Fake News, Anthropomorphism, Milo & Otis

It is common knowledge that the Australian media loves a rumor. Whether it be a messy celebrity break-up or financial abuse allegations from a former MP, the press can always find a way to spin a story. It’s understandable in some respects, as we all know a bit of juicy gossip is sure to lure readers. Frustratingly though a sometimes inability to confirm sources or fact check correctly is one of the needlessly untrustworthy elements of the fourth estate.

Spinning rumors or unconfirmed reports are not, however, confined to the tabloid papers or celebrity gossip magazines. Examples exist where defenseless animal actors have been pulled into the crossfire. One of the more prominent examples of this practice in Australian media history regards the story of the loveable main characters of the 1986 film ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’.

The film, which follows the adventures of a young tabby cat (Milo) and a pug dog (Otis) as an unlikely duo of best friends who become separated and each finds themselves on a tear-jerking and hazardous reconciliation adventure. Both protagonists are acted by real animals and the entire adventure is narrated in order to give the characters a human voice. The use of narration this film constitutes a classic example of anthropomorphism, as the animal charters are “imbued with humanlike intentions, motivations, and goals”. The practice of anthropomorphism, while interesting, is not uncommon, with countless examples of the practice present in modern media texts. What is perhaps more interesting are the rumors of animal abuse that have surfaced since the movie was first screened in the late 1980’s.

 

Throughout the film, there are various scenes in which the characters are placed in dangerous situations. Examples include a cat actor being placed in a wooden box and pushed over a waterfall, (see video below) and a pug actor entering a physical confrontation with a bear. As the movie was produced in a time before the realistic computer generated images for which we have become accustomed it is understandable that questions were raised as to whether the animal actors were treated humanely during the filming process.

 

 

Shortly after the film was released, rumors began to emerge that raised allegations of animal cruelty during filming. Brisbane newspaper The Sunday Mail reported at the time that Animal Liberation Queensland founder Jacqui Kent alleged the killing of more than 20 kittens during production, among other abuses. Animal abuse of any kind is a shameful and inexcusable act, yet in the case of Milo and Otis, the anthropomorphized nature of the animal actors made it easy for newspaper readers to empathise with the characters, and consequently to conjure a sense of outrage. The reason for (at least part of) this outrage is that anthropomorphized animal actors act as powerful agents of social connection when human connection is lacking. In the case of ‘Milo and Otis, rumors’ the human narration of the non-human protagonists allows the viewer to feel a sense of connection and intimacy with the adorable cat-dog Rumors

 

of animal abuse during filming are troubling, even sickening, yet from the perspective of a media observer what is perhaps more troubling is that in this case the rumors were reported whilst they remained unsubstantiated. The American Humane society is documented as stating at the time that there is no available evidence to suggest that any animals were harmed during the production of ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’. It is, of course, the role of the press to investigate a wide range of potential abuses, but more important is the responsibility to uphold the truth, and report the facts. In this case, however, it seems that the adorable and relatable nature of the characters in question has resulted in the facts of the story being placed secondary to a moral panic regarding unsubstantiated claims of animal cruelty.

 

These rumors have persisted well into the 21st century, with articles surfacing as recently as January 2017 that reference the Daily Mail’s original assertions. There is even an active Reddit forum from 2014 dedicated to the topic. This story shows not only the power of the media to spread unsubstantiated claims but also the role that anthropomorphism of non-human actors can play in providing assistance to the dissemination of such rumors. It is interesting too to note that the ‘Fake News’ phenomena have emerged recently as an apparently new trend in (mainly digital) media reporting, yet the case of Milo and Otis shows that perhaps this problem is something far older than Facebook.

Sad Western Porn

The photograph of deceased Syrian infant Alan Kurdi laying face down on a beach in Turkey is one of the saddest images I have ever seen. Shot in 2015 by Turkish Photo Journalist Nilüfer Demir, the image quickly gained international media attention and became somewhat of a symbol for the global refugee crisis that was emerging as a result of the ongoing civil war in Syria. I recall seeing the photo for the first time when it was trending (and subsequently igniting a debate) on social media shortly after it’s initial publication. The emotional response evoked within me back in 2015 was much the same as it is today: sadness.

 

 

Wait a second, why did I start this paper by immediately addressing my feelings?  I set out to write this paper about the western media’s portrayal of poverty, and how problematic it is, yet here I am, unintentionally beginning my rant by selfishly concentrating on my own emotions, rather than the broader issues present within the portrayal of poverty by the media. Why did I not start by attempting to empathise with the Kurdi family, who’s pain and sadness no doubt dwarfs my own? Or perhaps I could have begun by focusing more specifically on the situation in Syria, which has now reportedly claimed up to 400,000 casualties.

Sadly, the egocentric response I have exhibited here is fairly common in the media landscape, especially when the topic at hand is poverty. The term poverty porn has been invented and is now widely used, to categorise the behaviour I am describing here. Put simply, poverty porn, also sometimes referred to as development porn, is any type of media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for generating profit or increasing charitable support for a specific cause.

 

 

Be it a photo of a deceased Syrian baby washed up on a Turkish beach, or Kevin Carter’s famous 1994 photo of a vulture waiting to devour a dying child in Sudan (above), the media has long been addicted to poverty porn. Here I will highlight the western media’s tendency to focus primarily on the suffering experienced by the western audience when confronted with these images, rather than the suffering of the non-western subject.

