An increasingly common media mishap is the selection of the wrong (in so many ways) photo for news or propaganda purposes. Often the photo is military related and some of these gaffes have been spectacular. It happened again in late September 2018 when police in the southern Iran city of Shiraz arrested three men believed responsible for allowing a large billboard, meant to honor Iranian soldiers who died in action, used a photo of Israeli soldiers. Worse, the photo originally had four soldiers with their backs to the camera and one of them was obviously a woman. She was photoshopped out of the original, which was available on the Internet. The four soldiers are wearing Israeli uniforms and two have their M16 rifles slung across their backs and are easy to identify. Iranian soldiers have never used the M16. The billboard was taken down overnight and now the police want the public relations official in charge of putting the original up to explain what happened. Most likely an honest mistake, but in Iran where the destruction of Israel is (officially) a major national goal, such an honest error might also be seen as high treason.
It is unknown if the Iranians responsible for this embarrassing incident were aware of new Internet search capabilities which enable you to quickly obtain more information about any photo. This capability is increasingly popular in news organizations and some propaganda organizations as a means of avoiding such errors. But there are so many photos being used by so many groups that there is still plenty of opportunities for the clueless or careless to get themselves in trouble.
In 2015, before the image search capability was available, a Chinese army magazine ran some pictures showing some very impressive camouflage uniforms and implied that these were worn by Chinese soldiers (the faces were concealed by the camouflage). When the photos got onto the Internet and went international it was quickly revealed that the people shown were not soldiers and the camouflage outfits were developed for hunters in the West, not soldiers in East Asia. It is unclear if the mistake was deliberate or simply sloppiness. There’s a lot of both going around these days.
For example in early 2015 it was discovered that a recruiting poster for the Taiwanese Army (encouraging conscripts or civilians to become career soldiers) had incorrectly used a picture of Chinese Army soldiers. The Taiwanese officer seeking a photo for the poster had searched online for a something showing Taiwanese soldiers in combat uniforms and quickly (without looking closely or reading the caption) grabbed one showing Chinese Army soldiers. This fooled most, but not all, people who saw the poster. The error was reported to army headquarters and they confirmed that these were not Taiwanese soldiers in some new combat uniform. Chinese troops have been wearing several generations of new camouflage uniforms since the 1990s. The Chinese troops also now wear helmets similar to those used by Taiwanese and American troops, along with similar protective vests. It was an easy, if avoidable, mistake to make.
Similar mistakes have happened in the West, with photos or video of Russian warships being mistaken for American ones. Identification errors like this are nothing new but they are new but they are happening more frequently. With the ascendance of digital photography. Film use peaked in 2000 and ten years later film use had declined over 90 percent. Digital photos are not only cheaper (so a lot more photos are being taken) but are also easier to change. It is easy to detect these edits if you can obtain a digital copy of the photo but once the photo has appeared in print media or further manipulated by someone skilled at eliminating signs of editing it is nearly impossible to tell if it was faked.
It’s become common for editors and caption writers to misidentify military equipment (calling any armored vehicle with bulldozer-like tracks a “tank” or any warship a “battleship”) but photos are often used as evidence of war crimes or similar forms of bad behavior. Such mistakes in some parts of the world can be career ending events. In some parts of the world, like the Middle East, the misuse of photographic evidence, using edited or staged photos, is rampant. Arab use of edited or staged photos to display alleged Israeli war crimes is very frequent. The Israelis eventually developed an Information War strategy to deal with this. Part of this strategy was to collect lots of evidence of Palestinian duplicity. This was made possible by the growing use of digital security cameras and UAVs over Palestinian area. For several years now Israel has been placing more cameras (either fixed or in vehicles or aircraft) in areas where its forces confront angrily or armed, Palestinians. This is to get a video of what actually happened in situations where Palestinians get killed and then accuse the Israelis of war crimes. Often Israeli troops are being ambushed or otherwise on the defensive when they open fire. No matter, if Palestinians get hurt the Palestinians have learned that the media is willing to believe some outrageous lies and blame everything on the Israelis. All these videos, aggressively distributed by the Israelis, are becoming a real problem for Palestinian propagandists. That said, the Arabs understand that the false photo tends to get distributed faster and believed by more people than later stories showing how the photo was faked. The old saying, “bad news travels faster and farther than good news” remains true.
Since 2000 Israel and the Palestinians have been fighting an Information War over who is doing the most damage to each other’s civilians. Both sides take a markedly different approach to how they deal with documenting and publicizing casualties. The Israelis photograph and record any available data on anyone killed in areas they control. In addition, the Israeli press (which includes pro and anti-government outlets) scrutinizes the deaths for possible headlines. So the Israeli count of who died, and whether or not they were fighters or unarmed civilians, is generally considered accurate. The Palestinians, on the other hand, severely restrict media access to combat areas they control. The Israelis do this as well, but not as consistently, persistently and deceptively as the Palestinians.
Palestinians also play with the numbers and exposing that form of falsification makes for dull reading, But a video showing Palestinians caught staging funerals using "corpses" that were actually live people pretending to be dead and representing fake fatalities is another matter. In at least one case an Israeli UAV camera caught one of these phony funerals in which the corpse fell off the stretcher, got up and got back under the shroud. The video of this went viral and from that the Israelis realized that they had lots of similar video evidence of Palestinian efforts to deceive the media. So now the Israelis are turning that around with energetic searches for such video or photographic evidence of Palestinian deceptions and then getting that rebuttal out there in a big way. Sometimes that does not work all that well. Case in point is news media calling any armed (with a bomb or firearm) Palestinian under age 18 a “child.” If Israeli soldiers shoot one of these armed children (as the soldiers are supposed to do) the soldiers are war criminals and the dead or wounded attacker is a child first and the rest is often left out of news accounts. Even Israeli video of these encounters is dismissed, but that’s got more to do with religious zeal than for any effort to maintain journalistic integrity. For the Israelis, the important thing is that the Palestinian use of photo and video deceptions are widely known and media use those items at their own risk.
Some of this is basically culture clash. One example of this occurred in 2014 when Palestinians living in Australia were perplexed when they were criticized for using a photo of children killed in Syria to represent Palestinian children killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza. The Australian Palestinians were mystified by this reaction. To Palestinians the truth is clear; Israel is evil, Palestinians are innocent victims and any other interpretation of this means the critic is working for the Israelis.
Then there is Iran, which has become notorious for their use of faked or staged photos. Iranian propaganda officials have become heavy users of PhotoShop (to edit photos) and machinima. The widely used PhotoShop software can quickly change a photo. This use of PhotoShop is widely known but easily uncovered as a fake by anyone with some experience dealing with computer graphics. Machinima is more of a cult thing and uses video games that allow scenario creation. Actual machinimas are short movies, featuring a playback of a scenario, with the creators using spoken dialog for the game characters (whose actions are controlled by the scenario creator.) All the Iranians do is use video game editors (which many video games have as a component) to create a situation where American (or Israeli) warships, troops, aircraft or cities are shown being attacked by Iranian weapons and blown up. Looks great on TV and this sort of thing is popular with many Iranians.
Iranian TV is showing a lot more of this stuff lately, in an effort to counteract all the talk (on the state-controlled media) of the possibility of Israeli or American air strikes on Iran. There’s no shortage of young Iranians who know their way around video games and machinima and if you’re one of these guys and looking for a job, the propaganda ministry is always hiring, especially of the new employees are good at telling Iranian and Israeli soldiers apart.