Video evidence on the witness stand: how a right-wing political blog exploited the inherent ambiguity of witness videos to push its anti-Islamic message.
On January 4th, 2016, “Politically Incorrect” or “PI News”, a German-language blog closely linked with various far-right individuals and organisations and often criticised by German media for allegedly inciting fear of Islam, ran the headline: “Brussels: Muslims toss car into subway station and blow up Christmas tree”. In the corresponding blog entry, filed under “Islamisation of Europe” and “religion of hate”, the author points to an embedded YouTube video titled “Muslims torch Christmas tree on Christmas market”. According to Politically Incorrect, this video – a montage of two mobile phone video videos supposedly recorded on New Years Eve 2015/16 – shows a “mob of young warriors of Allah” who first shove a car down a flight of stairs at an underground station at Clemenceau Square in Brussels before, “with furious Allahu akbar battle cries”, blowing up the Christmas tree further down the road. Although the material’s origin is uncertain and the embedded video has long since been deleted from YouTube due to violations of the site’s terms of service, the clips are still available in the form of numerous re-uploads on other channels.
As the videos were apparently shot in the heat of the moment by an otherwise uninvolved bystander, the footage is often blurred and low-quality, making it impossible to clearly identify who was responsible for the riots. Despite the blurriness, however, PI News and other distributors of the video draw a definite and clear-cut conclusion: The rioters, they say, undoubtedly were aggressive Muslims, some users even bring into the equation the supposed violent nature of refugees in general. The riots, the author on PI News continues, must therefore be seen as undeniable proof that integration of Muslims into Western society has failed and was never likely to succeed at all, as Western and Muslim culture had on countless occasions proven to be strictly incompatible. The so-called “asylum madness”, the post concludes, had been a mistake of devastating proportions, the effects of which would eventually be felt in the whole of Europe, the Brussels riots being a mere taste of things to come.
This, however, is an interpretation that goes far and beyond what can actually be seen and heard in the recordings. As far as irrefutable proof is concerned, the video can only bear testimony to the individual actions of a narrowly defined group of youths: the video shows how those individuals acted at a certain point in time and at a particular location, no more and no less. Therefore, the allegation purported by PI News, which ascribes to the individual rioters a symbolic status as a the “prototype of Muslim refugees”, cannot solely be grounded in the images alone – neither can, in fact, generalising assumptions about the supposedly aggressive nature of all Muslim refugees. Such conclusions rest upon an underlying political world view which emphasises subjectively held beliefs over unprejudiced logical assessment, thereby forming a thematic link between the events in Brussels and similar well-known incidents such as the New Years Eve assaults in Cologne.
Criticism of certain interpretations of the footage does not necessarily entail questioning its fundamental credibility as visual evidence, however. After all, the videos do appear to be authentic – police reports, press releases and various social media postings confirm that, on New Years Eve 2015/16, a Christmas tree was lit ablaze in Brussels shortly before a car was tossed down a flight of stairs into a nearby subway station. It cannot be confirmed, however, that the rioters were indeed, as the posting on PI News suggests, a “mob of young Allah warriors”, i.e. young Muslims. As their religion was mentioned neither by the police nor the press, identifying the rioters as Muslims is mere speculation based on the observation that “Muslim Allahu akbar battle cries” are heard throughout both video clips.
That observation is actually true. Although the “Allahu akbar” cry in the second clip is fake (previously released versions do not contain the shout), the phrase can be heard – albeit not clearly – in all retrievable versions of the Christmas tree clip. However, the insinuation that whoever shouts “Allahu akbar” must undeniably be Muslim is problematic, to say the least: actions can obviously be recorded on video, but motivations (which in turn inspire action) cannot. Why the rioters did what they did remains open to interpretation, the images alone are not able to provide a conclusive answer. It is, for example, within the realm of possibility that the teenagers had no real reason whatsoever for shouting “Allahu akbar”, doing so simply for the fun of it.
But even if deliberate irony is deemed improbable, it remains critically uncertain whether the teenagers’ rioting was motivated by their religious beliefs. Even days after New Years Eve, the local and international press still had not found an answer as to why exactly these incidents had occurred. The video simply does not show that the rioters resorted to violence because they are Muslims – it can at most prove that the rioters were people who just so happened to also be Muslims. Conclusions, such as those the blog entry on PI News is based on, mistake correlation for causality. Video evidence in general cannot answer questions as to why the people involved in an event acted the way they did. Neither can it assess and evaluate the gravity and importance of said event for society as a whole. Video evidence merely documents what occurred during a single, isolated event – seeing those events as part of a larger political or societal issue is, however, the viewer’s very own subjective interpretation.
In the case of PI News, no consideration is given to the idea that the site’s own politically motivated interpretation goes beyond the actual evidential value of the images. The video is – in its respective context – effectively used to corroborate any given view, be that the “archetype of the Muslim immigrant” (as purported by PI News), the “rebellious, violent teenager” or the “regrettable but isolated incident”. Instead of substantiating statements with hard facts, in the eyes of the PI News author the video becomes an arbitrary instrument, underpinning subjectively held beliefs with equally subjective interpretations of the footage. The video does not act as unequivocal proof because the images allow only one conclusion, but quite the opposite: the images are ultimately highly ambiguous and therefore need to be heavily enriched by the viewer in order to serve as “proof” of their own beliefs. Precisely in this elasticity and malleability of its evidential value lies the single greatest dilemma of eye-witness video evidence.