A new mailer that landed in mailboxes of Third Ward voters in Lansing on Friday has community members raising concerns about digital manipulation and possible influence of the ongoing national anti-Muslim debates in the U.S.
“The religious phobia thing — there’s already an issue with that — you’re going to go that route?” said Third Ward resident Phil Damico. “It’s wrong.”
The mailer targets Adam Hussain, who is challenging Third Ward Council incumbent A'Lynne Boles in the Nov. 3 election.
Another resident, Elaine Wolmboldt, said the image made Hussain “look evil.”
“It was so strong in the eye appeal to make the image look different than the Adam Hussain I know,” Wolmboldt said.
Hussain’s image was taken from one of his personal social media accounts. The image is of Hussain as he prepared to attend a Daddy Daughter dance with one of his children earlier this year. The original is in full color, but the image as used in a mailer by the shadowy nonprofit political operation Capitol Region Progress, is in black and white.
“It’s been digitally manipulated,” said Howard Bossen, professor of photography and visual communication in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. “That’s clear.”
He said aside from being transformed from color to black and white, the shadows on Hussain’s face had been darkened.
While he is not a social psychologist, he said from his personal perspective as “a reasonably well informed media critic,” the intent of the manipulation is the make Hussain “appear as threatening.”
Damico said he felt the image manipulation implied that Hussain would be “threatening” because he might be a terrorist.
Dawud Walid, executive director of the civil rights organization Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan concurred with Bossen that the image was manipulated with ill-intent.
“It appears to me that the changing of the image was just to make him look more ominous and suspicious,” Walid said.
But Walid stopped short of calling the manipulation “Islamaphobia.” Although he said he thought it might play into such sentiments because of the “on-going anti-Muslim rhetoric happening in politics on the national level, particularly with the Republicans.” Hussain identifies himself as a Christian.
He noted that in the same mailer a photo of Hussain’s mother, Jody Washington the First Ward Councilwoman, was also manipulated by having the shadows darkened as well.
“They clearly have an agenda against the mother’s work, and by extension his,” Walid said.
Boles declined to comment, but Hussain said that this is not the first time he has been targeted because of his surname.
“There was a time as a child I would dread my last name being called on the first day of school or in settings that were unfamiliar. I endured the teasing, the looks, and the occasional aggression,” he wrote. “Things ramped up quite a bit after 9/11 but have calmed in recent years.”
He said he was “appalled” by the photo manipulations and concurs that the intent was to make him look “menacing.”
“I think the group behind this is of the belief that there is a large contingent in Southwest Lansing that is racist and fearful of people who look like me,” Hussain said in an email statement.
“What this group failed to realize is that the people of Southwest Lansing are a diverse and accepting group, and they have little patience for this type of thing.
“I have taken hundreds of calls from residents of all colors and ethnic backgrounds that are absolutely disgusted with these tactics. They are also upset that lost in all of this is the plight of Southwest Lansing and the fact that much needs to be done to move the 3rd Ward forward.”