The First Casualty

Digital Doublethink: Playing Truth or Dare with Putin and Assad

Outrageous bits of fake reporting, and the grotesque ISIS reality show, demonstrate just how hard it is to separate fact from fiction in the Ukraine and Syria wars.

PARIS—Viral news about the world’s battlefields, often dubious and occasionally outrageous, went completely delirious over the last few days. A Moscow broadcaster presented bogus “proof” that the Ukrainians, not the Russians or their cronies, blasted a Malaysian airliner out of the sky last summer. Meanwhile a video of a little boy rescuing a little girl in the middle of a Syrian firefight turned out to be a complete fabrication—after almost 3 million people had watched it and mainstream media around the world had shown it.

And then, the murder of American Peter Kassig, which was all too real, proved once again that the self-proclaimed Islamic State has mastered the sick game of truth or dare in which it claims noble intentions, carries out savage plots, beheads hostages, and pretends to be the victim of the West as it victimizes the people of Syria and Iraq.

These examples are egregious, but they’re not isolated, and they fit into a pattern. George Orwell called it doublethink—“to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies. … to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it”—and it is poisoning, systematically, any notion of the truth about vital questions of war and peace in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq.

Let’s look at a simple example first:

Moscow’s Channel 1 television station broadcast a supposed scoop on Friday about who “really” shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine last July, killing all 298 people aboard. Independent investigators have had very little access to the site of the crash, which was in territory controlled by Moscow-backed rebels, but most Western observers believe that ill-trained rebels hit the plane, probably in a case of mistaken identity, with a Russian ground-to-air missile.

Supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine don’t want to believe that. So the host of the popular TV program “Odnako,” Mikhail Leontyev, showed images of what he claimed was a Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29 jet firing on the Boeing airliner. A putative expert who appeared on the show insisted that the images were real, taken either by an American or British surveillance satellite or, as the Russians say so colorfully, a “sputnik-spy.”

Leontyev referred to the images as "unique and sensational" and he seemed quite proud that he could present them just as Putin was headed for the G20 summit in Brisbane. After all, Putin was facing fellow leaders who are pretty sure it was his boys who shot the plane down, and have imposed sanctions on Russia partly as a result. (Indeed, Putin checked out of Brisbane early, claiming he needed to get some sleep.)

One might dismiss the Channel 1 show as the hype of a broadcaster drunk with fame, or maybe just drunk. (One can think of a few American commentators who fit into that mold.) But, no. The official Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta republished the images along with Channel 1's report.Russia's bloggersphere exploded with private investigations. Facebook and Twitter soon spawned multiple proofs that these "sensational" pictures were at least two years old, which means they were shot long before the MH17 tragedy. An expert in digital images, Echo of Moscow blogger Ilya Varlamov, called the “evidence” shown by Channel 1 "a roughly done Photoshop" of 2012 Google Map pictures. An even more elementary mistake: Channel 1 managed to confuse an Su-27 for the Mig-29 it claims did the shooting.

The Internet news agency compiled a list of all the mistakes in the broadcast by Channel 1. Among them, it turned out that the "head of the Russian union of engineers Ivan Andriivsky," interviewed as an expert on the images by Leontyev, did not have any technical education and is, in fact, the head of Russian Club of Financial Directors.

Do we think the Kremlin cares? Is it embarrassed? Hardly. The report has been picked up all over the world, including by major wire services. And while the stories may contain caveats, the initial headlines certainly did not. Reuters, for instance, reported flatly: “Russian TV channel says photos show MH17 shot down by fighter jet.” And if you hit the tweet button, that’s the message that went out.

But, sinister as all this is, it’s a fairly simple manipulation. In Syria, digital doublethink can become triplethink and quadruplethink until, well, one’s head begins to spin.

In that context, what to make of the viral video “SYRIA! BOY HERO BOY rescue girl in shootout. SEE THIS!!”? (No sense understating a headline, one supposes.)

