We’ll get in trouble for some of the images in this piece by Geneva-based freelancer Dominic Pettman but it is such a worthwhile discussion about internet propaganda that we’ll cop the flak. And the disclaimer is at the beginning.
From September 11 to the 7-11: Popular Propaganda and the Internet’s War on Terrorism
Disclaimer: If you are potentially offended by explicit depictions of unorthodox sexual material, or if you are prone to confusing discussions concerning the blasphemous attacks against Islam for blasphemy itself, then please do not continue reading this article.
If you happened to be browsing the Internet’s Newsgroups in October 2001, you would soon get the feeling that Osama Bin Laden is one unpopular guy. No matter which group you happened to be perusing, whether it be dedicated to model trains, stamp collecting or foot fetishism, a picture of Bin Laden was bound to have been posted by someone, somewhere. Nine out of ten of these pictures were hostile, and pretty much all of them were, at the very least, unflattering. In this article I look at a sample of these pictures usually doctored photographs or crude homemade animations in order to see the confluence between relatively new technologies (i.e., the Internet, imaging and editing software, etc.) and relatively old ideologies (i.e., racist stereotyping, propaganda, jingoism, etc.). These pictures are symptoms of an extremely grave global diagnosis, and we can see the accompanying exponential anxieties in their most "naked" form. American shock, anger, grief, and resulting cross-cultural resentments, is expressed in often sexual terms, and this in itself reveals a great deal about the current apocalyptic condition.
Newsgroups are one of the most popular aspects of the Internet, which is comprised of more cyberspaces than the most visible World Wide Web. Along with ICQ, MUDS, MOOS, chat rooms and bulletin boards, Newsgroups allow people all over the planet to gather in a virtual space and share common interests. Much of the digital traffic is innocuous enough: advice on how to swap 1950s baseball cards, fanatical questions regarding the latest Star Trek episode, sound files recorded during coffee-shop poetry evenings, and the like. The mass of information, however, and the relatively difficultly of monitoring such a large amount of Internet traffic, means that Newsgroups are also the notorious hubs of child pornography, amateur sleaze, bestiality, voyeurism, and other less-than-savoury hobbies. Newsgroups are thus considered the celebration of online community for the civil libertarians, and the very playground of Satan for the moral crusaders.
While much of the data traffic on Newsgroups is simply text (recipes, chess games, hacking advice, etc.), a great deal is also binary information, which when decoded with the correct program, reveals a digital picture. Thousands upon thousands of specialist groups have sprung up in the last six or seven years, some surviving through popularity, and others disappearing after only a matter of days due to global indifference. After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, no matter which group you happened to be browsing, a picture of Osama Bin Laden would almost certainly appear (due to the all-too-common practice of "spamming," that is, posting non-relevant or commercial material).
When I put the dissident leader’s name into a Newsgroup search engine, it came up with about two hundred pictures, which had scattered themselves throughout all the different groups like anthrax spores. Understandably, alt.binaries.pictures.celebrities. fake featured quite a few, as did rec.binaries.pictures.cartoons.humor. (Less clear, however, were the reasons why several also appeared in alt.binaries.pictures. celebrity.female.megryan.) These pictures can loosely be grouped into four categories: orthodox propaganda, humorously obscene, aggressively obscene, and just plain surreal (although there are many overlaps, as we shall see). All categories also exploit cultural difference to make a point; usually inciting racism.
In the days immediately following the attacks, the sense of outrage manifest itself in such pictures as "World Trade Center Rebuilt," whereby five towers of varying height replace the former Twin Towers. After a moment of confusion, the viewer makes out that these building actually comprise a hand, giving the finger (presumably towards the East). Another shows a digital face looking at the walls of missing photographs which were quickly plastered all over Manhattan. A tear rolls down his or her face (the gender is ambiguous), and the World Trade Center in flames is reflected in the tear drop. Plainly, this speaks of a terrible grief and genuine "early mourning system." The effect, however, is too close to kitsch to do justice to the emotions it attempts to represent. Nevertheless, this digital tear provides enough water to nourish the seeds of the next round of propaganda, of the more hostile variety, which emerged a week or so later.
