Any good information operator knows that truth wins over lies. But even truth can lose its power in the face of overwhelming doubt. Under Vladimir Putin, doubt may be Russia’s most valuable export.
Russia’s recipe for misinformation stirs together one part truth, three parts whopper, then puts it all on a low simmer, fan on, until the stench permeates the internet. It works.
Consider this recent incident. When a U.S. Navy F-35C crashed in the South China Sea, someone on board leaked video and images of the jet’s ill-fated wobbly approach, its fiery collision with the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and its crash into the sea. As is normal, the Navy said little about the crash, leaving an opportunity for mischief. Fake news purveyors quickly produced a backstory in which the pilot allegedly complained of chest pains and cursed his COVID-19 vaccination just before punching out. Amplified by a few social media posts, the story spread. Within 24 hours, well-meaning, retired general officers were wondering if it might actually be true.
The false story was built on a foundation of disconnected truths. The plane really did crash; evidence really was leaked from aboard the Vinson; the military really does require COVID-19 vaccines; myocarditis is a real, if rare, adverse effect of mRNA vaccines.
Now look at what happened when the Pentagon and the State Department looked to expose a Russian plot to use manufactured video of battle scenes and wounded actors to justify an incursion into Ukraine. State Department spokesman Ned Price held a press conference in early February at which he shared this newly “declassified intelligence,” but Associated Press reporter Matt Lee wasn’t ready to take Price’s word for it. He asked for evidence. The two argued for several awkward moments until an exasperated Price blurted out: “If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. Government, of the British Government, of other governments, and want to find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.”
If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
Price later apologized for the exchange. Lee, after all, was doing his job, following the journalism 101 maxim: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” Sometimes spokesmen get the facts wrong through no fault of their own. At other times, they spin the truth intentionally. They want you to look at the other side of the Coke can.” When you do, you see it says Coca-Cola, not Coke.
At the Abbey Gate attack at Kabul International Airport, 13 American service members and some 170 civilians were killed. This is a case where the early disclosures turned out to be wrong. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., Commander, U.S. Central Command described the attack at the time as a complex operation by both a suicide bomber and ISIS-K gunmen. Nearly six months later, McKenzie corrected the record on Feb. 4, following an investigation that found the attack involved only a single explosion. McKenzie hadn’t lied, but he had misreported.
“The fact that this investigation has contradicted what I originally said, demonstrates to me that the team went into this investigation with an open mind in search of the truth,” McKenzie said. Unfortunately, cynics see this as part of a pattern: Get out a useful story quickly and correct the record later.
Days after the Abbey Gate incident, a U.S. drone tracked and destroyed a white Toyota in Kabul, having identified the occupant as an imminent terrorist threat. The driver, however, turned out to be a human rights worker, who died in his driveway along with seven of his children. After further investigation, the U.S. military acknowledged its error.
Terrible mistakes happen in war. When life and death is at stake and time is short, some judgments will inevitably prove wrong. Explaining what happened accurately and in a timely way is harder and more complicated than it looks. Those first drafts of history are often based on too little information and often incorrect. So, when the facts change, credibility crumbles.
Here’s another: After U.S. Special Forces attacked ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi on Feb. 3, in a multistory dwelling at a small village in northwest Syria, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby explained to reporters that the United States chose a more complex and risky operation to minimize the risk to women, children, and other innocents in the operation. Instead of a drone strike, special operators helicoptered in, risking their lives in the process. They issued warnings. They gave the occupants time. They successfully rescued several children. But exactly how many people were killed and who they all were remained unclear. Soon after, aid groups questioned the official death count.
This is a classic Catch-22. The more the Pentagon reveals, the greater the risk of error. And yet the more that is withheld, the greater the risk of being accused of a cover up. When a skeptical public conflates error with lies, all bets are off.
The hard part is deciphering the difference. Each of us has a moral obligation to bring our own thoughtfulness, doubt, and benevolent skepticism to the information we consume. More important, we have an even greater obligation to ensure the information we convey to others is legitimate. To do this effectively, we must first question ourselves and those whispering in our ears. The admonition to reporters—“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”—applies to readers, too. Rephrase it this way: “Never doubt the possibility that you might be wrong.”
Be a good intelligence officer. Weigh the value of each source. Decide what to discount. Like a passenger in a canoe, leaning too far right or left leaves you wet all over. A lone source will almost inevitably lead to an unbalanced story.
Our nation faces many serious risks and challenges. The unholy and growing alliance between China and Russia, the nefarious aims of Iran and North Korea, and expanding unrest in Africa each pose real and present dangers. But the greater threat to our Republic is our own inability to trust and work together. We can see that plainly in a Congress that cannot pass a budget, and the heated and often hateful arguments over mask mandates and mandatory vaccinations. We must learn to see in shades of gray and not just black and white.
It is one thing to say we do not negotiate with terrorists. It’s quite another to see our fellow countrymen in that same light.