The Web: Online propaganda warfare

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, United Press International  |  May 19, 2004 at 1:25 PM
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A weekly series by UPI examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.


CHICAGO, May 19 (UPI) -- "Four hostile newspapers," Napoleon Bonaparte once said to his generals, "are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets."

Today, the Internet is recasting that famous strategic dictum, still taught to promising military leaders at war colleges in the United States.

Internet sites around the world, during the last two weeks, distributed fabricated photos purporting to show American and British troops abusing prisoners in Iraq. Though quickly discredited by experts, these images of propaganda helped paralyze the Pentagon, create a controversy in England's Parliament and, to varying degrees, produce outrage among the publics of many nations and dismay and embarrassment among U.S. service personnel.

"The images play against our view of what it means to be an American," said Peter Bardazzi, a filmmaker and director of new media development at New York University. "There's an expectation with the American public that American soldiers are superheroes and that they have a morality," he told United Press International. "But the soldiers lose value as superheroes with the images that have come out lately -- this is a war of images."

Images that were proven false debuted on the Internet, some apparently originating on pornographic sites, and were picked up by leading news organizations, entering mainstream cultures all over the world.

The Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper in London, published photos purporting to show British troops urinating on prisoners. The Boston Globe -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper -- last week published a photo supposedly of American troops raping an Iraqi woman.

U.S. television networks also produced stories, based on an Internet-distributed video, of Nicholas Berg, an American citizen, being beheaded by Islamic terrorists.

"These images all contain bodies that are dehumanized," said Bardazzi, of NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and a former special effects producer at Industrial Light and Magic, the company owned by moviemaker George Lucas. "There is mutilation and sexual humiliation -- the body has become the new landscape for terror," he said.

Though TV reporters in the Middle East, at the al-Jazeera network, speculated that Berg already was dead when he was beheaded, U.S. reporters generally presented the story without questioning its visual veracity, Bardazzi observed.

"There's no question that without the ability to distribute over the Internet, that beheading image would never have been created," he said. "When people are left alone with new technology, they tend to do things they otherwise wouldn't do."

Bardazzi noted that the pose adopted by the terrorists in the Berg murder video was intended to be cinematic and was "straight out of 'Lawrence of Arabia.' It's meant to portray the terrorists as warriors."

In London, Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, resigned under pressure for running the photos portraying British troops relieving themselves on Iraqi prisoners, after the House of Commons questioned the veracity of the images.

The paper ran a banner headline, "Sorry ... We Were Hoaxed," over its apology for the incident, on May 15.

Reports in the U.K. press warned that British forces in Iraq now face heightened danger because of the Internet pictures controversy.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the controversy over the Globe's faked images generated less dramatic results. The paper apologized for the error, and Christine Chinlund, the ombudsman, or reader representative, published a column explaining how the incident occurred. But to date no editor has resigned over the matter.

The controversy began last week when Charles Turner, a local politician and city councilman, held a news conference and showed what he said were pictures of American troops raping an Iraqi woman. The paper then published one of the lewd, Internet-generated images, along with a story.

During Turner's news conference, it emerged that the source of the photos was an individual at the Nation of Islam, run by Louis Farrakhan, a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.

"It is an understatement to say that the paper erred," Chinlund told UPI. "There's no excuse for what happened."

The Nation of Islam's public relations office in Chicago, affiliated with its newspaper, The Final Call, would not respond to questions faxed by UPI to a woman who identified herself as Dora Muhammad and requested the queries be sent in writing.

"It has been alleged that the images are from a porn site in Europe," Chinlund said. "That may well be right, but I couldn't find them on the Web."

A leading free speech attorney said the legal situation surrounding publication of images obtained from the Internet -- including those that are misleading -- remains unsettled.

"The law has yet to develop to cover situations of the digital age, like New York Times vs. Sullivan, the famous case in the early 1960s, which said that it was OK to make mistakes when covering a public official, as long as they were not malicious," said Gary Bostwick, a partner in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP, a Los Angeles law firm. "There hasn't been enough experience with the law to work this out," he told UPI.

Bostwick said because the Globe got its images from a public news conference held by a public official, he and other lawyers likely would "defend that to death," because it is a report of a public doing. "There are provisos and caveats in the law, which allow for publication of a fair and true report of a public event," Bostwick said.

The paper probably covered itself legally by stating, in the story that accompanied the photo, that the images were not verified.

Though there may be no legal damage due to the publication of the faked images, there may be lasting psychological harm for some, said psychologist Tina Tessina.

"Lying is dysfunctional and the Internet is a source of a lot of lies now," said Tessina, author of "It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction" (New Page, 2003). "I'm getting a lot of patients in here who have anxiety because of these urban legends that they see online," she told UPI. "People are anxious."

There probably are no technological solutions to the problem of fake images being distributed over the Internet, an Internet security expert said.

"If you are going to refer to or quote propagandists with a political agenda, you cannot rely on the old dictum that seeing is believing," said Larry Clinton, chief operating officer of the Internet Security Alliance, a project of Carnegie Mellon University and the Electronic Industries Alliance. "Journalists need to ask hard questions about these images -- before they publish them."

Bardazzi, the film producer, said photo editors and TV producers need to eye images from the Internet very carefully. They should check out the lighting, the range of reflected light and the color spectrum of every controversial image.

"It's easy to fool someone who is not an expert and get shock value," he said.

The propagandists behind the recent fake images are students of American culture, Bardazzi explained. They understand American values and ideology, even though their productions are somewhat amateurish. Still, they are portraying American troops as if they were like Col. Kurtz, the character played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's film, "Apocalypse Now." They are renegade warriors who are "operating outside of the ideology of America," he said.

"There's a lot of morality there -- through the theater of violence," he added.

Bardazzi said the propagandists also are playing off the "corporate" stance the Pentagon has adopted since the Gulf War. The government exercised heavy control over images from that war, offering such scenes as the green-screen views of precision bombs dropping on buildings that were broadcast repeatedly on CNN and other TV outlets.

Using the embedded reporters in the Iraq War, the Pentagon attempted to control the imagery again and sanitize the perception of the war.

"What's been missing is the pathos, the passion of the soldier in combat," Bardazzi said. "Now we're getting mutations of that, which are completely staged, over the Internet."


Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications media for UPI Science News. E-mail

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