Murphy's Law: Why Iran And North Korea Don't Give A Damn


November 6, 2013: Iran and North Korea have a lot in common. Both have been building nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles (and apparently helping each other out). Both have been dictatorships (one hereditary and the other religious) for a long time and both have far more enemies than friends. And both are frequent users of photos that had been doctored ("photoshopped").

Digital photography was much appreciated by media specialists in dictatorships because changing photographs to reinforce the current official policies and leaders was much more tedious back when you had to do it with analog photos, and they required skilled artists. Programs like Photoshop made the editing much easier and more convincing. But the fakes could still be spotted and ridiculed in free countries.

All that scorn at the ineptly photoshopped images appearing in Iranian and North Korean media missed the point. These two dictatorships weren’t trying to convince skeptical Western audiences, rather these fakes were meant to make it easier for people of Iran and North Korea to accept their unpleasant situation. We know this from people who get out of those countries telling us and from the many more who spoke about life in communist dictatorships after most of those collapsed between 1989 and 1991. But to survive in those dictatorships you need all the props you can get and fake photos help sustain the illusions that keep the secret police from visiting you late at night.

There are many examples of how people in the West misunderstand how this works. For example, in the year before the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died in 2011, there were a lot of photos in North Korean media showing that the North Koreans have been altering photos to make Kim look younger and healthier. This was pretty obvious in the West because when Kim visited China and Russia in his last year there were plenty of press photos that the North Korean secret police could not photoshop. But North Koreans rarely saw the foreign photos, and mainly saw the edited ones, showing their sickly leader looking much better.

Iran was similarly caught recently using photos of an American Scan Eagle UAV assembly line to depict a “new UAV factory in Iran.” With a few photoshopped additions, the American factory became an Iranian one. Westerners could tell this was all photoshopped, if only because that was a technique Iran had been caught using numerous times.

All this mirth is misdirected. The Iranians and North Koreans don’t care if foreigners pick apart their photoshopped photos and mock these fakes. These photos get the job done, among people who know they could be killed if they denied the authenticity of these images.




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