How to avoid swallowing war propaganda


Cutting through bad arguments, distractions, and euphemisms to see murder for what it is.

The Trump administration has assassinated Iran’s top military leader, Qassim Suleimani, and with the possibility of a serious escalation in violent conflict, it’s a good time to think about how propaganda works and train ourselves to avoid accidentally swallowing it.

The Iraq War, the bloodiest and costliest U.S. foreign policy calamity of the 21st century, happened in part because the population of the United States was insufficiently cynical about its government and got caught up in a wave of nationalistic fervor. The same thing happened with World War I and the Vietnam War. Since a U.S./Iran war would be a disaster, it is vital that everyone make sure they do not accidentally end up repeating the kinds of talking points that make war more likely.

Let us bear in mind, then, some of the basic lessons about war propaganda.

Things are not true because a government official says them.

I do not mean to treat you as stupid by making such a basic point, but plenty of journalists and opposition party politicians do not understand this point’s implications, so it needs to be said over and over. What happens in the leadup to war is that government officials make claims about the enemy, and then those claims appear in newspapers (“U.S. officials say Saddam poses an imminent threat”) and then in the public consciousness, the “U.S. officials say” part disappears, so that the claim is taken for reality without ever really being scrutinized. This happens because newspapers are incredibly irresponsible and believe that so long as you attach “Experts say” or “President says” to a claim, you are off the hook when people end up believing it, because all you did was relay the fact that a person said a thing, you didn’t say it was true. This is the approach the New York Times took to Bush administration allegations in the leadup to the Iraq War, and it meant that false claims could become headline news just because a high-ranking U.S. official said them. [UPDATE: here’s an example from Vox, today, of a questionable government claim being magically transformed into a certain fact.]

In the context of Iran, let us consider some things Mike Pence tweeted about Qassim Suleimani:

“[Suleimani] assisted in the clandestine travel to Afghanistan of 10 of the 12 terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States… Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. The world is a safer place today because Soleimani is gone.”

It is possible, given these tweets, to publish the headline: “Suleimani plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats, says Pence.” That headline is technically true. But you should not publish that headline unless Pence provides some supporting evidence, because what will happen in the discourse is that people will link to your news story to prove that Suleimani was plotting imminent attacks.

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