspiratorial theories and wildly inflated talk of "massacres" and mass executions of anywhere between 500 and 3000 innocent victims, even Palestinian and international sources later concluded that the combined local military and civilian death toll was under 60.)

Among the novel and worrisome features of the latest Lebanon War was the blatant faking of photographic evidence--in some cases, by members of the press themselves--rather than simply the uncritical acceptance of false evidence from other parties attempting to deceive the press, whether by staging scenes or providing doctored images and untruthful accounts. (My Boston University history colleague Richard Landes, for example, has made a name for himself in this domain through his unrelenting pursuit of what he has concluded was the staging of the death of the Palestinian boy Mohammed al Durah in Gaza during the Second Intifida. The topic remains sensitive and controversial.)

I recall following the unfolding of this unexpected conflict via the internet during business travels in Europe. Somehow (I honestly forget how, at this point), I turned to the sites of several conservative blogs (not an information source that I customarily used) and was struck by their insistence that coverage of the fighting was tainted by more than what they habitually claimed was the bias of the mainstream media.

One of those sites was Little Green Footballs (LGF), run by software innovator, jazz musician, and political commentator Charles Johnson--who had hardly endeared himself to liberals by igniting what he liked to call "Rathergate" (for those of you too young to remember, even if you can appreciate the clumsy but established use of the suffix, "-gate," to denote a scandal: Dan Rather was a major figure in the reporting of the Watergate criminal conspiracy that toppled President Nixon): i.e. demonstrating that documents presented by then-News Anchor Rather on CBS--purporting to show that George W. Bush had shirked his military duties during the Vietnam War--were patently faked.

In the case of the Lebanon War, LGF began by showing that purported scenes of mass destruction in Beirut were in fact doctored photos in which someone had crudely used the PhotoShop "clone" tool to multiply plumes of smoke. Further revelations from that site and others followed.

In a recent article, as LGF proudly announces--Hey Mom, I'm Peer Reviewed"--Nikki Usher, writing in First Monday, highlighted the role of the blog in changing the discourse and drew some new conclusions about the nature of the blogosphere in general:
BLOGOSPHERE | Sat, Dec 13, 2008 at 8:24:46 pm PST

It might be the first peer-reviewed study that begins with the words, “OK, now things are getting weird.”

Reviewing Fauxtography: A blog-driven challenge to mass media power without the promises of networked publicity.


During the Israel–Hezbollah War of 2006, bloggers caught Reuters publishing doctored images from Lebanon. Known by bloggers as Fauxtography, the scandal provides an important site to analyze the ability of blogs to challenge mainstream media. One blog in particular was almost single–handedly responsible for unearthing and for publicizing the scandal — Little Green Footballs. This paper uses the scandal as a case study to assess how Little Green Footballs was able to mount a challenge to mainstream media. Despite theorizing to the contrary about the collective promise of networked publics, Fauxtography reveals that one of the biggest challenges of late to mainstream media came from the activities of a single blogger.
(Note: Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris touched on some of these issues and others in a New York Times blog report. "Photography as a Weapon" back in August. One of the immediate inspirations then was the obvious fakery of photographs purporting to show Iranian missile tests, exposed--once again--by LGF.)

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