Election 2018: What is a “miscaption” and why is it more dangerous than manipulated images?
Article by Rumeysa Sena Şahbaz
Imagine that you are a mighty king in the ancient city of Phoenicia. One night, you see a dream: you’re standing on a hill that rises upon the most fertile meadow you have ever seen. Wildflowers of every kind fill the air with heavenly fragrances, then three giant eagles start to fly over your head, one rests on your head, one on your right shoulder and the other on your left. You wake up thinking; “The Gods blessed us. We will see the greatest harvest this year and I will have three powerful sons.” Then you summon your soothsayers, they tell you that your food stocks will get looted and you will get killed by the armies of your three neighboring states. You’re confused. But the meadow was so fertile and the eagles seemed… friendly.
Now, imagine that you are a villager. One night you hear clip-clops warbling near your village. You tremble with fear. “These must be the bandits, they came to rob us!” you think. Next day, you learn that the king’s troops went on a conquest. The horses were real, so were the clip-clops, it is just, they were not coming for you.
Back to reality, a “miscaption” is the use of authentic visual materials to assist a fabricated narrative. It is more dangerous than manipulated images because you cannot detect discrepancies of color and proportion or pixelation errors, and if you are uninformed enough about the subject, you believe it.
Miscaptions re-contextualize a truth within fiction. Thus, they functionalize an image and its symbols in a different setup. This alteration of context alters the meaning like in the story of the Phoenician king. In our daily understanding, fertile meadows are beautiful and eagles are symbols of power and grandeur, however, in the world of soothsayers, they become omens of calamity. Another thing miscaptions do is that they assimilate a portion of the truth into fabrication like in the story of the villager. It is a game of visual semiotics.
Since the date of Turkey’s snap election was announced, hundreds of miscaptions appeared on social media with political claims attached. Here are our selections from that pile.
1) The claim that two Israeli MPs are discussing Turkey’s elections
When it comes to discussions of foreign intervention and conspiracy theories, Israel is Turkey’s favorite plotter. Although illegal intelligence gathering in other countries and foreign intervention are ancient concepts in politics and of course practiced by almost every country possessing the means, it’s doubtful that they would be so expressive about it in their parliaments.
In a video that was widely shared via WhatsApp and on social media, two Israeli MPs are claimed to be discussing Turkey’s elections. Turkish ‘subtitles’ are provided to make the debate understandable for the Turkish-speaking audience. The male MP claims that the elections in Turkey are a key variable in determining the course of Israeli politics according to subtitles. He expresses that the upward trend in the ruling AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) votes worry him and they should do something about it. He says Israel has not yet avenged the humiliation of Davos and Mavi Marmara to which the female MP responds by saying before intervening with Turkey, they should think about all these (Palestinian) children Israel massacred. The discussion turns into a heated debate and the female MP throws water at her colleague and leaves the room.
However, it is not true that the two Israeli MPs, Raleb Majadele and Anastassia Michaeli, are discussing Turkish elections in the video. Their debate concerns the Arab-Israeli students’ participation to a human rights rally in Tel Aviv. Following the debate, Majadele called Michaeli a “fascist” and said that she could not throw water to an MP of Israeli descent.
The inclusion of fabricated subtitles makes Michaeli’s heated contradiction seem bravely candid and confessional. It creates a fake moment in which Israel ‘confesses its crimes and plots’ in Michaeli’s person. Majadele’s fake call for electoral intervention “with the help of [their] friends in Turkey”, on the other hand, criminalizes one group and venerates another in the eyes of Turkish audience and portrays Turkey as a country that must constantly defend itself against foreign interventions.
2) The claim that the photograph is from presidential candidate Muharrem İnce’s Kadıköy rally
It is claimed that this photograph that was sent to teyit.org’s hotline and received more than 62 thousand shares on social media shows the crowd at CHP’s (Republican People’s Party) presidential candidate Muharrem İnce’s Kadıköy rally. One Twitter user shared the image with the note “Only a man like Muharrem İnce could summon hundreds of thousands of people at 2 AM.”
However, the image is from the first commemoration march held for the civilians died on the night of the coup attempt.
The quoted tweet above perfectly captures the aim of this miscaption. However, it is significant that a considerable portion of the election-related miscaptions is centered around crowds. Since in times of change mass mobilization indicates the level of approval or disapproval for a political figure, claims of this sort can be seen as positive or negative propaganda. They intend either to give hope to or dishearten the people who support the candidate in question. Visual manipulations as this confuse the trust to visual materials and generate a sweeping skepticism that is also applied to authentic images and makes an individual vulnerable to conspiracy theories creating a stable stance of disbelief.
