Censorship or Sensationalism?

The “Innocence of Muslims” And The Spread Of Internet Rumor

Once again, the world is learning the hard way that in the tinderbox of religion and politics, the Internet can be gasoline.

This week’s shocking attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the subsequent killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. embassy personnel, has left the world a more confused and angry place. For the moment, protests that began in Egypt are spreading to U.S. embassies around the world; all seemingly over a 14 minute video that claims to be excerpts from a film called “The Innocence of Muslims.”

Bangladeshi Muslims burning a U.S. flag during a protest in Dhaka, against the film “Innocence of Muslims.” (AP Photo/A.M.Ahad)

Fingers of blame are being pointed in all sorts of directions; among them are those aimed squarely at the Internet and social networking sites for hosting clips of the “movie” that has hurt and angered so many Muslims, and then speeding its spread through social media. It’s just a fact of life now that, given the right moment, a bit of video that has languished in obscurity for months can rocket through the web to millions of people within an hour or two – hardly enough time to even know what it is or where it came from, let alone what it means.

Yet the Internet is also helping to answer those questions, however slowly it’s coming. And much of what people thought they knew about “Innocence of Muslims” simply isn’t true at all.

The producer, a man who called himself Sam Bacile, is apparently Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a bank fraud convict who has used at least a dozen false IDs in the past. Nakoula, as Bacile, told the Wall Street Journal that he was an Israel real estate agent who had gone into hiding in the Middle East. It turns out that Nakoula, whose identity has been confirmed by federal authorities, is a 55-year-old Egyptian-American who in 1997 was convicted of intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He resides in Southern California and is said to be in his house, surrounded by a platoon of reporters.

The original casting call for “Innocence of Muslims” was for a film then titled “Desert Warrior” and billed as a “historical desert drama set in the Middle East.” Its director is said by crew to have been beyond incompetent; its script changed daily but never had a word to say about Islam or the prophet. Actors such as Cindy Lee Garcia say Bacile lied to them about the film’s intent – and then poorly dubbed over much of their original dialogue with inflammatory dialogue (analysts at On The Media have documented many of these clumsy dubs, and what the actors were actually saying.)

“Bacile” told the AP he raised $5 million dollars for the movie from Jewish donors, but anyone who has seen even 30 seconds of the shooting on YouTube can attest that it looks like it cost $5. Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center doubts both the price tag and the involvement of any Jewish contributors. “The fact someone out there ascribed this to Jews is classic anti-Semitic blood libel,” he says.

Even calling it a movie feels like an untruth. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Innocence” played just once earlier this year in a seedy theater on Hollywood Boulevard to an audience of less than 10. “The acting was amateurish, the dialogue clunky and the costumes no better than those sold for Halloween,” write Phil Willon and Rebecca Keegan.

They’re being generous, judging by the two clips posted on July 2 by YouTube user “sambacile.” As of Tuesday Sept. 12th, the video only had generated 55,000 views (rising to 2,600,000 by Friday.) Although production values vary from nation to nation, its hard to imagine anyone connected to the web could view them as anything other than amateur nonsense. “The movie is disgusting, offensive, and clearly intended for no other reason than to anger people,” writes Libyan journalist Sarah Abdurrahman. “It is unfortunate that there were some out there who took the bait.”

In short, nearly everything about “Innocence” looks like a fraud, and one apparently designed solely to stir up as much hurt and anger as possible. Mission accomplished. The Internet undeniably has helped spread that outrage with lightning speed to many more millions that might ever before have heard about it, much less actually viewed it. However, the web is now also helping to shine a light on that fraud, and dispel as many of the rumors as possible, for those willing to listen.

As we’ve noted many times before, the Internet by itself is neither good nor evil; it merely amplifies the tendencies and qualities of those using it.

Next week, we hope to look deeper into the role and responsibilities of social media in playing up, or knocking down events such as this.

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Activist, Unplugged from the Matrix. Action for Freedom!

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Posted in Media Censorship

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