Information Warfare: Machinima Reports On Afghanistan

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October 11, 2021: Video games have become a source of deliberate or accidently fake news. A recent example occurred after the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan in mid-August 2021. This was big news in India, which had been a supporter of the deposed government and a foe of Taliban sponsor Pakistan and continued Pakistani military support for the Taliban.

There were rumors that Pakistani air force warplanes were assisting the Taliban in dealing with continued and determined resistance in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. Then a video appeared on one Indian TV station showing Pakistani warplanes attacking targets in an area described as the Panjshir Valley. It wasn’t long before someone pointed out that the video was from a popular video game, Arma 3, which represents current military equipment. The “news video” was created for YouTube long before the Taliban deposed the government in August. Players often create these videos, called Machinima, and put them on YouTube, where they tend to attract millions of views. The publisher of Arma 3 pointed this out and said it wasn’t the first time this had happened with their games, in part because if you search for news video on YouTube you are likely to see some Machinima included in the search results.

This sort of accidental or deliberate deception has been around for decades. Machinima got going conceptually in the 1980s but by the late 1990s video games were using photo-realistic video that could be captured and edited to provide training or entertainment of “look what I can do” videos. When YouTube showed up in 2005, it became a magnet for Machinima creators to show off their work. About the same time the U.S. Army discovered Machinima and was soon using it to create and update training videos for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The army had been acquiring permission and in some cases source code licenses for video games covering military operations and in return provided expert advice on how things really worked.

Machinima was initially seen as a cult thing that used video games which now included scenario modification and creation tools. To many viewers Machinimas were simply very realistic short films featuring a playback of scenarios where somebody else’s (American or Israeli for Islamic terrorists and Iranians) warships, troops, aircraft or cities are shown being attacked by Iranian or Islamic terrorist weapons and blown up. Looks great on TV and this sort of thing was particularly popular with many Iranians.

In the last decade Iranian TV was showing a lot more of this stuff, to counteract all the talk on the state-controlled media of the possibility of Israeli or American air strikes on Iran. There’s no shortage of young Iranians who know their way around video games and Machinima and if you’re one of these guys and looking for a job, the propaganda ministry was always hiring, especially if the new employees were good at telling Iranian and Israeli soldiers apart.

Misused Machinima was not the first deliberate or accidental use of visual media. Since the 1990s it has become increasingly common for media editors or reporters to select the wrong, in so many ways, photo for news or propaganda purposes. Often the photo is military related and some of these gaffes have been spectacular. Again, Iran features in this area as well. For example, in late 2018 police in the southern Iran city of Shiraz arrested three men believed responsible for allowing a large billboard, meant to honor Iranian soldiers who died in action, to use a photo of Israeli soldiers. Worse, the photo originally had four soldiers with their backs to the camera and one of them was obviously a woman. She was photo-shopped out of the original, which was available on the Internet. The four soldiers are wearing Israeli uniforms and two have their M16 rifles slung across their backs and are easy to identify. Iranian soldiers have never used the M16. The billboard was taken down overnight and the police wanted the public relations official in charge of putting the original up to explain what happened. Most likely an honest mistake, but in Iran where the destruction of Israel is (officially) a major national goal, such an honest error might also be seen as high treason.

It is unknown if the Iranians responsible for this embarrassing incident were aware of new Internet search capabilities which enable you to quickly obtain more information about any photo. This capability is increasingly popular in news organizations and some propaganda organizations as a means of avoiding such errors. But there are so many photos and videos being used by so many groups that there are still plenty of opportunities for the clueless or careless to get themselves in trouble.

In 2015, before the image search capability was available, a Chinese army magazine ran some pictures showing some very impressive camouflage uniforms and implied that these were worn by Chinese soldiers. The faces were concealed by the camouflage. When the photos got onto the Internet and went international it was quickly revealed that the people shown were not soldiers and the camouflage outfits were developed for hunters in the West, not soldiers in East Asia. It is unclear if the mistake was deliberate or simply sloppiness. There’s a lot of both going around these days.

For example, in early 2015 it was discovered that a recruiting poster for the Taiwanese Army, encouraging conscripts or civilians to become career soldiers, incorrectly used a picture of Chinese Army soldiers. The Taiwanese officer seeking a photo for the poster had searched online for something showing Taiwanese soldiers in combat uniforms and quickly, without looking closely or reading the caption, grabbed one showing Chinese Army soldiers. This fooled most, but not all, people who saw the poster. The error was reported to army headquarters and they confirmed that these were not Taiwanese soldiers in some new combat uniform. Chinese troops have used several generations of new camouflage uniforms since the 1990s. The Chinese troops now wear helmets similar to those used by Taiwanese and American troops, along with similar protective vests. It was an easy, if avoidable, mistake to make.

Similar mistakes have happened in the West, with photos or video of Russian warships being mistaken for American ones. Identification errors like this are nothing new but they are new but they are happening more frequently because of the ascendance of digital photography. Film use peaked in 2000 and ten years later film use had declined over 90 percent. Digital photos are not only cheaper, so a lot more photos are being taken, but are also easier to change. It is easy to detect these edits if you can obtain a digital copy of the photo but once the photo has appeared in print media or further manipulated by someone skilled at eliminating signs of editing it is nearly impossible to tell if it was faked.

It’s become common for editors and caption writers to misidentify military equipment, as in calling any armored vehicle with bulldozer-like tracks a “tank” or any warship a “battleship”. Photos are often used as evidence of war crimes or similar forms of bad behavior. Such mistakes in some parts of the world can be career ending events. In some parts of the world, like the Middle East, the misuse of photographic evidence, using edited or staged photos, is rampant. Arab use of edited or staged photos to display alleged Israeli war crimes is frequent. The Israelis eventually developed an Information War strategy to deal with this. Part of this strategy was to collect lots of evidence of Palestinian duplicity. This was made possible by the growing use of digital security cameras and UAVs over Palestinian area. Over the years Israel has been placing more cameras (either fixed or in vehicles or aircraft) in areas where its forces confront armed or unarmed, Palestinians. This is to get a video of what actually happened in situations where Palestinians get killed and then accuse the Israelis of war crimes. Often Israeli troops are being ambushed or otherwise on the defensive when they open fire. No matter, if Palestinians get hurt the Palestinians have learned that the media is willing to believe some outrageous lies and blame everything on the Israelis. All these videos, aggressively distributed by the Israelis, became a problem for Palestinian propagandists. That said, the Arabs understand that the false photo tends to get distributed faster and believed by more people than later stories showing how the photo was faked. The old saying, “bad news travels faster and farther than good news” remains true.

 


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