When Skepticism Gets Thrown Out The Window, Disinformation Wins

When Skepticism Gets Thrown Out The Window, Disinformation Wins January 6, 2020

There’s been an understandable uptick as of late regarding concern with disinformation. Given Trump’s mountain of lies that he tells on a daily basis, it’s pretty easy to see why people would care about disinformation shaping public opinion. This piece, however, isn’t about the lies like his inauguration crowd side or his lies regarding Ukraine for election interference. Though those lies are important, they’re readily fact checked and corrected already. The Washington Post and NYT have fact checked thousands of these false statements, and have a wide database of false and misleading statements made by Trump. Though important, there isn’t a meaningful shortage of people or resources for this type of fact checking. The bits of misinformation that I want to talk about have been mainstreamed into U.S. consciousness in a way that enables ongoing abuses by the government and capitalist interests in a way that, though ultimately deeper than Trump, can help him in his worst abuses.

This form of disinformation takes the form of lies against “bad guy” countries and governments. They’re lies and misleading statements that get tossed out repeatedly towards other countries with almost no fact checking. They include academic “analysis” that happens to uncritically support American imperialism. Frankly this has been a long time coming, so I’m going to draft up various examples where fact checking has completely vanished when talking about countries adversarial to the U.S.

Some people might question why there should be a need to fact check disinformation against adversarial powers, which is fine. My response is that regardless of how you feel about those countries, lies which produced wars abroad have laid the foundation for the problems we’re facing today. To use an example: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq saw abuses, the worst of which were directly aided by the American government. Yet despite those abuses, waging multiple wars based on complete fabrications has been an unmitigated disaster. Millions of people have been killed, displaced, disfigured, starved, and in some cases worse as a direct result of those series of wars, waged entirely on false or misleading pretenses.

To give an example readers may or may not be aware of, Bill Clinton bombed Iraq during his impeachment process to divert attention away from domestic scandal. The rationale he used? That Saddam had used chemical weapons against Iran. What people at the time were unaware of, however, was that those same attacks on Halabja had been ones where the American government had helped him deploy chemical weapons. That bit of information left out of Bill Clinton’s address to the American public almost feels like one Trump would make, but the depressing fact is that it’s in no way unique.

In the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, news outlets claimed that Saddam had shredded people alive with wood chippers, only to have had absolutely no evidence supporting that claim afterwards. When it comes to questions about enemies abroad, statements given in support of military intervention can be complete fiction, yet will be treated as fact. In the wake of the 1993 Persian Gulf War, the infamous claim that Saddam’s Soldiers had killed incubator babies was made in front of congress and corroborated by Amnesty International, despite the entire testimony being fabricated by the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador. Let that sink in for a moment: human rights organizations claimed that they verified something (as in, interviewed witnesses and substantiated claims with material evidence) that never actually occurred—organizations that to this day claim to be watchdogs that are trustworthy.

This is a small subset of examples where basic facts were thrown out the window in favor of military action/ sanctions/ covert action/ demonization abroad. The failure has become so endemic that when discussing countries the United States dislikes, myths are now accepted as factual, often to the detriment of any meaningful discourse about complicated situations.

The country where this is most glaringly apparent is the DPRK, or the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. You may know it as “North Korea”, but that’s not the name of the country (nor is the Republic of Korea “South Korea”). To name a few examples of wild misinformation, a General, Ri Yong Gil, was allegedly executed in 2016, but rose from the dead and was pictured mere weeks after the incident in a major press conference. Pop Star Hyon Song Wol rose from the dead after being executed in 2013, only to be seen singing and alive to this very day. Apparently this extends to other citizens as well, as a reportedly executed soccer coach was seen very much alive at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport after the fact.

Raising people from the dead however is just one of the DPRK’s many talents. Allegedly they found Unicorns, but it turns out that story was western press mistranslating the name of a historic site Kiringul, associated with an old Korean Dynasty Goguryeo. If mistranslations weren’t bad enough, according to State Department-backed outlet Radio Free Asia, the DPRK bans male haircuts that don’t look like that of Kim Jong Un. Turns out this was so wildly untrue that two Australians made a hilarious documentary where they went to Pyongyang to get haircuts and documented people with different hairstyles. Meanwhile certain commentators, such as John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, have claimed that crying at the state funeral of Kim Jong Il was faked and coerced, despite this being a common cultural practice across the Korean peninsula.

The primary sources of these inaccurate stories are Radio Free Asia, a US propaganda outlet serving as a soft power wing of the State Department, and Chosun Ilbo, a Breitbart-esque rumor mill from South Korea. Neither of these sources should be considered legitimate outlets of information, yet they’re often go-to sources.

