Fox News Channel Truck parked on New York street, USA. Photo: i
Fox News Channel Truck parked on New York street, USA. Photo: i

“Fake news,” an expression popularized by US President Donald Trump to qualify any negative coverage of himself, has become one of the hallmarks of his administration. Loosely described as the deliberate spreading of falsehoods with the intent to mislead, it was designated as the “2017 Word of the Year” by Collins Dictionary and is now part of the vocabulary.

Ultimately, of course, this is nothing new. Fake news, or disinformation, has been a staple of international – and domestic – politics since time immemorial.

While both sides had recourse to disinformation during the Cold War, the Soviet bloc with its monolithic, state-controlled media tethered by the fetters of an ideological dogma had a credibility shortfall that was impossible to overcome. Thus while Soviet propaganda might have had an impact on its captive audiences, it never carried much weight when targeted at the non-believers.

Conversely, being less blatantly partisan and operating in a more open environment, the management of information proved to be an art in which the United States excelled, albeit within the limits of the available news-dissemination technology of the time.

The advent of the communication revolution, namely the Internet and social media, combined with the end of the Cold War, radically changed the global communication environment. Increasingly, not only state actors but informal groups and even individuals could post news that had the potential of being globally disseminated.

That some of this “news” would be “fake” – that is, manufactured rather than corresponding to reality – is a given. Likewise is the fact that the perpetrator will often create for himself a different identity, albeit one that will be more credible to the recipient.

Thus “fake news,” to be effective, requires not only a producer but also a gullible recipient, and it also needs an environment in which trust and belief take priority over critical thinking. And it is this dearth of critical thinking, rather than “fake news” of foreign manufacture, that has in recent times led the United States into two wars: in Vietnam and in Iraq.

On August 7, 1964, the Congress of the United States adopted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing president Lyndon Johnson to use force in Vietnam. The resolution was adopted after the alleged attack off the coast of Vietnam, in international waters, on two US destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy, by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The vote in the Senate was 88-2. The House of Representatives adopted the resolution unanimously.

While the narrative of the attack as presented by the Johnson administration had its ambiguities, these were never properly investigated. Had they been they would have shown that the attacks never occurred as depicted and that the narrative was based on distorted evidence and factual obfuscation.

That the US Congress was misled into adopting the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is secondary to a more substantial consideration, namely the incapacity that it demonstrated to engage in any critical thinking. The deviousness of the perpetrators, namely the Johnson administration, found fertile ground for its “fake news” in the gullibility of the recipient. Ultimately, “fake news” produced by America for America had brought America to war. And it was not to be the only one.

The inauguration of George W Bush as president of the United States in 2001 brought to power a league of ideologues called the neocons. These were in essence liberal interventionists who believed that the US should play a leading international role in promoting democracy, by force if necessary. With their main focus on reshaping the Middle East, it became for them a matter of principle to bring about “regime change” in Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi leader over the years had been in systematic breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions as regards weapons of mass destruction, but this did not prove sufficient for the UN to move against him, and Bush’s appeal to the General Assembly on September 2, 2002, demanding “quick action” fell on deaf ears. But not so in the US Congress. Thus on October 10, 2002, the US Senate by a majority of 77 votes versus 23 and the House of Representatives by a majority 296 votes versus 133, adopted a resolution authorizing the Bush administration to “use force” against Iraq.

Information, fake or otherwise, home-generated or imported, will have no impact unless it is accepted as fact. Critical thinking is thus the antidote to ‘fake news’

With 72% of the Americans in favor of a military intervention, the vote by Congress was in essence split on party lines, with some exceptions such as senator Hillary Clinton, a Democrat who voted for the Republicans’ resolution.

On February 5, 2003, secretary of state Colin Powell made a last passionate appeal to the UN Security Council where he provided what he claimed was incontrovertible proof that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the other UN member states proved unimpressed and, having failed to obtain Security Council endorsement, the United States, on March 20, 2003, invaded Iraq.

With no WMD ever to be found in Iraq, it soon became clear that the whole thrust of US foreign policy as regards the danger represented by Saddam Hussein’s possession of such weapons was tantamount to a hallucination culminating with Powell’s presentation, which proved to be a total fabrication.

Given his personality, one can assume that when Powell made his presentation to the Security Council he was not conscious of the fact that, for all practical purposes, he was lying, and the same can probably be assumed of those who prepared his presentation. And just as those who staged the adoption of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution were predisposed to believe that North Vietnamese torpedo boats were poised to attack US Navy vessels, the political establishment around Bush had psyched itself into believing that Saddam Hussein had WMD.

From there it was only a small step to select among the multiplicity of intelligence sources available those that pointed in that direction. Having chosen to believe what they were predisposed to believe, they amplified it, structured it and then chose to present it as fact.

The UN was not convinced. A credulous Congress and a gullible public were. And so America found itself at war, deceived not by others but by itself.

Compared with the self-deception that presided over the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the decision to go to war in Iraq, the current ruckus as to whether “fake news,” home-grown or imported, state-manufactured or privately conceived, had an impact on the 2016 US presidential election misses the point. Given the all-pervading spread of the Internet, practically no major actor, be it a state or a political entity, is immune to its impact. “Interference” is, therefore, the rule rather than the exception, with one caveat.

Information, fake or otherwise, home-generated or imported, will have no impact unless it is accepted as fact. Critical thinking is thus the antidote to “fake news.”

This quandary is not new. In 1877, in his paper “The Ethics of Belief,” British philosopher William Clifford qualified critical thinking as a moral imperative and credulity as a calamitous sin. As of today, American society appears to have a deficit of the one and a surplus of the other.

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.

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