Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Image Control In The Age Of Digital Culture

Submission for 'E-Learning and Digital Culture MOOC' from Coursera / Edinburgh University.

Image control in the digital age has become one of the most important tasks that companies, and individuals, undertake as part of their on-line life.  Manipulation of traditional media news stories, tweets, trending Facebook articles, friendly bloggers and using onside lurkers to post popular and relevant forums have all become part of business and political strategy.  Sometimes though, no matter what your goals and aims are, they come unstuck due to human influence, sometimes through error, more commonly via deliberate action.

In this short exploration of how one real event changed via digital culture, I hope to show that no matter how advanced the machines and how great the technology, it is still the spark of human imagination and creativity that drives us forward in the age of digital culture.

In 2011 a reporter from the Iranian government owned Press TV attended a demonstration held by the English Defence League, during filming of the demonstration the reporter interviewed a number of people attending the march, including the young man below.

The leadership structure of the EDL had been at pains to show that they were a number of things, non-racist, a popular mass protest movement with a broad support from many sections of society, and opposed only to militant Islam and not Islam as a whole.  Their detractors argued just the opposite of this, that the EDL were, according to them, a racist and often violent collection of, almost entirely, white football casuals who were just out for a beer and a fight.  The young man who was interviewed does appear slightly incoherent, his speech is a little slurred and he has a hard time differentiating between the terms Muslim and Islamic, so he coins the new word Muslamic.

The clip was seen by musician Alex Ross, who, under his stage name of Alex Vegas reworked the clip through an auto-tuner, added some backing music and uploaded the track to YouTube from where it was picked up by the anti-facist blog Lancaster Unity.  From there, the clip rapidly 'went viral', that is, it was swiftly promulgated by cross posting to TwitterFacebookTumblr and a host of other social media sites.

The remixed video picked up on the young man's slightly blurred speech, in particular the fact his pronunciation of  'Muslamic rape gangs' sounded a bit like 'Muslamic Ray Guns.'  The remixed video quickly became a propaganda tool of the anti-facist movement, used to mock the intelligence and aims of the EDL, and possibly to make themselves feel a little superior to the individuals they were opposing. 

The original message of the EDL was further diffused and mocked when the interview clip gained the attention of the comedian Russell Howard and made its transition into traditional mainstream media.  There is of course ample room for discussion of what compromises 'traditional media' or indeed 'mass media' in the digital age.  A viral video or meme may gain far more viewers on the internet than a short film might hope to achieve in cinema or on television.  

So, the message of the EDL that they were opposing radical Islam was heavily undermined by a musician, a comedian and the ease in which digital information in the form of video clips can be exchanged through social networking.  Was there a controlled strategy behind this demolition of the EDL's image ? Probably not.  Press TV, although owned by what some people would consider to be a radical Islamic foreign power, probably did want to demonstrate the poor intellectual quality of the EDL, perhaps hoping that this would resonate in the Muslim world as news footage of flag burning Muslim protesters is often popularised by western news agencies.  Alex Ross couldn't have imagined that his reworking of the interview would become  such a hit on YouTube, currently 1.1 million views for his video and hundreds of thousands more views for various re-postings and other re-mixes.

Whatever message the EDL had hoped to convey to the British public via their demonstration was rapidly buried beneath an avalanche of social media mockery.  This subverting of a group's message by others occurs in other forms, one of the most common being the misuse of corporate Facebook and Twitter feeds by disgruntled employees.  Recently this was highlighted as the HMV Twitter feed was 'hi-jacked' by employees who were part of the mass sacking as the company went into administration. 

Social media continues to be used by the anti-facist movement to combat the EDL, recently the Facebook page English Disco Lovers achieved more 'likes' than the EDL's own page.  The Disco Lovers subvert the EDL by using similar imagery but promote a pro-disco / anti-hate message with tongue firmly in cheek, in the style of the English Defence League they have opened up a number of regional Divisions and actively oppose the EDL by organising events and counter-demonstrations.  It should be noted also that the Facebook presence of the English Defence League seems to have been further undermined by anti-facist 'hacktivists' gaining control of the EDL page.

Here then we have then what purports to be a mass political movement, setting up its own corporate branding complete with logos and an internet presence designed to bolster and spread their message, finding that the same technologies that they were using to advance their cause were simultaneously being used to change, subvert and oppose their stance.  Corporate image control is hugely important to businesses, political groups and protest organisations, and as I hope to have shown here, once your image or brand is released into the arena of digital culture, it becomes something that human inventiveness can easily manipulate via new or old technologies to say something very different from the original message.

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