In fact, the DPRK isn’t the only East Asian country that has wildly inaccurate stories written about it. China, for example, is another country with a similar problem. One of the most enduring myths is that China banned Winnie the Pooh. Shanghai Disneyland however doesn’t appear to have gotten that message, with Winnie the Pooh on Full Display in various amusement rides. One can also find the cartoon bear across multiple Chinese municipalities on various consumer goods and at various daycares.

Another myth was that a man named Wang Liqiang, a self-described spy, was part of a Chinese effort to encroach on HK sovereignty, while video evidence surfaced after his defection showing Liqiang confess to fraud accusations in a Chinese court several years before the HK protests even began. Somehow, of course, being convicted in a Chinese court for fraud years before the fact would make him qualified for espionage work.

Of course, East Asia is one example where this style of misinformation abounds, but other regions are infamous for similarly bad stories. Iran never had a nuclear weapons program, and it doesn’t have Hezbollah operatives in Venezuela. In Syria, allegations of chemical weapons attacks at Douma by the Syrian government were originally corroborated by the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Since then, multiple whistleblowers have come forward to allege that this report was misleading, if not fabricated. Subsequent reports in news outlets have been suppressed, with journalists like Tareq Haddad resigning in protest over pressure to silence the story of the OPCW leaks. Regardless of how you feel about the conflict, institutions have a basic duty to ensure that factual information is reported to the public. That’s why it’s alarming that organizations like the OPCW fail to address specific claims made by whistleblowers about impropriety in conflicts, where information detailed in their reports has been used to justify bombings that may have hit pharmaceutical facilities

In fact, many countries fall prey to this same nonsense story mongering. The US State department claimed that diplomat hearing loss in Cuba was caused by Sonic Weapons; it turned out to probably be crickets. In Venezuela, condoms allegedly cost over 700 dollars, except condoms were freely available in the millions. It’s not the only consumer good with a high price tag; it allegedly cost $170 for a hamburger, except it wasn’t $170, it was actually much cheaper due to an error in the US exchange rate conversion.

You might have heard that the Venezuelan government burned humanitarian aid at the border (which ignoring the fact that Elliot Abrams, envoy to Venezuela, famously armed Contra Death Squads with shipments of humanitarian aid decades earlier and might not actually be shipping aid to Venezuela), but it turns out that Opposition forces were the ones who actually burned so-called “humanitarian aid”. It would be one thing if outlets were engaged in misplaced speculation, but much like Amnesty International did in the 1990s, CNN explicitly claimed to have seen the Venezuelan government engaged in activities that it wasn’t engaged in. To their credit, the New York Times not only retracted false claims, but published full on video corroborating the truth and setting the record straight.

However myths still persist about Venezuela’s acceptance of humanitarian aid. Outlets like Bloomberg and The Guardian among others reported that a bridge that was never even completed was closed by the Venezuelan Military to prevent humanitarian aid from arriving.

There are countless other examples of uncritical acceptance of absurd narratives against US enemies, but by now I think most people reading this get the hint. So in the wake of all of this information, what conclusions should be drawn about disinformation?

For one, we need to exercise skepticism about claims that are made about other countries by those in positions of power. The public was lied to about WMDs in Iraq, and as reported by the Washington Post, we’ve been systematically lied to by powers that be about Afghanistan under multiple presidential administrations. People routinely and correctly point out that Trump is a brazen liar, yet somehow take Trump’s justification for things like bombing Syria (despite the US government previously also claiming that it oversaw and verified the surrender of Syrian Chemical weapons mere months earlier), sanctioning Venezuela, overthrowing the Bolivian government, etc. at face value as though it were any ordinary claim.

Skepticism as a mode of thought has to take extraordinary claims with extraordinary evidence, but it often fails to do so. To give a famous example of this failing, take the late Christopher Hitchens. He was an initial supporter of the Iraq War, and yet when the war was revealed to be based on lies, Hitchens delivered a defense of the war based on similar falsehoods. He argued that intelligence agencies had good reason to suspect that Iraq had WMDs, yet Colin Powell had entirely misrepresented intelligence that had been gathered to sell the war. British officials also “had no intelligence on there being biological weapons facilities”. Skeptical inquiry needs to become skeptical again in these vitally important contexts.

The second thing that needs to be done is that there need to be processes by which public officials are held accountable for misleading claims for foreign policy. Groups like ANSWER, The Black Alliance For Peace, Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, among others are groups which have a history and a track record of holding people accountable through demonstrations, for instance. It’s simply not enough to agree that ongoing foreign policy is wrong without a means to change it.

The third thing is to read well beyond a single opinion piece. Books like Management of Savagery, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence, Divide and Ruin, Open Veins of Latin America, etc. are great places to start.

None of these individually will be a silver bullet, but they can help in fighting back against disinformation in an age where concerns about “post truth” morph into “will there ever be truth?”

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