Just before this, however, came the early wave of defiant doctorings. In these, King Kong suddenly appears on the Twin Towers instead of the Empire State Building, and, judging by the aerial carnage, the Great Ape is far more successful at swatting planes than in the original film. (Presumably we are supposed to endorse the sacrifice of the plane’s unsuspecting passengers rather than the WTC office workers.) Another more light-hearted offering is titled "In a Perfect World," which shows an animated hijacked plane approaching the WTC, while the buildings suddenly spring apart, as if made of rubber, to let it pass harmlessly through. The effect is vaguely humorous when divorced from its historical and political context, but when these are taken into account, its goofy counter-historical optimism only heightens the tragedy it wishfully seeks to avoid.
The most infamous posting, however, was a file commonly labelled "missing," which became so popular that it leaped out of the Newgroups and into the email inboxes of the world’s home and office computers. This picture claimed to be a photograph rescued from a camera dug up from the rubble, and showed a tourist standing on the World Trade Center viewing deck, posing, while a 767 airplane approaches behind his shoulder. It was soon exposed as a fake (the plane was "Photoshopped" into a perfectly banal tourist photo), although the initial "impact" of the photo was still a large factor in its global dissemination. Later versions show Bin Laden himself in the place of the anonymous tourist. The caption reads: "I know I told them to meet me here at 8:45. Where are they?" Again, the role of wish-fulfillment is clear.
In mid-to-late September, however, by far the most common posting was a picture of Osama Bin Laden sodomizing George Bush. This was actually one of the first files to appear after the attacks, and first had the name "Can’t We All Just Get Along." The same picture was soon reposted as "Make Love Not War," suggesting that at least for some the initial shock of the attacks had not yet moved towards anger, but was simply groping towards a possible reconciliation. It suggested a benign denial that such horrible events had even occurred. As these picture spread virally from group to group, the intent behind those who reposted it became clear in the file names and descriptions. One version animates the scene, so that George Bush releases a huge explosion out of his anus, incinerating his bed-partner. Another version swaps the heads so that George Bush is now sodomizing Osama Bin Laden, the file name appropriately changed to "revenge," in the same week the American forces began bombing Afghanistan. Thus we have what is fundamentally the same picture standing for completely opposed political positions.
Indeed, signs of what Freud calls "anal aggression" appear consistently through the archive of these pictures. One particularly low-tech attempt pastes the Al-Qaida leader’s head onto somebody’s bare behind and calls itself "Osama Butt Laden." Another depicts him being sodomized by the Empire State Building, with the byline "So You Like Skyscrapers, huh Bitch?" Another picture shows a dog with an American flag tied around its neck, defecating on a picture of Bin Laden, while encouraging the viewer to "Do Your Patriotic Duty." Yet another shows an astonishingly obese woman squatting over Bin Laden’s head, titled "They Caught Him," while a picture called "The Osama Miracle" presents a picture of his head in the contents of a used nappy. And finally we have a young soldier brandishing a short-range missile with the caption: "Bin Laden Suppositories."
This theme is extended to bestiality, which is the moment an overtly racist resonance emerges, as opposed to simply the expression of hostility towards an individual allegedly behind the terrorist attacks. Here we see Bin Laden sodomizing a sheep while riding a motorcycle. Other versions show him having sex with either a donkey, a goat, or a camel. Hence we see how the worst stereotypes of Middle-Eastern behaviour are evoked through the use of computer manipulation in a kind of mass revenge fantasy by those who feel impotent in the face of danger. And the face is the most important aspect here. Even two months after the initial attacks on the United States, the American authorities still had not provided definitive evidence that Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the attacks, although there is no doubt that he applauded them. (Even if the FBI eventually provides such evidence, the popular trial has already occurred in the media, kitchens and bars of the West.) This "first war of the twenty first century" distinguishes itself by the fact that America no longer has a palpable enemy: a rogue State with a leader who personifies that State, as was the case with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Terrorism is terrifying because it has no face. But rather than pause for a moment, and really think what it means to be at war with a global network, linked by religion or political orientations rather than nationality, the people (at least the people who created and posted these pictures), simply decided to go the default route of demonizing the most convenient face on offer. In order to contain and profile the threat, they find solace in seeing a "scapegoat" sodomizing a creature of similar species.