The first example is a promotional video (see below) produced by the charity organisation Red Nose Day and starring comedian Jack Black. The video begins with Mr. Black giving an introduction and explaining to the viewer “what your donations will be going to”. After the cheerful introduction, the video quickly descends into a gloomy mood as a sullen piano tune begins playing. Mr. Black cries whilst being interviewed about what he has witnessed during his time in Uganda. A large portion of this four-minute video is dedicated to footage of Mr. Black crying as he describes the pain elicited by witnessing other people’s suffering. The video is clearly intended to provoke an emotional response from a western audience, and in many ways, it does a good job of that. Mr. Black uses the closing sequence of the video as an opportunity to plea for public donations towards the Red Nose Day charitable campaign. This video serves as a clear example of the above-mentioned definition of poverty porn in which the producer uses the suffering of the poor to generate sympathy and garner support for a charitable organisation. Seeing the usually jovial and affable Jack Black crying creates a sense of sadness that a western audience can relate to, albeit without addressing the causes of issues present in Uganda.

 

 

A second and perhaps more famous example is Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 photograph, titled “The Vulture and the Little Girl” (pictured and mentioned above). The image was first published in the New York Times over twenty years ago the image still to this day is regarded as one of the world’s most famous examples of western photojournalism. Some have argued that Carter’s photograph is poverty porn, while other’s argue that his work did a tremendous job of raising awareness toward the famine in Sudan at the time. After careful consideration, I have concluded that it is probably a bit of both. The photograph is no doubt striking, and as a result, it has become famous, which in turn has raised some level of awareness of the public perception of issues in Sudan during the 90’s. The issue, however, is that Carter’s photograph was captured as a commercial endeavor. The fact that it heightened western awareness about Sudan would have only resulted in a bigger payday for Carter, and for the New York Times. It would be unreasonable to assume that either party was present in Sudan purely on humanitarian grounds. The goal of both the photojournalist and his employer is to earn money.

It is quite easy to argue these two examples above as being ‘poverty porn’. What is much harder is deciding whether the good outweighs the bad when it comes to poverty porn. There is obvious good that comes from the sharing of images which highlight suffering, as there too is negatives. Perhaps what we need more of though is explanations as to the causes and solutions to said suffering. There is no humanitarian side to the poverty porn sccenrio unless the genuine intent is to use it to create a better world.

 

A Sometimes Lack of Selfie-Respect

Over the past week I have spent considerable time wading through my vast swamp of thoughts pertaining to the art of the selfie. This process begun on Tuesday as I was reading an in-depth journal titled ‘What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon’ (2015), in which authors Theresa Senft & Nancy Baym attempt to uncover the meaning(s) behind the suddenly pervasive and ubiquitous act of self-generated photographic portraiture. I took this initial encounter to be somewhat of a defense of the selfie. The authors appear concerned that a moral panic has arisen in the debate around selfie culture, and that there is an unwarranted concern amongst the public that selfies have become symbolic of the narcissism and self-absorption present in our modern, increasingly digital, society.

At first, it was intuitive to me that selfie culture is narcissistic. The act of capturing a self-styled image itself does not intrinsically appear that way, rather, the selfie culture becomes narcissistic when images are shared with the public via the various popular social media channels. I took the publisher (and subject) of the selfie to be acting in self-interest, parading themselves in the public sphere, and seeking validation for their efforts. These thoughts, however, were just my intuition, and I found no evidence to suggest these ideas held any merit. What I did find is the new art of the selfie is complex, multi-layered, and that there is no single meaning behind the selfie phenomenon.

This conclusion left me feeling a bit lost. In all honesty, selfies are not something I really care to know about. As a media scholar, I generally think there are more important topics that deserve my attention – the recent media storm surrounding US President Donald Trump, for instance. My interest was not seriously piqued until I stumbled across the work of Berlin-based Israeli artist/ satirist Shahak Shapira, titled Yolocaust, – detailed in the video below.

 

 

Shapira was displeased by the manner in which young attendees were behaving during visits to Berlin Holocaust memorial. The artist was particularly unhappy about visitors publishing selfies that appeared to depict insensitivity toward the suffering of Jewish people during World War 2.  In retaliation, he decided to Photoshop some of the selfies he was dissatisfied with into real, powerful wartime photos that depict Jewish suffering during World War 2. The resulting Yolocaust project raises consciousness about how we should behave when visiting places that are designed to commemorate those affected by the atrocities such as the Holocaust.

instances, however, it does seem appropriate for Shapira to raise questions about appropriate conduct when taking selfies in sensitive situations. I can personally relate to the themes present in Shapira’s Yolocaust project as I have taken selfies (pictured below) when visiting various Holocaust memorials during my time in Poland.

 

selfie aushwitz
My brother Tom (right) and I (left) pose for a selfie during our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in July 2015

 

The photo above is a selfie that my brother and I captured during our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland in 2015. The photo clearly shows us appearing stern-faced as we pose for the photo. I am seen clutching my SLR camera, which shows that I had attended the camp on that day with the intention of capturing photos. I believe there is a clear distinction between this photo and those depicted in Shapira’s Yolocaust project. The first is that unlike the photos in the Yolocaust project we do not appear to be enjoying the experience of visiting the holocaust memorial. Second, this blog post is the first time this selfie has been made public, and the sole purpose of this publication is for the purpose of an academic inquiry.

My introductory exploration into the world of the selfie found that context is all-important when deciding to capture and to share one’s selfie.  Shapira’s Yolocaust project highlight an apparent lack of respect being shown by those visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial, whereas the selfie of my brother and I show’s the discomfort we were experiencing when visiting the Auschwitz camp to pay our respects to those who died during World War 2. My key finding was the context of a selfie may be depicted by something as simple as the facial expression of the person pictured, the caption of the image, or the decision of where to publish the image, if at all.

 

References

Senft, TM and Baym, NK 2015, ‘What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 9, Vancouver