IAN BREMMER: News you cannot trust loves a war
The news organisations that people once trusted most must learn from the experiences of war in Ukraine and Israel to be responsible gatekeepers
On October 17, an Israeli rocket struck a Gaza hospital, killing 500 innocent people. The news hit social media and was quickly picked up by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other mainstream media. Public officials, pressed for comment, were forced to react. Just before US President Joe Biden’s began a trip to the Middle East in hopes of averting an escalation of the conflict and a widening of the war, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas responded to the awful news by cancelling his scheduled meeting with the US president, and Egypt’s President Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah quickly followed suit.
And yet, the story was false. There was an explosion — in the hospital parking lot. Later photos revealed little more damage to the hospital than broken windows.
The casualty figure was invented by Hamas, a terrorist group fighting for its survival.
Forensic analysis later suggested the explosion was most likely caused by a piece of a rocket fired from inside Gaza towards Israel, though that finding remains in dispute.
By the time media sources began to correct their first mistake, many governments had already publicly condemned Israel for the attacks, Biden’s highly anticipated mediation meetings had been cancelled, and anti-Israel demonstrations were in full swing across the Middle East and in some European and US cities.
Palestinians have also been victims of false information. A story about the terrorist beheading of 40 Israeli babies, widely reported and repeated, had to be retracted. But not until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden, had publicly repeated the story as fact.
The actual terrorist attack on Israeli elderly people, children and babies was horrific enough, but the even more shocking claims of decapitations proved the most viral. They were also the most damaging when the White House and later the Israeli government saw that they needed to backtrack on that accusation for lack of evidence.
There is nothing new about the use of misinformation, which is incorrect reporting, and disinformation, which is the deliberate distortion of the truth for political or material gain. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” wrote Jonathan Swift in 1710.
Amplified public falsehoods are as old as history. Every war ever fought has featured its share of bad information. But today, the often-purposeful daily injection of falsehood into the public bloodstream happens far more quickly and easily than in the past. In a social media environment that puts “citizen journalists” who post and share bad information on an equal footing with accredited news organisations, their work is then amplified by algorithms that promote the most provocative and polarising information, and readers don’t know what to believe.
Social media forwards unverified stories to hundreds of millions of people in real time, and competitive mainstream media, ever in search of drama that will capture attention, quickly amplify stories that deserve much more careful scrutiny. Most readers/viewers, faced with conflicting versions of events, then choose to accept sources of information that give them the worldview they want to accept.
That is why the demand for disinformation in our polarised society is rising too. Too many consumers of news don’t want their values and beliefs questioned. They want bias confirmation, not a search for truth, and the algorithm delivers what they want with increasing efficiency.
The “fog of war” always makes the spread of false information easier, but the Israel-Hamas conflict and the war in Ukraine are the first major wars fought in the social media age. We know that average news consumers in Russia, China and other countries with friendly relations with Moscow have a very different understanding of both the reasons for Russia’s invasion and the way the war has unfolded, compared with news viewers in Europe, the US, Japan and their allies. One side believes that Russia wants to rid Ukraine of Nazis. The other believes Russia wants to rid Ukraine of Ukrainians. But the proliferation of false information, whether inadvertent or deliberate, is surging in every region of the world, fuelling anxiety, fear and hatred.
This trend is especially worrisome for countries facing that other moment of intense polarisation: election season. In 2024, voters in 40 countries, representing more than 40% of the world’s population and 40%t of its GDP, will elect new leaders, according to Bloomberg Economics. The year begins with a high-stakes election in Taiwan that China’s government would very much like to influence, and it ends with a much higher-stakes vote in the US in November. The growing dependence on social media for news, particularly among young people, and the increasing sophistication of fake video that makes falsehoods more difficult to detect are trends that should worry us all.
We must hope that the news organisations that people once trusted most will learn from the experiences of war in Ukraine and Israel to enforce more careful standards of scrutiny and act as responsible gatekeepers. We can push governments to hold social media companies accountable for the dissemination of false information on their platforms. We should all become more discriminating consumers of information. But our greatest hope must be that we don’t continue to learn all these lessons the hard way.
• Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and the author The Power of Crisis.
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