One day before the Nov 7th mid-term elections in America, a video appeared on YouTube insinulating that the Bush Administration was guilty of Soviet-style revisionism of history. Initially, the video demonstration of suspicious cropping out of the “Mission Accomplished” banner seemed convincing and many commenters invoked Orwellian visions of government sanctioned manipulation of the recorded truth. According to this Spiegel International article, in the heated political atmosphere the video rapidly spread across the Net. However, as the audience for the viral video grew, flaws were soon discovered in the evidence. A counter YouTube video appeared revealing that many other videos on the Whitehouse government website also featured the same suspicious signs of being cropped. The accusations were discussed on prompting commenters to question whether the now embarassing banner could have appeared in the original shot at all. But even in the absence of the dissenting opinions, which one may have suspected of partisan motives, closer scrutiny of the original evidence would have revealed the visual subterfuge.

The author of the original accusatory video, Mike McIntee, presents as his evidence a video with a mysterious black bar (which according to Mike is evidence of cropping) and a wide angle still showing the “Mission Accomplished” banner just above Bush’s head:

Mission Accomplished feature correspondence

A cursory inspection of the background reveals that the two views are not from the same camera – not even from the same viewpoint. Perhaps the whole background was replaced? We can dismiss this idea easily by observing the positioning of the microphones in relation to the President’s shoulders. The viewpoints are indeed different, but given the corresponding background features one can easily align the aircraft carrier’s island in the two images:

Background realigned between photo and video

This composite view implies that the banner is much further above Bush from the point of view of the video camera. Note also the alignment of the fighter jet’s nose cone with the fusilage on the right. As one can easily see, the suspicious black bar is far too narrow to account for the simple vertical shifting of the video frame that McIntee is suggesting. Perhaps a more extreme crop had been done. To test this theory we can reframe the video view in an attempt to reconstruct what the original uncropped view might have been:

What the hypothetical uncropped image would have looked like

So if Mike McIntee’s conspiracy theory is correct, the original video would have Bush occupying the lower 40% of the video frame, and less than a ninth of the screen area. Such framing of anyone delivering a speech on national television is extremely unlikely. The teleprompters would have been in full view, treating viewers to a sight of their leader obviously switching his focus between two screens and breaking the illusion of talking directly to the audience.

Why were people so easily taken in? In the polarising climate of American party driven politics and a loss of trust in the government, people fell victim to unconscious confirmation bias. Those already predisposed to a particular opinion are more willing to accept evidence that confirms this viewpoint without question. The effect had been demonstrated using functional MRI in an experiment conducted by Professor Drew Westen on the brains of Republicans and Democrats. It is this unconscious process that is responsible for the many Democrats accepting McIntee’s video as truthful, and for the many Republicans interpreting Kerry’s botched one-liner as an intentional verbal attack on the troops. Outside of the political realm, the forces of unconscious confirmation bias have been observed throughout history. A few early astronomers observing Mars via telescope reported seeing a vast network of canals and cited this as conclusive evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Nicolas Hartsoeker claimed that spermatoza contained a homunculus (“little man”) based on his observations using early microscopes.

Several lessons can be drawn from the “Mission Accomplished” viral video incident. Distortion of the truth (deliberate or otherwise) is not only a tactic of the extreme right, and as power shifts in the US Congress, those with an interest in preserving the truth will need to be more sceptical of the claims from the left — reality may be starting to lose it’s “well known liberal bias”. If the fruits of the marketplace of ideas are to be realised, one must be willing to look for and to seriously consider the dissenting views. The advent of the blogosphere, social networking sites, and powerful search engines is the best opportunity thus far to achieve this goal, but only if we acknowledge our inherent biases and actively seek to overcome them.

Update: A blogger has posted the most plausible explanation for the black bar I’ve seen so far. Just goes to show how conspiracy theories can sprout from the most innocent of misunderstandings.