One of the most remarkable things about these new technologies is the way in which they have made the State’s propaganda machine almost irrelevant. Or rather, to be more accurate, the way in which it has extended the propaganda machine into the wider community itself. Adobe Photoshop© and other image manipulation programs allow the production of propaganda by the traditional consumers of propaganda, that is, "the people." Rather than responding to an Uncle Sam poster, Johnny Websurfer now creates an Uncle Sam poster, in the comfort of his own home: a development which speaks of the efficiency of the Internet in spreading ideological memes such as hostile patriotism during war time.
The New York Times reports that the current Bush State Department appointee in charge of the propaganda effort is a C.E.O. from Madison Avenue. In an age where 80% of proposals to venture capitalists include the term "viral marketing" and out-of-work New York actors are surreptitiously employed to recommend products to trusting strangers in restaurants and on subways we can appreciate the momentum that such strategies have when turned toward politics rather than products (although, the two can often be hard to distinguish). Advertising companies currently feel confident enough to call themselves "PsyOp," after the CIA manual on Psychological Operations, just as Nike now feels cocky enough to thwart anti-sweatshop billboard vandals by proudly stating: "100% slave labor." Columnist Frank Rich points out that the White House’s chief propagandist was chosen "not for her expertise in policy or politics but for her salesmanship on behalf of domestic products like Head & Shoulders shampoo. If we can’t effectively fight anthrax, I guess it’s reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff."
The smooth vectors of late capitalism, ironically enough, allow the terrorists to attack the same system more effectively. Through the Internet, the postal system, and networked financial transfers, the Al-Qaida networks effectively promote, fund and wage their own campaign against the Godless media of the West. On the other hand, this techno-democratic structure allows those in the grip of fear and mourning to express their anger and pain in the knee-jerk forms of jingoism.
Which leads us to some examples of more "orthodox" propaganda: an eagle eating the battered and bloody head of Bin Laden. A doctored photograph of Bin Laden with horns and red eyes, the word "Satan" across his brow. A split frame juxtaposing the soldiers of Iwo Jima with the firemen of New York, simply titled "American Heroes." A picture of a blonde, buff, red-blooded American woman in a star-spangled bikini brandishing a machine gun: "Osama This, Mother Fucker!" Or, alternatively, a cartoon of an old Yankee grandma waving a flag and saying, "Hey Osama Yo Mama. Kiss my red, white and blue star-spangled tushy!" which combines orthodox propaganda with a withered attempt at humour.
Several pictures betray both an anxiety concerning the strength of the Taliban, and an overconfidence regarding Afghan military vulnerabilities. I downloaded several versions of an American jet fighter in hot-pursuit of Bin Laden riding a magic carpet. Some featured talk bubbles, some were animated, while others simply left the scene to eloquently speak for itself; especially in terms of the assumption regarding different technological levels and strengths. One picture titled "Closer Than It Looks," shows a car’s wing-mirror with a military helicopter bearing down on its target. A road sign stating "Kubul [sic] 35km" leaves little doubt as to who is stalking whom in this revenge scenario.
The systematic simplification of the situation, which is essential for the American authorities to justify launching an attack on Afghanistan, is captured in one picture which features a generic Arabic building (perhaps even a Mosque), with "Taliban HQ" written on the wall. The wish-fulfillment fantasy revolves around the need for a stable and identifiable target; the pathos-inducing belief in a 21st century HQ. If Pentagon officials have learned one thing recently, it is the anachronistic vulnerability of "power centers." To this category of posting, we could also add "Osama go bye bye" (a straightforward picture of a desert explosion), and "Osama’s House After Renovations" (an equally straightforward picture of a vast desert crater). In addition to these, we could include the numerous examples of "Bin Laden in Target Site" theme, "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters (in honour of George W. Bush’s explicit, yet inexplicable, Old West rhetoric) and "Who Wants To Bomb a Millionaire."
One of the most sophisticated postings, at least in terms of concept and execution, is titled "In Hell with Osama." As the name suggests, this is a mock-up screen-capture from a video game of Bin Laden in Hell, where the viewer can shoot the subject in the style made so familiar by computer games such as Doom, Quake and Duke Nuke ’em. The caption reads: "Shoot him or force feed him pork products or simply push him through the gates of Hell where Satan will be waiting for him. It’s sadistic fun for the whole family." Goats make another appearance, this time in Satanic form, while on-screen information icons tell us that we still have four "force feed" spam tins spare, and five "bitch power" credits (symbolized by veiled women, presumably Afghans).
