In the last few years, people have started using AI images for propaganda, fake news, and for creating misleading information. However, using visual content for these purposes isn’t a new thing at all. Even back in the 1960s, photos were used for propaganda during the Cold War. In this great video from Vox, we get to see how it was done.
In 1961, Life magazine published a photo essay by Gordon Parks titled Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty. The essay profiled a young Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva and his family, who lived in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The stark black-and-white photos showed the harsh realities of poverty and inequality in Brazil.
Alongside the photo essay, there was a text warning readers about the dangers of communism and the importance of the Alliance for Progress: a US foreign aid program that was designed to combat poverty in Latin America. The entire piece was a part of propaganda: subtle and powerful enough to shape public opinion about the Cold War.
But a few months later, the Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro responded. It published its own photo essay on poverty, titled New American Record: Misery. As you can probably guess, it was about poverty in the US. Henri Ballot took photos in New York City and depicted a family of Puerto Rican immigrants who lived in a poor neighborhood of Manhattan.
What’s interesting is that everything was nearly identical to those Parks took in Rio. The essay layout, the composition of Ballot’s photos, the subjects… Even the captions were strikingly similar. However, the tone and message of the two essays were very different. O Cruzeiro’s essay wasn’t celebrating American democracy or the Alliance for Progress. Quite the opposite, actually: the essay suggested that the United States had its own problems with poverty and inequality and that it had no right to lecture other countries about their social problems.
What can we learn from this?
The dispute between Life and O Cruzeiro is a reminder that information can be used in many ways and for entirely different purposes. If we’re conscientious, we can use them to raise awareness about social issues like poverty and inequality. But we often see photos used to manipulate and propagandize. In the era of digital technologies, it’s easier than ever.
In the case of the Life and O Cruzeiro photo essays, the whole charade was only about politics, not about addressing the root causes of poverty. Both magazines were using photos simply for sensationalism and to increase sales. Neither of them was really interested in having a serious conversation about the problem of poverty.
This example highlights the importance of media literacy. We need to be able to think critically about the information we consume, and we need to be able to identify propaganda when we see it. We should not be afraid to question the motives of the people who are producing the news and information we consume.
It’s also essential to remain critical of the images we see. We should not take them for granted, especially in the era of AI. I wrote about how you can distinguish AI from real photos, and you can read more about it here. But no matter if you’re reading a text or seeing an image, always have your intuition on, and if it tells you something’s fishy – start questioning the content and digging for more information.