Saturday, June 05, 2010

Evidence and Testimony in Social Media

I've been thinking a lot about how a Flickr photostream being used by the Israeli Defense Forces to bolster their case about the boarding of the Mavi Marmara, an incident on international waters that turned into a deadly confrontation in which nine pro-Palestinian activists died. The more I look at these images, the more frustrated I become. I've been lucky in recent months to have been given a platform for my 12 Don'ts in government digital media-making, but I wish that there were more people making the pitch about rhetorical sensitivity on the Internet and in more languages.

There is a designated Flickr set from the IDF called Weapons found on Mavi Marmara that is obviously intended to quiet the international outcry that resulted from the event and present the Israeli military's case that they had to kill protestors because 1) they had weapons that they could have used against the commandos or 2) they had weapons that they could be shipping to Gaza to support Intifada-related activities.

But I think the Israeli government is making a fundamental mistake about assuming that pictures speak for themselves . . . or more specifically that governments can speak for pictures. It has to do with a larger theoretical point about the critical difference between evidence and testimony and how they function both in courts and on the Internet.

In the U.S. justice system, which is based on the English Common Law that is also still used in many countries around the world, testimony usually carries more weight than evidence, even in a present in which scientific studies often show eyewitnesses to be terribly unreliable at accurately providing a true record of what actually happened. Part of this tradition has to do with fears of evidence tampering, but part of it has to do with how justice itself is imagined as being enacted in an unmediated public sphere.

Along somewhat similar lines, I would say that the Internet is often a place in which testimony is less likely to be challenged than evidence. Online presentations of evidence often inspire doubt and nitpicking, perhaps because it is even more difficult to establish an affective relationship with documents or objects that are represented by computational media on a screen. In contrast, stirring online testimony, whether it is an e-mail sent from Sarajevo or a blog posting written in Baghdad, is often perceived as movingly true. (Perhaps an exception to the evidence principle might be the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison. Something about their composition spoke powerfully to people in a way that discouraged second-guessing, perhaps because of the mute testimony of the prisoners' poses.)

So, I would say to the Israelis: the Internet is a terrible place to settle an argument. And this admonition has nothing to do with a supposed Israeli national character, since I've seen the same attempt at evidence-marshaling belligerently pursued by many countries and types of political actors. Even as they experiment with a variety of tones -- from hyperbole to tongue-in-cheek irony -- all of it comes off as tone-deaf in its delivery. Note that in the Flickr set, they are sometimes sarcastically called "peace activists." And there is sometimes downright overkill in the assortment of materials that they present as "weapons." For example, Palestinian neckscarves are shown in the arsenal.

In general the quality of the photography on the IDF Flickr page is shockingly poor, although it is interesting to see them using Creative Common licenses. Although the IDF has disallowed comments on their YouTube channel it is interesting that they allow them on their Flickr pages, even in connection with their most controversial Mavi Marmara images.

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