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It’s really dramatic footage telling a very dramatic little story: as adults run from the crossfire we see a little boy, perhaps eight years old, trying to run toward a parked car. He dodges a bullet, plays dead, then reaches the car and—what’s this? There’s a little girl behind it, and he’s taking her hand, and he’s pulling her to safety!

Who could resist a visual story like that? Well, almost nobody, as it turned out. But it was a complete fake, filmed with child actors in Malta by a minor Norwegian film director named Lars Klevberg who told the BBC he wanted to spur debate “about children and war,” and, it is safe to say, about himself.

Probably this was Klevberg’s own original inspiration as a publicity stunt, but it is reminiscent of a favorite strategy by the Assad regime (and by the Russian operatives who helped train its people), namely to plant false information that seems to be damning about the regime, then to reveal the “truth” to discredit not only the sources of the information but those who reported it.

This was done very effectively in 2005 and 2006 when the United Nations began investigating the Valentine’s Day car bomb massacre in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and innocent bystanders. Everyone suspected Assad was behind it, and a couple of people came forward to investigators to say they could make the connections between the suspected bombers and top Syrian officials. Then, after the headlines came out, the sources recanted, and they have since been convicted (in Syrian courts) of perjury. The investigation is now in its tenth year, and has yet to regain its credibility.

Oh, and as luck would have it the key Syrian official implicated by the recanting witnesses was Assef Shawkat, President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law. He was blown up in July 2012 by a bomb that the Free Syrian Army claimed it planted.

When it comes to videos of the carnage that has cost at least 200,000 lives in Syria, few sources have been completely reliable. Early on, as protesters and rebels realized the shock value of their YouTube videos had waned, some started to dramatize or embellish them, as The Daily Beast reported in 2012. The results played right into the hands of those who wanted to portray the opposition as unreliable.

A fog of conspiracy—of logic against logic, as Orwell put it—has descended on every major event in the war. One obvious example, the ongoing debate about whether the regime really was responsible for killing hundreds of people with poison gas in August 2013.

Never mind that afterwards, facing direct military action by the United States, the Assad regime admitted what it had never conceded before—that it had a chemical arsenal—and then proceeded to destroy almost all of it under UN supervision. The Syrian government, and plenty of conspiracy-minded bloggers and investigators who are ready to believe just about any source other than the American government, would have us think the rebels have their own arsenal of nerve gas to kill their own people in order to blame the innocent-of this-particular-war-crime Assad regime.

Another even more sinister question: Did Assad actively or tacitly encourage the growth of the group that used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, that is, ISIS? Other more moderate rebel groups have long claimed that was the case. As one put it at the beginning of this year, the Assad regime inserted itself into the body of the revolution.

Today, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has shown that its media manipulation skills are far in advance of anyone else’s in the region. It conveys the image of its remorseless authority on videos, on social media, and in a slick online magazine (the latest edition of which had as its cover an image of the ISIS black flag flying over St. Peter’s Square).

The videos of American and British hostages being beheaded are so valuable to ISIS as memes of power and fear that now it has murdered a convert to Islam: Peter Kassig, 26, whose sole desire after serving in Iraq was to return to the region to help suffering civilians. Kassig had acknowledged the one God and His one Messenger, taken the name Abdel Rahman (Servant of the Merciful) and prayed five times a day, according to his parents. The Prophet would have understood, and spared him. The thugs of ISIS simply used him.

Such is the world of doublethink and triplethink.

Orwell put his finger on the core problem years before he wrote 1984. In wars, everybody lies. We do, they do, the victimizers and the victims do, too. But totalitarianism is different. Putin, Assad and ISIS all aspire to the kind of complete control that Stalin, Hitler, or the caliphs once had: total domination over their own people, brutal intimidation of their enemies. And, as Orwell wrote in a 1944 essay, “the really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.”

Orwell hoped, without complete confidence, that “the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive.”

One hopes. But 70 years after Orwell wrote those words, doublethink seems to be winning.