Totalitarian Photoshopping: Did Orwell Anticipate YouTube?
Published: July 1, 2009
Author: David Rodnitzky
Josef Stalin may well be the most under-rated dictator in history. Though most people would point to Hitler and Pol Pot as the most brutal leaders of the 20th century, by sheer numbers, Stalin was the worst. Read the Wikipedia summary of his life and you’ll see what I mean: “if famine victims are included, a minimum of around 10 million deaths — 6 million minimum from famine and 4 million minimum from other causes — are attributable to the regime, with a number of recent historians suggesting a likely total of around 20 million, citing much higher victim totals from executions, gulags, deportations and other causes.”
How do such despicable people stay in power? In large part, through fear and intimidation – the high likelihood of being killed for even appearing to disagree with Stalin was no doubt powerful enough to thwart much resistance to his leadership. But Stalin was also particularly good at distorting history and pushing this historical revisionism onto the masses through media and education. Indeed, all dictatorships re-invent distant and modern history in a way that attempts to make the populus actually feel thankful that their rulers are acting with such brute force.
In Orwell’s 1984, all “news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts” were controlled by the ironically named Ministry of Truth. The Ministry spent almost all of its time doing one of two things – glorifying Big Brother, the leader, and demonising Emmanuel Goldstein, “Enemy of the People.” The message was clear – Big Brother is watching you (for your own good), and an attack against the country by Goldstein was always imminent, which required ongoing martial law and repression of the country.
Early in 1984, Winston decides to write a diary: “The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp.” Why would a diary be punishable by death? Because any narrative not controlled by the state could disrupt the state’s control of the narrative. If Big Brother was portrayed as he really was – an evil dictator – and Goldstein revealed as a non-existent prop to justify repression of the people – the whole system would of course be at risk.
So let’s return for a minute to Stalin. One of the techniques he used to reinvent history was photo manipulation or what we would now generically call Photoshopping. Check out this before and after picture – the before picture shows Stalin with some colleagues. After he had executed one of the people in the picture, the new version magically changed.
Now compare this to what is going on in Iran. The Iran government, like Stalin, has combined a cult-of-personality around their leader (indeed, he is called “The Supreme Leader”), with a continual pattern of blaming any domestic bad news on “the other” – in this case, the British, the US, and Zionists (which in some cases refers to Israel and in others just to Jews).
In the wake of the recent election rigging, the government has been quick to close down any outside media that ruins their narrative, and of course to label all the protests as riots staged by the BBC and the Zionists. In an amazingly hubris-filled and shameful moment, the Iranian government has even claimed that the CIA was somehow responsible for the death of Neda, an innocent protester killed by Iranian militia.
And the Iranians, like Stalin, are now using PhotoShop to support their narrative. This was first noted a few months back, when an official Iranian press photo showed the launch of multiple missiles at once was proven to be a PhotoShopped manipulation of a single missile launch. Last month, however, the Iranians were at it again, this time showing a pro-Government rally, with some extra attendees added in for good measure:
But there’s a potentially significant difference between Stalin and Iran’s PhotoShopping – it’s called the Internet and “citizen journalism.” The Iranians have done everything they can to thwart the truth from entering their country – from banning text messaging, to jamming satellite signals, to threatening foreign journalists with arrest.
But ultimately, the Internet is too prevalent and technology is too small to prevent the truth from emerging. A citizen journalist can film a brutal government crackdown with a tiny video camera and upload the pictures to a proxy web site (virtually impossible for the government to stop) in a matter of minutes. The government’s only option – as in the Neda case – is to retroactively respond to this “truth crisis” by reinvention. This is a far cry from the ideal situation – the one presented in 1984 and existent in Stalin’s Soviet Union – where no alternative narrative can exist at all.
None of this means that FaceBook, YouTube, and Twitter are going to shift the power from those with the bullets to the people in totalitarian regimes. But this does change the playing field – fear alone can only go so far – when people can readily access the truth, and see that a better life is possible – the notion that Big Brother is their only savior is weakened.
Indeed, in Iran, the disconnect between the official government reporting of the “Green Revolution” and what the population is seeing via the Internet and the BBC is so great, that the government narrative seems cynical at best, and farcical at worst. As more and more Iranians recognize the false reality that has been created for them, this new access to alternative narratives could very well play a significant factor in determining the fate of Iran’s current dictators. I for one hope that YouTube triumphs over PhotoShop!