At the end of last year, a supposedly new threat to the integrity of Western public discourse hove into public view. I am referring, of course, to ‘fake news’. This blunt, monosyllabic phrase strikes the ear as childish and naïve and its association with Donald Trump, whose boastful speeches and vulgar tweets represent an unprecedented debasement of political communication, hardly commends it as a serious analytical concept.
Nevertheless, fake news is both real and ubiquitous. It is, as the writer Richard Seymour puts it, ‘the chemically distilled version of “churnalism”’, an epiphenomenon of a journalistic economy that increasingly relies on attracting eyeballs to weird, scandalous or sensational content. And it can have alarming consequences. In December 2016, for example, it emerged that Pakistan had issued a nuclear attack warning to Israel after the appearance, on the Pakistan-based conspiracy website AWD News, of an entirely fictitious story claiming that Israel had threatened the country with annihilation.
Yet the fake news phenomenon is hardly new, especially where wars and geopolitical conflicts are concerned. Nor is it a problem particular to the age of the Internet. The reporting of the Bosnian war, which began in the spring of 1992 – just before the widespread commercialization of the World Wide Web – provides an object lesson in how media manipulation, up to and including outright fabrication, can deform public understanding of world events. The media presentation of Bosnia, I would suggest, parallels that of the current conflict in Syria and is therefore worth briefly rehearsing.
Although the Serbs possessed significant advantages over Croat and Bosnian forces in military hardware, the Bosnian war was a multi-lateral civil conflict. Most journalists, however, cast it as a one-sided war of Serb aggression instigated by one man: Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. Although his counterparts in the governments of Bosnia (Alija Izetbegović) and Croatia (Franjo Tuđman) were men with well-known fascist inclinations who played key roles in pursuing and prolonging the war, Milošević, as the Western media’s designated demon, was the only leader blamed for hostilities.
Throughout the war in Bosnia, it was seldom acknowledged that atrocities widely blamed on the Serbs, such as the Sarajevo marketplace bombings, had disputed authorship. At least some of these ‘Serb’ atrocities were Bosnian Muslim operations aimed at provoking a Western military response; as the British diplomat David Owen, the EU peace negotiator in Bosnia, noted in his memoir Balkan Odyssey, no seasoned observer of the war doubted that such deception went on.
Unreliable statistics, meanwhile, were reported as facts. To take only the most egregious example, it was widely claimed by the end of the Bosnian war that 250,000 people had lost their lives in the republic (US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, in his book To End A War, puts the tally at 300,000), whereas the true death toll is likely to have been more like 100,000. The inflation of this figure – which is horrific enough as it is – helped to bolster the case for military intervention.
Moreover, Western journalists’ descriptions of the Bosnian war often drew upon historical analogies that were at best strained, at worst downright propagandistic. Looking back at the coverage of Bosnia in his book Strange Places, Questionable People, the veteran BBC reporter John Simpson complained that ‘everything came to be seen through the filter of the Holocaust’. This dubious historicization resulted in a grossly simplified narrative of villains (Serbs) and victims (Bosnian Muslims) that licensed well-meaning liberals to argue for US/NATO intervention on humanitarian grounds.
As I show in my recent book Screening Bosnia, even Hollywood played a part in reinforcing a misleading picture of the Bosnian conflict. Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), for example, alters the identities of those involved in the infamous Sarajevo wedding party massacre, transforming its Serb victims into Croats, and so on, in line with the Western media script.
If the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were thoroughly misrepresented in the Western media, fake news was hardly less prominent in the following decade, most notoriously in the fictitious claim, repeated mantra-like by politicians and journalists in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ primed for use against the West. More recently, the disastrous NATO bombing of Libya, which plunged the country into a vortex of violence, was justified by sordid lies about Viagra-fuelled rapes and a supposed plan to massacre civilians in Benghazi – a deceit that tricked many leftists into supporting intervention against Gaddafi.
But it is perhaps the Western reporting of the ongoing devastation of Syria that bears the closest similarity to that of the war in Bosnia. As in Bosnia, what is unfolding in Syria is a civil war in which one of the belligerents possesses a significant advantage in ordnance and destructive capability. Indeed, like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the ‘Syrian regime’ is responsible for more atrocities than its opponents. Yet its dominance has been absolutized and, as in Bosnia, the war has generally been presented as an entirely one-sided affair.