Spelling mistakes feature highly in these digital artifacts, as do misunderstandings of Satanic numerology (why 6666 rather than 666?). We are told that this particular picture was doctored in the USA or "mabey Mexico." Elsewhere, cartoons make reference to "the great god Alla." Which only proves that those creating these files are more literate in computer imaging technologies than in English, and that those with a college education are turning to different forms and forums to express their opinions in the wake of the attacks.
Finally, we turn to the humourously obscene, and plain surreal, category of postings. These include pictures of Bert from Sesame Street fame, acting in cahoots with the Saudi dissident. (A legacy of a long-running cameo campaign of this character by Internet copyright dissidents themselves.) We also have "Mini Bin," in reference to the character Mini Me, in Austin Powers 2, and a "Mr. Bean Laden" in reference to Rowan Atkinson’s popular buffoon. One photo features an extremely Arabic looking 1980s heavy-metal band: "Anthrax: Coming to a City Near You." And finally, "I See Dead People," which depicts a scene from The Sixth Sense, but now the little boy imagines the face of Bin Laden.
To this list we can add the picture which inspired the title of this article, "Jihad For Dummies," which lampoons the popular How-To series and claims that Bin Laden is a "mass murderer and twister of Allah’s words." Although this picture makes a tokenistic attempt to separate the alleged deeds of Bin Laden with the entire Moslem world, it cannot resist making a connection between Islam and impotence. Similarly, "the civilized world," is evoked in contrast to the Eastern heathen. Another picture, "Osama Found," shows him working behind the counter of a 7-11: an unsettling joke which prefigures the stigmatizing of Arabs who must live and work in the USA.
Such swipes only become more grotesque, as the catalogue of pictures spirals back into the explicitly sexual. "Tail-O-Bang" satirizes the cover of a porn movie, featuring the "All-Gayda Gang" in "hot all male non-infidel action." It also claims to put the "fun" and "men" back into fundamentalism. This is only the latest piece in over a century’s worth of propaganda to marry vulgar innuendo with homophobia and racism, and any residual traces of humour evaporate when we see that this production was brought to us by "deadarab.com."
Admittedly, to believe that war-time can be free from jingoism and racial stigmatizing is to be as naïve and optimistic as the author of the animated Twin Towers, springing free from harm like rubber legs. On one level, these pictures represent a global charivari against an only too genuine social and cultural threat. But like all charivari’s, they are conducted on the level of the popular and the traditional, and are thus tied to conservative agendas: something which will only exacerbate the current confusing conflict (specifically because it is not traditional, despite the neo-crusader rhetoric).
Newsgroups are the planet’s Id, at least that part of the planet who have access to it. The obscene nature of most of these photographs attest to the obscenity of the Real which was unleashed onto a culture which specializes in quarantining the Real behind glass screens. Sex and death both begin and end with the body, and photographic representations focus on partial objects, just as the New York rescue teams were scooping partial objects into body bags. We do not want to come to terms with these things stare them in the face because, as I have said repeatedly, there is no face. There is only flesh and blood.
The reasons why apocalyptic moments are filtered through libidinal economies are too complex to explore in this article. What the homegrown propaganda effort proves, through its racially inflected sexual aggression, is a nation suddenly, and doubly, traumatized by duel castration. Rather than screwing the enemy in attempted revenge, with bombs and images of hatred, America and its allies should be addressing the historical logic behind the attacks. Much ink has been spilt in an effort to describe "the power of images." But what these rather pathetic pictures prove is the accompanying powerlessness of images, since they are reminiscent of a hungover giant who awakes to the startling realization that he too is naked and open to attack. To resort to Freud’s categories of "acting out" and "working through," Newsgroups probably helped a lot of people deal with the stress of September 11. But unless we want to add a whole host of other dreadful dates to our "perpetual calendar of human anxiety" (Focillon), then we should spend less time demonizing the enemy, and more time Photoshopping a future we can all actually live in.
© Blackjelly Productions 2001
Feedback to Dominic at [email protected]
We’ve already had some positive feedback to this piece as follows:
Bravo Dominic Pettman!!!
Thankyou for an interesting, informative and insightful essay.
Bring on more of this sort of journalism I say Crikey!!