3) The claim that the photograph shows Muharrem İnce playing gammon on the night of the coup
Just days before the election, newspapers such as Yeni Akit, Takvim and Sabah ran a story alleging that one of the presidential candidates, Muharrem İnce, was playing gammon at a cafe on the night of 2016’s coup attempt. The coup attempt, which drove thousands to streets in an effort to avoid a military rule, marked a turning point for Turkish politics and is still a dominant topic in political discussions. Soon after the newspapers a news channel, A Haber, picked up on the claim and published a story titled “Muharrem İnce was at a gammon party on the night of the coup!” on its website.
Later, teyit.org editors investigating the claim determined that the photograph was from 2014 and showed İnce socializing with the young men of a village he visited as an MP. Mr. İnce, who shared the photograph on Dec. 28, 2014 on his Twitter account, wrote: “We’re playing gammon with the young men of the village.” The recontextualization of this photograph aims to portray a presidential candidate as indifferent to the issues that move the public and to an event of great importance. The night of July 15 marked the vastes example of mass mobilization in Turkey’s near history.
4) The crowd at PM Binali Yıldırım’s Ordu address
On May 31st, Turkish PM Binali Yıldırım visited Ordu province and addressed the citizens in front of the municipality building. Following his address, contradictory claims over the participation started to spread on the social media.
Photographs taken from different angles were used by the members of the ruling and opposition parties to present two different arguments about the address. Opposition MPs claimed that the participation to the event was low and this indicates a loss of support and trust from the public whereas MPs and Ordu municipal, who were the members of AKP, claimed that the rally area was full with citizens; a sign of the continuing support for the current administration.
In reality, both photographs were authentic but showed the rally area from different angles, turning the area into the subject of a hybrid and ironic conclusion such as with their density the front rows denote continuation of support whereas the thinner back rows denoted… or, better, when some of the citizens in the front row are added to the back row the photograph starts to serve as a balanced indication of… Such functionalizations of visual elements are subject to biased interpretations. In other words, trying to deduce conclusions from photo-journalistic content by recontextualizing it is undertaking the risk of becoming the soothsayers of the Phoenician king as reading the political future of a country from an image is no different from reading the future of a king from a dream.
5) The Handshake problem
On election day last week, the footage of politicians casting their own votes took hold of TV screens. One by one, men and women in smart suits enter the room with a hopeful smile on their faces enter the rooms reminding the people following the big day in front of TV that they are also citizens and the decisions they might make in the future will affect themselves in the way it affects the public. It is nothing new but pleasant to watch as it offers a moment where the leaders of future administrations are seen as compatriots.
One of these footages, however, sparked a debate on social media. It was claimed that one of the opposition’s presidential candidates Mr. Muharrem İnce offered his hand to a woman standing near the ballot box, but the woman, who was wearing a headscarf, refused to shake his hand. İnce was the candidate of CHP, a party which is known for its advocacy for secularism, and when recontextualized with this crumb of information, this supposed refusal meant more than it must have. Many users gave their two cents (or kurushes, to be more culturally relevant) to the woman’s being a supporter of AKP; the conservative ruling party. Taking on this assumption, some accused the woman of being hateful, intolerant, and hidebound.
However, when the footages run by different TV stations were compared, it became clear that the woman shook hands with Mr. İnce. I find this example to be more significant than the others cited above as in this case, the authentic footage was not only recontextualized to produce politically meaningful suggestions, but a piece of false information was implemented into it. In other examples, what is visible was manipulated whereas here what is invisible, a hollow in the visual narrative, became useful. I find this to be more dangerous than adapting the visible as what is invisible yet allegedly hinted gives an empty space to social media theorists to decorate with their own suspicions.
Miscaptions attempt to generate certain feelings in the public. Exposed to them unprepared, you might become afraid of a future that is hinted to you but whose actual harbingers you do not see, or, you might feel afraid due to the misrepresented elements of an actual image. They might generate contempt and hatred or hope through stories with no basis. To make sure that you are not alerted by false signs, you may want to use Google’s reverse image search and see the earliest date and contexts in which an image was put on the internet, or, you may check out this excellent guide to learn more about how to fact-check image-based content.