Bias and over-simplification are the order of the day. As Stephen Kinzer complains, US and British journalists routinely criticize the crimes perpetrated by Assad and his allies, but devote less attention to atrocities carried out by the groups they variously describe as ‘moderates’ or ‘rebels’. The April 4 chemical attack on civilians in Idlib, probably perpetrated by Syrian government fighters, was framed by Western journalists and politicians as an explosion of evil of world-historical magnitude; it even prompted Trump to lament the slaughter of so many ‘beautiful babies’. Yet the even more deadly ‘rebel’ bombing, a few days later, of Shia refugee buses attracted relatively little media attention. The civilians killed in the former event were, to use Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s terms, ‘worthy victims’ of a hated enemy; those killed in the latter were ‘unworthy’ and easily ignored. As Robert Fisk wrote acerbically in The Independent following the bus attack, ‘Some dead Syrian babies matter, I guess. Other dead Syrian babies don’t’.
As in Bosnia, ‘facts’ about the Syrian war change at such a rapid pace that few notice – and even fewer apologize – when they are shown to be false. As Fisk points out in another Independent article from last year, Western news sources widely reported that 250,000 people were ‘trapped’ by Syrian army forces in East Aleppo in late 2016, yet this number turned out to be probably less than 90,000. It is hard to know for sure, since no independent foreign journalists were present in the city. As Fisk observes, Western news media have become reliant on social media and testimony drawn from potentially compromised sources operating out of jihadist-controlled zones. This recalls the situation of international journalists in Bosnia, who for safety reasons were mostly confined to Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn and were therefore unable to witness the events of the war at first hand.
And as in the case of Bosnia, liberal journalists have often been the most vigorous advocates of war in Syria. The New York Times and the self-styled ‘world’s news leader’ CNN, who were the loudest supporters of military intervention in the Balkans, have been pushing hard for ‘action’ to be taken against Assad and veteran journalists such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour are once again producing the sort of advocacy journalism they first practiced during the Yugoslav wars.
Amanpour draws comparisons between Syria and Bosnia, warning that the Western powers ‘cannot stand by’ as she claims they did in the 1990s. In fact, along with politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Amanpour is part of a powerful establishment consensus promoting the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Trump’s recent missile bombing of the al-Shayrat airfield – an attack that killed several people, including children, according to the Syrians – was most likely a reluctant attempt to placate this lobby. The action certainly drew widespread approbation from establishment quarters; the New York Times’s Mark Landler was just one of many liberal journalists who applauded Trump for finally taking a stand on Syria, claiming that the bombing was the righteous action of ‘a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his’.
And yet there is a possibility that the horrific chemical attack on civilians in Idlib, to which Trump’s bombing was a response, was not in fact carried out by Syrian forces, as CNN and other liberal media have been insisting with what could be seen, in psychoanalytic terms, as psychotic certainty. As in Bosnia, much is uncertain and the capacity of all of the war’s belligerents for duplicity and misdirection should not be underestimated. Assad and Putin are mass murderers who are routinely committing sickening atrocities against the people of Syria, a reality obscured by pro-Putin/Assad news media organizations such as RT, which serve as apologists for state terror; but so too are the Syrian government’s brutal jihadist opponents, who are responsible for threats, abduction, torture and mass murder.
Even if the Syrians and/or Russians did orchestrate the Idlib chemical attack, this is no reason for the US to add to the death toll in Syria with its own missile strikes. As many radical commentators have suggested, a truly internationalist response to the Syrian horror cannot possibly involve backing one group of imperialists against another; rather, it requires support for Syrian refugees and the subversion, wherever possible, of the military apparatuses on all sides.
The mainstream media’s propaganda blitz over Syria has not gone uncontested. Counter-hegemonic articles – such as the Independent articles of Robert Fisk referenced above, or this one by Patrick Cockburn, also in The Independent – have challenged the Western media consensus, highlighting its selectivity and hypocrisy. Yet the majority of the Western reporting of Syria bleakly illustrates the role of journalists in generating public support for prevailing foreign policy and, when it is desired, military intervention.
In relation to the latter, the lessons from Bosnia – not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – should be heeded. At the end of the Bosnian war, the US-approved Operation Storm, in which Croat troops moved to drive the Serb population out of the Croatian Krajina in 1995, resulted in the deaths of several hundred, possibly thousands of ethnic Serbs and constituted the most extensive case of ethnic cleansing since World War II. And in 1999, NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia – lauded by the murdered British politician Jo Cox and other liberal commentators as the epitome of benign military intervention – in fact greatly exacerbated the inter-ethnic violence it was supposed to prevent.
By the same token, an extension of Western military aggression against Syria, a far more dangerous theatre than the Yugoslavia of the 1990s, would only result in even more violence in the region. The US-led coalition, which is responsible for killing hundreds of civilians in the Middle East each month, is not a force for global peace. We should condemn the barbarity of the Syrian government and the cynicism of its political allies and media apologists; but if we are mindful of history, we must also reject the Western media’s ‘fake news’ about Syria and the dangerous imperialist agenda it serves.