When lies fill the air around us, everything becomes suspect. Information becomes guilty-until-proven-innocent. And when people are already motivated to deny reality, the effect will only be hugely magnified.
Arnold R. Isaacs is a writer, educator, and the author of two books relating to the Vietnam war, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
Photo: Nagorno-Karabakh by Umut Çolak (VOA)/public domain
This month’s catastrophic violence in Israel and Gaza — specifically, the contradictory statements from each side on the other’s war crimes — has taken me back to a revealing personal moment almost exactly 18 years ago, recalling a different war in a different part of the world.
That day in the fall of 2005 I was in Yerevan, Armenia, where I was teaching a post-graduate journalism course at the state university. In class that morning, my six students, all of them young women (as was not unusual in that time and place), began discussing the terrible treatment of young recruits in the Armenian army, where the vicious hazing that had been notorious in the Soviet armed forces was still common practice. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but when it did, one student after another chipped in with chilling tales about male relatives and friends who had been savagely treated by other soldiers and their superiors.
Just a few hours later, in an afternoon class with the same six students, someone mentioned Khojaly, the town where, according to the Azeris, Armenian soldiers massacred some 600 Azeri civilians during the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of 1992. My students insisted the story must be false because, as one of them said, “Our boys couldn’t do something like that.”
Only that morning, I reminded them, they had recalled numerous first-hand accounts of horrible things Armenian soldiers did to their own young recruits. Maybe the Khojaly massacre happened, I said, and maybe it didn’t, as Armenia has long insisted, but given the cruelties you spoke about this morning, how can you say Armenians couldn’t do that? For a long silent moment, they looked at me with stunned expressions. Finally, one of them said, “We can’t think that.”
When I heard her words, I realized they were probably the all-too-literal truth. Those young women simply couldn’t think things that didn’t fit the accepted national story about that war, a feeling far more powerful than facts or logic. In the world they lived in, the threat from the enemy was the potential extinction of the Armenian people — a continuation of the attempted genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Taking the Azeri side on anything, including the “facts” on Khojaly or any Armenian atrocity, would be collaborating with the murder of their own people, and that just wasn’t possible.
Echoes from Gaza
If I were in the Middle East today, I’m quite sure I would see the same dynamic playing out on both sides of the current Israeli-Hamas war. Just as my Armenian students couldn’t think that their country’s soldiers were guilty of a serious atrocity, many Israelis and Palestinians are undoubtedly incapable — not just unwilling, but incapable — of recognizing that their side in that conflict might be violating the laws of war and committing crimes against humanity. (The parallel with Israelis is particularly close, since just like Armenians, they have a collective memory of genocide, of facing an enemy that wanted not just to defeat them on some battlefield but to wipe their whole people off the face of the earth.) It also seems a safe assumption that those feelings will not be changed by additional evidence about specific incidents or the broader conduct of the opposing forces.
The conflicting reactions to the October 17th explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City are an apt example. Palestinians immediately blamed Israeli bombing or missile fire, which they said killed nearly 500 people on the hospital grounds. Israelis argued that the blast was from an off-course Palestinian rocket, while challenging their adversary’s casualty count. (Two days after the explosion, a Jerusalem newspaper reported that estimates from “foreign independent intelligence sources” were far lower — no more than 50 deaths, maybe as few as 10.)
There is no way to know at this writing what additional facts may come to light or if there will ever be a conclusive finding on which side caused the explosion. But even if there is, it’s a safe bet that Palestinians will keep blaming Israel and Israelis will go on accusing Palestinians. Moreover, people on both sides will believe what they’re saying because, like my students in Armenia, they simply can’t think anything else.
The parallels aren’t exact, of course. The Israeli-Hamas conflict is very different from Armenia’s with Azerbaijan — not just geographically but in terms of its history, its circumstances, and most notably its potential to ignite a much wider war with devastating consequences globally.
Another crucial difference is that the world in 2023 is not the world that existed in 2005 when I taught that class in Armenia. Facts carry significantly less weight in public discourse now than they did then. Truth-tellers in the news media, academic institutions, and the scientific world are less trusted and less believed, which gives untruths and those who spread them far more influence.
In the age of social media, people whose emotions (and identity) immunize them against unwelcome facts can easily find support and apparent confirmation for their false beliefs in ways that were only beginning to take shape in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, falsehoods spread much farther and faster to what would have been unimaginable numbers of people 15 or 20 years ago.
One stunning example of that change: when I was teaching in Armenia in 2005, Facebook had been in operation for only a year or so and had close to 5 million users. Today, something like two and a half billion people use that platform. In other words, 18 years ago Facebook was reaching approximately one out of every 1,300 people in the world. Now, it reaches almost one out of every three. Other social media networks have seen similar growth. In the United States alone, the percentage of adults who use social media is estimated to have increased from 5% to 79% between 2005 and 2019.
A New Weapon in the War on Facts
If the explosive growth of social media has meant a larger threat to truth, a more recent trend may pose a new and even bigger danger. Artificial intelligence clearly has the capability to create and distribute fake information that will make it ever harder — perhaps nearly impossible — to distinguish facts from falsehoods. So far, ideas about how to control it don’t exactly seem promising, while rapidly advancing technology is producing ever more effective tools of deception. In a recent column on the Axios news website, two of its cofounders delivered a chilling warning about one of those tools, which, they note, is being wielded by “anti-American actors” in crisis spots globally:
“A new weapon is being deployed in all these conflicts: a massive spread of doctored or wholly fake videos to manipulate what people see and think in real time. The architects of these new technologies, in background conversations with us, after demonstrating new capabilities soon to be released, say even the sharpest eyes looking for fake videos will have an impossible time detecting what’s real.”
