In early July, a YouTube user known as "Sam Bacile" posted a trailer for Innocence of Muslims, a vicious spoof of the Prophet Muhammad. The fourteen-minute video wasn’t a particularly good advertisement for anything — in fact, it failed to mention the title of the film. And for some time, it was all but ignored. Then, in September, dubbed Arabic versions began to appear in the Egyptian media. Protests broke out in several countries, denouncing both the video and the Pope’s upcoming visit to Lebanon. And in Benghazi, Libya, armed attackers set fire to the US Consulate, killing US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.
YouTube said the video was 'clearly within our guidelines,' but it took the rare step of blocking it in Egypt and LibyaThe response was sudden. YouTube said the video was "clearly within our guidelines," but it took the rare step of blocking it first in Egypt and Libya, then India, Indonesia, and other countries, sometimes after legal threats. YouTube itself was banned in some countries, most recently Pakistan. Although still available elsewhere, the English-language version was reposted several times with information about the protests or a simple "thumbs up for free speech." The White House asked YouTube if it would review the video and remove it if necessary. Outlets from The Wall Street Journal to Gawker tried to dig up information about Bacile, a mysterious figure who turned out to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian on parole for bank fraud.
While the video is certainly drawing ire, it’s not clear that protests provided more than cover for the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens. Unnamed US officials have told CNN the Consulate faced a "clearly planned military-type attack," and that "the video or 9/11 made a handy excuse." It’s also been suggested that the attackers used these protests as a diversion. Whatever happened, we’re left with the question of how a poorly produced YouTube video can spark global controversy and be credited with causing the death of a US official.
The trailer for Innocence of Muslims is on par with a lesser Ed Wood film, its cast solemnly debating sexual ethics in face paint and pasted-on beards. Outdoor scenes were clearly shot in front of a green screen, making actors appear to float above stock footage of a desert. If anything, though, the poor quality makes it more effective propaganda. It may not be revealing, thought-provoking, or competent, but Innocence of Muslims is indubitably insulting, depicting Muhammad as a hypocritical and bloodthirsty philanderer in a truly terrible costume.
If anything, the trailer's poor quality makes it more effective propaganda
Since the trailer gained infamy, it’s become evident that almost no one involved knew it was meant to be about Islam. Casting calls show that it was described during filming as a period piece called Desert Warrior, with Muhammad given the name of "Master George." In the trailer, he’s usually referred to as "Master," and any direct references to Islam are clumsily dubbed in after the fact. It’s easy to believe the actors when they say they were misled. At the same time, the undubbed parts of Innocence of Muslims wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t play off existing fears and beliefs about Islam, including the frequently repeated claim that the Prophet molested children.
The film fits into a long narrative about protests over the depiction of Muhammad. But unlike The Satanic Verses, which has also drawn criticism from Muslims, there’s no larger message or artistic flourish behind the trailer. And unlike the famous Danish political cartoons from 2005, Innocence of Muslims wasn’t professionally published or circulated much outside YouTube. Instead, it’s a disposable piece of internet trolling, created for the sole purpose of generating outrage. It’s just gained an extraordinarily wide audience.
Any reference to Islam is dubbed in, but the whole trailer plays on common fears and stereotypesGiven how unsympathetic Bacile / Nakoula is, it’s become easy to blame Innocence of Muslims for tension that may have already been building. When White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pushed for the video to be taken down, he told The Washington Post that "this is not a case of protest directed at the United States writ large or at US policy." Recent events, he said, were "in response to a video, a film, that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting." One YouTube user who re-posted the film described it as the movie "that caused Muslims to kill United States ambassador, J Christopher Stevens," succinctly summing up popular perception.
As others have pointed out, it's also simplistic. Coptic Christians like Nakoula have a tense relationship with Muslims in Egypt, and they've faced violence before. Both Egypt and Libya are still in the midst of major political transitions. And rising food prices could be contributing to unrest worldwide.
"This is not a case of protest directed at the United States writ large or at US policy."
In some ways, Innocence of Muslims is the culmination of the internet’s role as a great leveler. YouTube can place tiny, self-published projects on equal footing with those made by traditional media outlets, and an anonymous or pseudonymous troll can claim to have stolen data from the FBI or hold Mitt Romney’s tax returns hostage. But the novelty and reach of online culture can also make it easy to exaggerate its importance, something that’s seen both in protesters’ insistence that the trailer is somehow condoned by the US and in the belief that Innocence of Muslims caused an attack that was likely planned for months.
Even if YouTube bans Sam Bacile and his trailer, the numerous repostings, dubbed versions, and translations highlight the near impossibility of silencing offensive material once it has been released into the remix culture of the web. And the violence that followed is a reminder of how powerful online video can be at promoting an idea... or inciting populist outrage.