News, or shall we say “news,” of a horrid attack spread faster than you can say “IDF”: Israel had bombed a hospital in Gaza, killing hundreds.
Without bothering to verify the claim, which had been initially propagated by Hamas, anti-Israel members of Congress shared it with thousands upon thousands — denouncing it as the latest supposed proof of Israeli inhumanity toward Palestinians. The Associated Press wrote a credulous account stating that “A massive blast rocked a Gaza City hospital packed with wounded and other Palestinians seeking shelter Tuesday, killing hundreds of people, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said.”
The New York Times stuck to “he said, she said” language: “Israelis and Palestinians Blame Each Other for Blast at Gaza Hospital That Killed Hundreds.”
Turns out, based on everything we now know, it was not an Israeli bomb but a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket that hit the hospital — or, perhaps more accurately, the parking lot adjacent to the hospital. Israel denied responsibility and circulated audio of Hamas operatives admitting as much. President Joe Biden concurred, saying “The data I was shown by my Defense Department” confirmed Israel’s account.
That was better late than never, but late indeed, as millions of people around the world already ingested and believed and grew furious based on what they read or heard.
Since the dawn of time, reports from war zones have been shrouded in heavy fog, as governments spread propaganda that’s invariably at odds with accounts on the ground. But now the fog is thicker, faster-moving and more poisonous than ever before, as ideologues find the supposed facts needed to support their hardened presuppositions and pass them around before the actual truth can conceivably catch up.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Mark Twain who coined “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”; it was Jonathan Swift who said something similar. But the aphorism has stuck for good reason. Lies now travel at the speed of electrons, or light. Rigorous, independent, shoe-leather reporting, which is often the only thing that can clear the fog, takes much more time than that.
If given a bit of time, serious journalists who care about the truth — many of whom still exist — have more tools than ever to suss out what really happened. The U.S. government is using open-source tools and satellite imagery to document war crimes in Ukraine.
But the forces of disinformation are growing ever more sophisticated, too. It’s not just that propaganda without evidentiary support is readily amplified by countless useful idiots. Deepfake technology is giving ever more people and organizations, no matter how dishonest, the tools to fabricate seemingly credible evidence. If cancerous cynicism metastasizes, with sympathizers only ever believing what they wish to believe and writing off as fake all inconvenient facts, we will be truly lost.
Hope and pray we’re not already there.