Such misinformation is not only harmful when people believe things that are untrue, but possibly even more damaging in making it harder to believe things that are true. When lies fill the air around us, everything becomes suspect. Information becomes guilty-until-proven-innocent and, when people like those Armenian students are already motivated to deny reality, the effect will only be hugely magnified.
There’s a strong case to be made that, as misinformation and artificial intelligence gain ground, the greatest risk of all is that truth will simply lose credibility and facts will matter ever less. Ultimately, that trend won’t just subvert knowledge and understanding on specific subjects but undermine the belief that facts exist at all, that there is an objective reality outside our own consciousness.
That was the thesis of a chilling 2017 online essay by Mary Poovey, an emeritus humanities professor at New York University and author of A History of the Modern Fact. In her essay, she described a “post-fact world” where conventional knowledge sources are no longer trusted, formerly unquestioned assumptions are no longer shared, and traditional checks-and-balances processes no longer go unchallenged as validators of information. In that world, she concluded, “Ordinary citizens and parties with their own vested interests have begun to question the very possibility of facts.”
Reflecting on such thoughts in an interview earlier this year, Poovey noted that, without facts, we have no standard for what to believe, no trusted authority to teach us what’s real and what isn’t, and no way to correct false beliefs. And from that comes a bleak but inescapable conclusion: if facts don’t exist, knowledge doesn’t either.
How Misinformation and Disinformation Are Exploding Globally
The slide into low-fact or fact-free discourse is ominous for numerous reasons and across many areas of public life. In this country, false statements and willful denials of reality in the ongoing debate about fraud in the 2020 presidential election — a completely imaginary issue — have done grave and lasting damage to a fundamental foundation of democracy. (On the very day I drafted this essay, the House of Representatives chose as a new speaker a prominent election denier.) Thousands of Americans, perhaps tens of thousands, died as a direct result of misinformation about Covid-19. Intentional and unintentional falsehoods have seriously obstructed urgently needed policies and practices that could better prepare us for coming catastrophes associated with climate change. And, as always, misinformation and disinformation have exploded, along with rockets and bombs, in wars around the world.
To be sure, throughout human history, wars have generated lies and false beliefs. In the present era, however, those falsehoods seem to spread so much faster and more widely, arguably causing more pain than in the past. That has been visible in the current crisis in the Middle East, as well as in Ukraine, as documented in a list of nearly 100 separate false claims compiled in the early stages of that conflict by the newspaper USA Today.
Almost 80 of those items were fake or falsely captioned videos and photographic images, mostly seen on platforms that had barely existed a decade or two ago. In an ironic twist, one photo, purporting to show an explosion in Ukraine, had, in fact, been taken in Gaza in 2021. Another, that newspaper’s fact-checkers reported, wasn’t an image from any real war but from a video game. Strikingly, though on reflection perhaps not surprisingly, a video clip from the very same game was posted on Facebook recently with a caption claiming it showed Israeli anti-aircraft fire shooting a Hamas fighter plane out of the sky.
That clip was far from the only such deception appearing during the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one of many examples, after the Al-Ahli Arab hospital explosion, a false posting, presumably by a pro-Israeli source, showed a screen-shot of a tweet supposedly from an Al Jazeera journalist reporting that he had seen “with my own eyes” a Hamas missile causing the blast and that Al Jazeera‘s coverage of the event was untrue. Fact-checkers for the French news agency AFP determined that the tweet was fake, and no Al Jazeera reporter had ever sent such a message.
Rewriting Ancient Times — And Yesterday
One effect of the misinformation epidemic is that rewriting the past has become an easier and more common practice than it used to be. An example — looking at a piece of ancient history but completely relevant to today’s headlines — is recounted in a recent blog post by David Shipler, former New York Times correspondent and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Arab and Jew. When he was based in Jerusalem from 1979 to 1984, Shipler wrote on his blog, “I never heard a Palestinian utter a doubt that Jewish temples had stood on what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, and Jews call the Temple Mount” (the site of the Temple of Solomon, according to Jewish scriptures). But on a visit in the early 1990s, a Palestinian high school student in Ramallah told him categorically that no Jewish temple had ever existed there and that the claim was “a fabrication by Israelis to lay title to Jerusalem.”
“I don’t know how many Christian and Muslim Palestinians have embraced that temple denial,” Shipler went on, “but on subsequent reporting trips I heard it more and more widely until it seemed virtually ubiquitous.” On that and many other realities from ancient times to the present, the two sides have come to teach and believe completely different stories. Shipler calls it “an arms race of memory.” And while he was referring to Arabs and Jews, his term could just as aptly have been applied to countless other contests between facts and falsehoods in our time.
For obvious reasons, the memory arms race is particularly prevalent in remembering wars, which leave passionate and painful emotions that last for generations. Throughout history, those emotions have shaped false visions of reality that tend to endure long after the fighting ends. A maxim said to have been coined more than a century ago (and usually attributed to California Senator Hiram Johnson during World War I) put it this way: “Truth is the first casualty of war.”
That was certainly a valid observation in the past, but I’m not sure it’s accurate in the same way today. Truth wasn’t the first casualty in the present Middle East conflict. It had already been a casualty before that war even began. Today, truth is simply a casualty of our world.