ASSOCIATES (2007, March, v. 13, no. 3) - associates.ucr.edu
Frank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University
School of Library and Information Sciences
In 1994, the movie Forest Gump showed huge audiences that pictures can be altered with no evidence of the manipulation. The protagonist’s image was added to news footage of a reception with President Kennedy and the audio was also enhanced for the film. People in the audience knew that it was a manipulation because Forest Gump was a movie that had been heavily marketed as newly produced. But people who saw only the part of the movie surrounding the ceremony, and see it outside a movie theater, might not realize that a person named Forest Gump did not live contemporarily with President Kennedy (that, in fact, Forest Gump did not live at all). Indeed, without contextual information (the movie, the storyline, sitting in a theater or watching a television), a viewer could be excused for thinking that Forest Gump met John F. Kennedy.
SourceWatch (2005) observed the growth of video news releases (VNRs), privately produced "news reports" that are often used by local news departments to supplement local production. They have all of the characteristics of journalistic news stories but are not subject to standard editorial examination and fact checking. Inaccuracies (or outright falsehoods) may well not be discovered. It is well known within library and information science that trust in information producers is critical to information evaluation (it is one of the primary aspects of information context), and VNRs break that chain of trust. In fact using VNRs without attribution (since audience members can reasonably assume that all news stories are the work of the broadcaster), even once, destroys viewer trust irrevocably. Wikipedia notes that The New York Times (2005) reported, "In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production.”
In another instance, on October 30, 1938 Orson Welles and the Mercury Radio Theater presented an adaptation of War of the Worlds creating a major panic. Stephan Lovgen (2005) noted:
[T]he radio play, narrated by Orson Welles, had been written and performed to sound like a real news broadcast about an invasion from Mars.
Thousands of people, believing they were under attack by Martians, flooded newspaper offices and radio and police stations with calls, asking how to flee their city or how they should protect themselves from "gas raids." Scores of adults reportedly required medical treatment for shock and hysteria.
The hoax worked, historians say, because the broadcast authentically simulated how radio worked in an emergency.
In other words the audience assumed that a presentation that sounded like a news broadcast was a news broadcast (and had veracity).
Clearly, context is an important aspect of information evaluation. Informational objects, whether movies, news shows, radio dramas, or books (the paradigmatic informational object), can change their declared reality without giving any evidence of that change. How they can achieve this remarkable transformation is the subject of this article.
MALLEABILITY: SEAMED AND SEAMLESS
Yet change is one of the few universal processes. Years ago I lived in a house that was approximately one hundred years old. During its century long life it had central heating and several rooms added. Each of these changes was evident because of stylistic changes, construction material changes, and seams. Seams are the places where different elements came together without quite fitting.
In other words seams are evidence of changes that do not require special technical knowledge on your part. If you have additional technical knowledge (architectural styles, construction materials, or plumbing for example) the visibility of the seams is magnified, but the seams are visible without these magnifiers.
Malleability is the ability to exhibit changed. Play-Doh and mercury are extremely malleable; diamonds and steel are not very malleable. My old house exhibited seamed malleability, as anyone who looked could easily identify the joins of each renovation. Forest Gump exhibited seamless malleability, as the viewer could not identify the joins in the picture. Seamlessly malleable works exhibit no change, or change occurs between document instances. Therefore the analysis of seamlessly malleable works requires outside evidence.
There are many sources of information change, including:
Accidents and corrections are more-or-less neutral. Accidental changes weren’t intended, and corrections offset them. Corrections also offset errors introduced during the authorial and editorial processes. Good information control requires proper edition control; else the changes made to seamlessly malleable text would become invisible.
Author change and version change are normal events, especially in the case of technical nonfiction. But proper edition control is still necessary, if readers are expected to select the right book for the right purpose.
Alteration is the real danger, whether it is benevolent or malevolent. Forest Gump is an example of benevolent alteration. It is a single artistic object, and, though it uses altered news film, it does not pretend not to have done the alteration. And it does not pretend that its altered news film is a record of the real event. Still, the viewer is saddled with extra responsibility when it comes to understanding the history of the Kennedy presidency.
Malevolent alteration is the most damaging (and potentially most common) kind of change. In our highly technical communication infrastructure it can be particularly difficult to identify these alterations without advanced technical tools rarely available to ordinary (or even extraordinary) users. The purpose, of course, of malevolent people is to confuse or even mislead the user, and the current information environment is rife with opportunities for doing damage.
DANGERS OF SEAMLESS MALEABILITY
Seamless malleability wouldn’t be a serious problem if it weren’t for the power of concepts. Concepts are the basic building blocks of information, analysis, knowledge, and, therefore, our political and social actions. If important concepts are altered, then our personal and national attitudes, conversations, and policies may change and our personal and national beliefs may no longer reflect reality. If important concepts are altered maliciously, then our personal and national attitudes, conversations, and policies may be misdirected and our personal and national actions may damage our own interests.
Malicious alteration of information can cause (or result from) an imbalance of knowledge and power among people. That is why the principal of information freedom is so critical to libraries. Minorities are pitted against each other by taking truths, altering them (often with specific malicious intent), and reintroducing to resulting falsehood. A few years ago I was on a WNCU talk show and discovered that African-Americans often believe (because they have been told) that American Indians hate them as a result of the Buffalo Soldiers. That is not true. Buffalo Soldiers are highly respected among American Indians; indeed one of the last living Buffalo Soldiers was the special honoree of a Pow-Wow I attended.
As a Squamish man (from the Fraser River of British Columbia) I knew that the father of the great Seminole War Chief Osceola was an escaped slave who was adopted by that nation. Read Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage by William Loren Katz (ISBN-10: 0689809018) if you get a chance. American culture is rife with this kind of malicious alteration.
Malicious alterations play on the ability of people to convince themselves of desirable ideas. This is true even if those ideas are false, as long as that falsity is not so obvious that people are ashamed to believe it. People who practice this kind of chicanery (whether they call it advertising, public relations, or propaganda) are asking that you give them authority and, therefore, authenticity. There is an old saying that I first heard at the carnival: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, a professor asked each of us to identify a characteristic of information. Never one to simply go with the crowd, I proposed “seamless malleability.” It did sound academic and fancy, now it seems to be more. Since judging information quality is an important part of all of our work (not to mention our daily lives), the fact that messages can be altered with no obvious evidence probably needs close and extensive attention.
Let me know (at firstname.lastname@example.org) if these ideas strike a chord with you. Your reactions mean the world to me.
Barstow, D. and Stein, R. (2005). The Message Machine: How The Government Makes News. New York Times, 2005-03-13. Retrieved on 2006-08-17. (subscription required)
Lovgen, Stefan. (2005). "War of the Worlds": Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic. National Geographic News. June 17, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0617_050617_warworlds.html (accessed February 22, 2007).
SourceWatch. (2005). Video news releases. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Video_news_releases (accessed June 16, 2005).