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25 October 2023

Cutting through the fog of war

In an age of fake news, wartime leaders understand that they now have to fight against disinformation and conspiracies too.

By New Statesman

In a prime-time address from the White House’s Oval Office on 19 October, Joe Biden told his fellow Americans that they had reached “an inflection point in history”. The US president had returned that morning from a trip to Israel, following the horrific attack by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians on 7 October. In his speech Mr Biden made the case to his own citizens as to why standing with Israel – and Ukraine – was important for America’s national security. This was, he said, a moment “where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come”.

The president is correct that the world is at an inflection point. The international order that emerged from the devastating world wars of the previous century is finally fractured, as John Gray writes on page 22. The United Nations, whose founding charter vowed to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, was powerless when confronted with Vladimir Putin’s imperialist aggression against Ukraine, and is now deeply divided in its response to the war between Israel and Hamas. The post-Cold War swagger of Western liberal democracy is fading, and a new era of great-power rivalry has begun, with Russia and China leading a resurgent axis of authoritarianism.

But the American president’s diagnosis of the challenge is too simplistic. The world does not divide neatly, as he argues, into a good versus bad dichotomy of democracies against autocracies. Equally, it is a disservice to both Israel and Ukraine when Mr Biden conflates their conflicts, which he presents as two fronts in a shared struggle against the “terrorists” and “dictators” of the world. This message is politically expedient given the growing opposition within the Republican Party to providing more funding for Ukraine, but we should be clear about the profound differences between these two wars.

[See also: The Labour revolt over Keir Starmer’s Gaza policy is spreading]

Ukraine is fighting for its survival against an invading army. Israel must defend itself from barbarism and target the perpetrators of the 7 October attack, but this does not give Benjamin Netanyahu’s government the right to impose collective punishment on the captive civilians in Gaza. By vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on 18 October that called for a pause in the fighting to allow the delivery of emergency aid, Mr Biden and the United States risked exacerbating a humanitarian catastrophe.

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In fact, the most pressing threats to Western democracies come not from the prospect of enemy tanks rolling over the border, but from within our own political systems. Mr Netanyahu and his far-right allies in Israel have spent much of this year trying to hollow out the independent judiciary (and with it the checks on their own power). In the US, Mr Biden’s bromides about American leadership being the force that “holds the world together” are undermined by the strong possibility that the next president will be Donald Trump.

We live in an age of disinformation and conspiracies fuelled by the rise of artificial intelligence, fake news and unregulated social media platforms. The loss of faith in public institutions and the spread of propaganda from all actors threatens to overwhelm civil discourse and the pursuit of objective facts, as Andrew Marr writes on page 18. These pathologies have worsened since the start of the Gaza war, supercharged by a media ecosystem that rewards speed over accuracy, and outrage over nuance.

This was especially stark after the tragic explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City on 17 October, when the BBC, New York Times and Al Jazeera rushed out breaking news headlines repeating claims by Hamas that the hospital had been hit by an Israeli air strike. British, American and Israeli intelligence reports suggest the strike came from within Gaza.

In an effort to cut through the new fog of war, the Israeli military invited international journalists to a screening on 23 October of harrowing footage of killings recovered from the Hamas attackers’ body cameras. Israel’s leaders understand that they are now engaged in an information as well as a military war. As the crisis intensifies, it is incumbent on political leaders, journalists and citizens alike to resist the urge to rush to judgement. We are, indeed, at an inflection point that will define the years and possibly decades to come. This is a time for sober, evidence-based assessments and verifiable facts, not partisan prejudice and fear-mongering.

[See also: Antony Blinken and the limits of American diplomacy]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War

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