As a recent photograph depicting Iranian test missiles reveals, all you need to do if you’re one warhead short is break out Photoshop. That, at least, is what somebody affiliated with Sepah News (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s media outlet) did with a now-infamous photograph. The picture, a view of three test missiles launching, was altered to include four (hiding one that failed). The photograph was displayed by many prominent news organizations (including the BBC, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times) before it was noted that portions of the dust clouds beneath the missiles were identical. Online news sites have been abuzz all morning, engaged in a debate over what, exactly, this means. As the New York Times notes, this is not the first time Iran’s state media has altered photographs for political ends. Nor is photoshoppery for private gain a new phenomenon (just ask the L.A. Times, which was unfortunate enough to find an emerging pixel jockey among its photographers in 2003).
What does this mean for Digital Natives? Could top-notch picture-tweaking skills land them lucrative jobs with a government spin unit somewhere? Perhaps. Before they even think of submitting a cv, however, they’ll have to master what Henry Jenkins and others at the New Media Literacies Project have labeled the “Transparency Problem,” the “challenge[ ] young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world” (read the NML whitepaper here). Scholars still disagree as to just how savvy kids are these days. As NML’s white paper points out, Ted Friedman’s analysis of the game SimCity could be read to suggest that gamers are more likely than other youth to identify a system and learn how to manipulate it to their advantage. NML also cites other studies that have shown exactly the opposite — that Digital Natives have difficulty separating the objective and subjective components of digital media (for example, in a case in which students played a game depicting both American and British accounts of the Battle of Lexington Green, the young players interpreted everything presented by the game as fact, rather than as a dramatization of two biased, contradictory interpretations)
John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that in some cases (among gamers or Wikipedia editors, for example) being a Digital Native improves young peoples’ ability to critique information online. For those youth who spend less time online, the opposite is true. Incidents like this week’s explosive photoshoppery are a reminder that students need to be taught how to evaluate online material just as they are encouraged to assess historical print sources. Students also need to be reminded of some complexities unique to digital media, including the way a website can change from moment to moment to reflect shifting views on an issue (the four missile picture is said to have quietly disappeared from the Sepah News website). This latest altered photo may not have been good enough to fool everyone for long, but as governments continue to expand their digital media arsenals, it is likely that propaganda of this variety will be produced with greater skill and distributed with greater frequency. It is up to teachers, parents, and Digital Natives themselves to ensure that young people will be critical enough to demand the truth.