Fake news as a weapon – Sargasso

REVIEW – The book ghosts van Pien van der Hoeven is about misleading public opinion in the US wars and the role of the media in this. It came out early this year, just before Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine. Not exactly a good time to draw attention to American fake news from the past. Yet it deserves that attention, not least because all wars suffer from the same problem: The first victim is always the truth. Just as hard as some media outlets try to cover the news of the current war in Ukraine, lies to influence public opinion remain an important weapon in the struggle.

Vietnam and Iraq

The fake news, which the media historian Van der Hoeven has investigated in detail, relates to three American wars, in Vietnam (1964-1975), the Gulf region (1990-1991) and Iraq (2003-2011). The ‘ghosts’ she describes relate to invented dangers that must justify armed intervention against public opinion. We know the Tonkin incident from the Vietnam War. The U.S. Navy is said to have been attacked by Vietnamese patrol boats. That was the signal to then-President Johnson to start bombing North Vietnam. In the early Gulf War of 1990, the story circulated that Iraqi soldiers in Kuwaiti hospitals took babies out of incubators and left them on the hospital floor, resulting in death. It had a huge impact on U.S. public opinion that fully supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. From the last US war in Iraq, we know the recent false story of US Secretary of State Colin Powell about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Less well known is the fake news about the brave prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, who is said to have been rescued from an Iraqi hospital by her colleagues. Lynch later saw doubts about the spectacular rescue. She felt abused, she wrote in her autobiography, for propaganda purposes. She was no hero, had not fought at all and had been well taken care of by the Iraqis. But the U.S. government needed a story that would stimulate American patriotic sentiment. It did not go so well in the early days of the war. When on-site journalists investigated, it turned out that her ‘rescue’ had been staged and the authorities were unable to answer many questions (more on this in the discussion on the book in the NRC).

The military-industrial complex

Based on extensive source research, Van der Hoeven describes these three cases as examples of how propaganda and fake news work in war situations. She also shows what interests play in the background. The book shows the influence of the military-industrial complex with all its personnel links between the arms industry and politics and the media. One year after 9/11, the war in Iraq was lobbied by a group of neoconservatives affiliated with major corporations such as Lockheed Martin and Halliburton. Vice President Cheney had served as chairman of the board in Halliburton. The company would profit from the Iraq war with orders worth 18 billion.

The Hills & Knowlton PR agency also benefited from the war, directly from the propaganda by which the military and government misled American citizens. For example, the agency coached the Kuwait ambassador’s daughter in her false testimony about Iraqi soldiers’ baby theft in 1990. In 2003, the girl’s coach promoted the book by an Iraqi lawyer who is said to have helped the military rescue Jessica Lynch. . His stories have since been disproved as lies and ‘Hollywood-like baloney’ by Washington Post† The man was granted political asylum in the United States and a job at a Republican politician’s lobby office.

935 times false

The painful thing about all the fake news is that the media is very easy to agree with in the beginning, with a few exceptions. Later, the truth often emerges, thanks or not thanks to whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg (who revealed the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War) or persistent investigative journalists. “Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the Independent US Center for Public Integrity reported that Bush and other representatives of his administration had made 935 false statements in the campaign to get the people behind the Iraq war.”

ghosts is about three wars in which social media played no part or in the case of the Iraq war hardly any role. The media in this book are still the old familiar media: the written press, radio and television. Van der Hoeven shows in his introduction that the use of these media in war situations is by no means new. There has always been fake news. The question is whether war news is now taking a qualitative leap due to the intensive use of the internet and social media. Are lies now discovered faster, is propaganda pierced before? Researchers who want to follow in the footsteps of Van der Hoeven may be able to show us that. I recommend that they read her excellently documented book thoroughly first. It is a very thorough and well-written analysis of the deception we as simple news consumers are exposed to when kongsi of politicians and arms manufacturers go on the warpath.

Pien van der Hoeven, Ghosts: How Capitalism Drives Us to War. Fake News and the American Wars in Vietnam and the Gulf† Publisher Prometheus, Amsterdam, 2022, 272 pages, € 22.50

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