Casualties of war

People are sharing an image purporting to show 13 children executed by ISIS for watching a football match on television. I did a reverse image search of the image using TinEye.com and found that it actually shows victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982.

I have no way of knowing if the story about ISIS is itself true or false, but the use of images from other conflicts does demonstrate how unethical some reporters of news/rumours are.

Last summer I was Mr Unpopular for subjecting alleged photos of destruction in another conflict to the same kind of scrutiny. A few photos which I encountered — said to show Israeli violence during Operation Protective Edge — turned out to be from their confrontations in earlier years or, in a few cases, from other theaters of war.

Mr Unpopular, I suppose, because truth is supposed to be the first casualty of war… in conflicts like this a generic kind of truth is all that’s required. We’re not supposed to quibble about individual truths, as long as the narrative is broadly correct. Hence the BBC got away with reporting a massacre by Assad’s forces in the early days of the Syria war, even when it was demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the images they used were from the Iraq war a decade earlier.

Ever since, the online press has shown no compunction about blurring the lines of reality, being economical with the truth or just being plainly malicious. Last year, dozens of photos were circulated online alleged to show ISIS atrocities — but many of the photos could be easily traced back to their origin, sometimes years earlier, sometimes on different continents. A Mexican woman beheaded by a drug cartel gang was one; a little girl killed during aerial bombardment by Syrian forces was another.

The propaganda used by all sides is used to prepare us for war of some kind. We could all then say that we are excused from probing. But just as the age in which we live provides ever greater opportunities to mislead and be misled (viral emails, retweets and Facebook posts hardly have a parallel in earlier times), so we have technology at our disposal to investigate and challenge the claims of the devious.

Don’t believe everything you read or see. Be prepared to ask difficult questions, even if makes you unpopular — and even if it seems to be against your own interests.1 Warmongers — on all sides — use extreme imagery to generate extreme effects. Many a goodhearted young man has been so repulsed by the suffering of an oppressed people — reaffirmed one hundred times over — by grotesque imagery on a news feed that he has decided to do something. Many a patriotic young soldier — fed a diet of the barbaric deeds of the other — has been led to war in foreign lands against the barbaric enemy of the day.

Truth need not be the first casualty of war in the modern age. We have powerful search algorithms at our disposal with which we can investigate the veracity of an image. We have access to vast databases of all that has been said before. While we may not be able to uncover the motives and intentions of others, we can at least scrutinize their claims.

  1. “Speak the truth event against yourself…”

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