Rising tensions between the United States and Iran has made it easy for false or dubious information to spread. Liam Glen writes on questionable statements from the Trump administration and other sources of misinformation.
The last few days have been, to say the least, eventful. Iranian general Qasem Soleimani’s death in a US drone strike has led to a flurry of nonstop news. The resulting chaos has provided an ideal opportunity for untrue information.
Some of it is due to confusion and panic. The half-joking #WWIII hashtag soon took off on social media, exaggerating the scale and imminency of a potential conflict. Similarly, fears of a draft being called, while widespread, were unfounded given that it would be a politically unpopular and logistically difficult process requiring the approval of both houses of Congress.
Along with this, however, were deliberative attempts to shift the narrative. War has always been the realm of propaganda and disinformation, and the digital revolution has made this easier than ever. This conflict may offer a taste of what the future holds.
You Can’t Always Trust Uncle Sam
That the US government is not always a reliable source of information is hardly a revolutionary statement. Yet it is often forgotten.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, President Bush and top administration officials made nearly a thousand false statements regarding Saddam Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeda and possession of weapons of mass destruction. A lack of public skepticism made it easy to push this narrative.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has its own mission of obscuring the justification for Qasem Soleimani’s killing.
The most common talking point is that Soleimani, as leader of Iran’s clandestine forces, was a mass murderer who deserved to die. While most attacks against Soleimani on moral grounds are undeniable – though some, like Mike Pence’s attempt to link him to the 9/11 attacks, are blatantly false – that alone does not justify his killing.
Murderers, terrorists, and human rights abusers are present throughout the world. Not all of them are subject to summary execution by the US. In fact, some are even American allies. Given that assassination of foreign officials is illegal under both American and international law, a stronger explanation is needed.
Most so-called “targeted killings” invoke self-defense as a justification. The Pentagon’s official statement regarding Soleimani’s death implies that he was killed to stop an imminent attack, stating that he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” Independent verification, however, is lacking.
This opens up a conundrum. While blatantly false claims – such as Trump’s assertions that voter fraud lost him the popular vote or that windmills cause cancer – are easily debunked, statements like these are unverifiable. Much like the Bush administration’s claims leading up to the Iraq War, it is impossible for lay observers to tell whether they are true, exaggerated, or completely false.
But there is reason to think that the administration is being less than honest. In the ensuing days, officials have abandoned language of Soleimani as an “imminent threat.” Instead, they have switched to a much vaguer narrative that he would have posed a threat at some undefined point in the future. While this is likely true, this shift puts the justification for the attack – and the credibility of the administration – on much shakier ground.
Of course, the US government is not the only purveyor of propaganda. While it is not particularly well-known, the Iranian government has a sophisticated network of online propaganda. Its modus operandi has been to create seemingly-legitimate news sites which simply repeat the party line from Tehran, condemning the US and Israel on the harshest possible terms, and more recently, taking any opportunity to heroicize Soleimani.
Traditionally, its operations targeting the Muslim world have been far more influential than its English-language propaganda, but the future may hold great potential. Based on the success of Russia’s campaign to sow online discord in the US, similar efforts from Iran may prove relatively easy.
If nothing else, this could make it even harder to determine fact from fiction. Were an open conflict to break out, every emerging news report could be accused of being propaganda for one side or another.
This is one of the most infamous problems facing the modern era, and there will be no one course of action to solve it. For average citizens to avoid falling into the trap, however, the easiest method is always to critically assess any news, and do not believe anything without knowing what source it is coming from.