Massacres, Mass Graves and Shocking Video: The risks of propaganda

March 7, 2011 • Public Relations • by

How many are dead? Were bombs really dropped? Is Al Qaeda involved? As in other wars, misinformation dominates the news.

So how many people have been killed in Libya?  One thousand, 2,000 … 10,000? And how many cities have fallen to the rebels? Two, three, 10?  The Libyan crisis is thick with sensational and shocking news – potentially untrustworthy news.  We were all horrified to learn that Gheddafi may have ordered his air force to bomb the crowd, a scenario that the bishop of Tunis has not confirmed.

Telephone communications in Libya are far from ideal and online communication is fragmented, yet each new day brings dramatic videos, both pro and anti-regime.  We’ve seen videos of mass graves, or at least things appearing to be mass graves.  They were, instead, sixteen holes in the ground just like those that are dug in every cemetery.  Tripoli’s television broadcast images of thousands of Libyans celebrating in the square to show that the Colonel is loved and still very much in power.  But who’s lying? Alas, there’s no point asking – they are all lying.  In times of crisis, videos of dead bodies and destruction are often later revealed to be archived images of events that took place years ago, or in other countries. A few simple zoom tricks can make dozens of protesters in a square look like a sea of people.

Do you remember the image of the black cormorant from the first Gulf War, a symbol of the ruthlessness of Saddam who – they said at the time – had opened the oil pipelines?  The image was a fake.  And the massacre in Timisoara, Romania during the revolt against Ceausescu?  It never happened. The most recent war in Iraq saw the media spread an enormous quantity of falsehoods, which no one in real-time recognized as false. Or almost no one.  The few skeptical voices were drowned by the impetus of breaking news and overwhelming excitement, the need to shock or stun, sweep away or repress, thrill or frighten.  What counts is the immediate effect.  Modern wars are waged and won in the media.

During every conflict, every civil war, the same old movie is played out, with the same victim every time – truth.   Journalists become vehicles for propaganda, in a vortex that in an era of global information is of dizzying proportions. All-news TV channels, Internet sites and live radio programs all go for sensationalism, feeding an insatiable hunger for news.  No one verifies facts anymore, and every newsroom worries only about beating the competition, even if only by mere seconds.  And if later the news turns out to be fake or plagiarized?  Nevermind, because soon enough it will be forgotten or pushed aside by another story, which may also be false. Let’s take the 10,000 killed in Libya last week.  And who spread this fact around? A Libyan member of the International Criminal Court – an apparently authoritative source.  Interestingly enough only a few moments earlier the same Court declared that it could not investigate war crimes due to a lack of reliable information.  And yet few media organizations caught the contradiction, and instead of reporting the news with caution and skepticism they blasted it about freely, involuntarily helping the rebels, who count on international indignation to help bring down the regime, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia.

And Gheddafi?  He’s lying, too.  He denies the massacres, invents unlikely enemies and attempts to unload the blame on Al Qaeda, which he even accuses of  “putting drugs in the food of the people to induce them to rebel.” He claims to control cities where, actually, as reported by Western journalists, the crowd marches under the flag of the former king.  The Colonel, like every dictator in power for too long and facing massive trouble, loses his perception of reality.   He does not realize that his citizens no longer believe the official truths, precisely because they are by nature untruthful and manipulative.  And he sinks deeper into the ridiculous.  He reminds us of Saddam Hussein during the last days of his regime.  The Iraqi leader continued to proclaim an imminent, glorious victory over the American invaders until the very end. He abandoned the presidential palaces, and began making sudden appearances on the street in a farce of sorts, just as Gheddafi did when he appeared in a van holding an umbrella, an image that was meant to be reassuring but instead proved surreal.  Or like the speech Gheddafi delivered to the crowd days ago…by phone.  Even he lost the connection.

These behaviors are disastrous for his public image, foreshadowing demise. Unless, of course, the rebel propaganda has been extraordinarily efficient.  Yet the plain truth is that no one really knows what is happening in Libya.

To the reader, who rightly wishes to know and tries to understand, we can offer only this advice: be skeptical, be skeptical, be skeptical – knowing that, in these precarious situations, it is almost impossible to distinguish facts from propaganda.

Published in Il Giornale, February 25, 2011 by Marcello Foa. For original Italian version, see here.

Translated by Ann Wise

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