Academic journal article Afterimage

The Difference a Letter Makes: Obama and Osama in the New Media Public Sphere

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Difference a Letter Makes: Obama and Osama in the New Media Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Barack Obama is often compared to past national lenders: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few. These comparisons have, for the most part, produced narratives of continuity in which Obama figures as the current leader in a legacy of social progress. However, on bumper stickers, t-shirts, posters, screensavers, Facebook icons, and other-digital and physical paraphernalia, another adequation has emerged for a radically different political purpose. Since the early days of his presidential campaign to the present, moment, adversaries of Obama have associated him with Osama bin Laden in efforts to cast Obama as a. domestic terrorist of sorts. From verbal "slips" on newscasts to political cartoons, to YouTube videos that "transform" Obama into bin Laden, to bumper slicker campaigns exemplified in the figure above, these correlations between Obama and bin Laden illustrate more than just an internationalized form of American racism. They represent the role that politics of identity and difference play in today's global mediascape--which is defined by decentralized forms of communication, social networks, peer-produced knowledge, and a general sense of "openness" for production, distribution, and reception.


This analysis will trace recent developments in the global mediascape as they relate to the representation of bin Laden and Obama within the new media public sphere. I will begin by focusing on the ways bin Laden was generated as a figure of digital terror- in the early years of the "War on Terror," and will primarily focus on the reception of his video messages in western media via Al Jazeera. I will then look at the use of new media in Obama's presidential campaign that established his identity as a product of mass collaboration in the "my media" society and how this identity created the conditions for his comparison with bin Laden--often manifested in mass-produced forms of pop art, such as the bumper slicker that claims "The only difference between Obama and Osama is BS."


On October 29, 2004, news anchor Aaron Brown introduced a segment entitled "The Uninvited Guest' explaining that "Just after 4:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time today, bin Laden stopped being a shadowy presence, stopped being a talking point, and once again started talking." (1) Brown went on to explain that earlier that day, the Arab television network, Al Jazeera, released a video submitted to their offices in Qatar that depicted bin Laden standing at a podium in front of a brown rock wall, delivering a speech to the American people about the upcoming (2004) U.S. presidential election and the causes of terrorism. In the days that followed the release of the video, Brown and other American news anchors continuously analyzed the meaning of the video. The central focus was not the content of bin Laden's speech so much as the impact his "resurfacing" would have upon the election. Analysts touched on everything: his apparent health, his facial expression when speaking "directly" to the American people, and his apparel--which one pundit even suggested included a John Kerry campaign button. All of these observations were used to support claims regarding the questionable safety of the presidential election and which candidate would be helped or hurt by the "presence" of bin Laden.

After the first post-9/11 video message from bin Laden was circulated in October 2001, bin Laden's videoed body became a site upon which the American "War on Terror" was marked. The United States Department of State, CNN, and "terrorist watch" websites scoured images of bin Laden's body for meaning, including deconstructions of the image to determine if it is really bin Laden, analyses of the positioning of his appendages relative to the setting to assess "hidden messages," and claims that the video files hold digitally encrypted messages for terrorist sleeper cells. …

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