by Philip N. Howard
Digital Networks Weaken Ideologies
On July 9, 2008, Iran wanted to show the world its new mobile missile launchers. Leaders shared their triumph through high-resolution photos of the test site. The world’s major media outlets carried an image of four missiles blasting into the sky. The image was reproduced the next day, first on the Agence France-Presse webpage, then on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, and several other newspapers, as well as on BBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo News, nytimes.com, and many other major news websites. Somehow, a different image was sent to the Associated Press—an image with only three missiles successfully launching—one missile had actually broken down and failed to launch.
Many of the world’s media outlets published retractions. Journalists wrote apologetic essays about how technology had made it too easy for manipulative regimes—such as Iran’s theocracy— to doctor images. The important lesson here is not that propaganda experts in the regime used Photoshop to make their country look more powerful. The lesson is that the manipulation was caught, by 3 p.m. on the East Coast of the United States, the very next day. Images are powerful because they can bolster or dissolve political authority.