“Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” —Chico Marx
The photo looks faked. It’s so heavy-handed. A grinning Australian soldier, his insignia clear as day on his helmet and arm, stands on the Australian flag holding a small, barefoot Afghan child in front of him. He grasps a bloody knife to the child’s throat. The child, in turn, is cradling a lamb. Get it? Lamb to the slaughter? Oh, did I mention that the Australian flag is covering an Afghan flag, to dominate it, as it were? The caption reads “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”
This not-particularly-well-disguised piece of propaganda (it’s the work of Chinese graphic artist Fu Yu, aka Qilin) was posted to Twitter by the government of China, part of a broad-based campaign China is waging against Australia. Why? Simple: Australia has told the truth.
Marise Paine, Australia’s foreign minister, delivered a scathing speech to the UN Human Rights Council in September outlining China’s many human rights abuses. She cited the maltreatment of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province as well as the repressive measures China has lately adopted toward Hong Kong. Australia has also expressed solidarity with Taiwan, backed an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and banned Huawei from its 5G network. All of this has infuriated Beijing, which has retaliated by imposing sanctions against a lengthening list of Australian products, and now, a disinformation attack.
The ammunition was supplied, indirectly, by Australia itself. Like other free countries, Australia has a system of accountability for public officials high and low. One investigation concerned the conduct of Australian forces in Afghanistan. The Brereton inquiry found that Australian forces killed 39 civilians, two as young as 14. Upon the report’s release, Angus Campbell, chief of the defense forces, apologized to the Afghan people and to the Australian people, saying that the alleged conduct was “shameful,” “deeply disturbing,” and “appalling—a profound betrayal of all that the Australian defense forces stand for.” The report created a furor at home, and the Australian government is looking into paying compensation to the families of those wrongly killed.
China took the nugget of truth—Australian forces had committed war crimes—and transformed it into a ghoulish image of a rapacious Aussie about to sacrifice an innocent child.
I said at the start that the photo looks faked—what war criminal poses for pictures on a flag tableau? And yet, in our time, truth has become more elusive than ever. Technology presents real challenges. How many people in China and around the world will view that photo and believe it’s real? And we keep hearing about the “deep fakes”—doctored videos—that are around the corner. How many would believe a fraudulent video image of say, Hunter Biden confessing to child abuse?
In an era when technology can produce phony images and even doctored videos of real people doing and saying things they never did or said, the question of how to find truth becomes ever more urgent.
The techno-geniuses in Silicon Valley will probably come up with something like virtual watermarks to separate the real from the fake. But that can take us only so far, because when trust is eroded, people will doubt the watermarks too. How many Trump voters would trust the imprimatur of Twitter or Facebook? (Though Facebook has been very Trump-friendly, in effect if not in intention.)
No, in the internet age as much as in every previous era, credibility comes down to reputation—which is why we have much damage to our own standing to repair.
Trump’s assault on truth, his insistence that all news critical of him is fake, is reminiscent of the world’s worst regimes. The first thing to go when the jackboots come is the free press. Trump’s attacks on the press were rhetorical, not literal. But it’s no coincidence that his term, “fake news,” has become a favorite of thugs worldwide.
During the Cold War, it was understood that the West, for all its flaws, was more honest than the Communist bloc because of the free press. The media in the old USSR was full of cheerful workers exceeding their quotas and ruddy farmers luxuriating in golden fields of wheat. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan had a succinct summation of the state of play. “If you want to know at the airport whether you’ve just landed in a free country or an unfree country,” he quipped, “take a look at the newsstand. If all the headlines are bad, you’re in a free country. If all the headlines are good, you’re not.”
The governments of free countries of course attempt to lie. But at least the free press can often expose them, and fear of exposure keeps them in check to some degree. Free countries have also found that the truth can be their ally. During the early days of the BBC, the station often peddled government propaganda. As Lynne Olson explains in Last Hope Island, Sir John Reith, the BBC’s first director, took the view that “Assuming that the BBC is for the people, and the Government is for the people, it follows that the BBC must be for the Government.” Under his leadership, the station suppressed news unpalatable to Neville Chamberlain. But when the war started, BBC got new leadership, and a new credo—a commitment to telling the truth. This would prove crucial in rallying the support of resistance forces in Europe as well as maintaining domestic morale.
Reputation matters. It’s why China is so incensed that Australia has had the temerity to criticize it. Why do we trust Canberra more than Beijing? Because the Australians are free and accountable. They’ve admitted their war crimes and agonized over them. The Chinese have never acknowledged their far more massive human toll. Even without going back to the Great Leap Forward—the most devastating catastrophe in China’s history, causing between 18 and 45 million starvation deaths—we have the Tienanmen Square massacre within living memory, the rape of Tibet, and the widespread infanticide accompanying the One Child policy.
Our own reputation for honesty has taken a severe hit under Trump. How will other nations trust the word of the United States when we elected someone who supported the lies of Kim Jong-un and other corrupt and cruel dictators, and valorized our own war criminals? What does it tell the world when our president conducts a non-stop jihad against the press? Who can respect this nation when our president, in defending Putin, expressed his belief that we commit just as many sins?
Australia is showing courage by standing up to China, and paying a price. The White House has announced this week that it will be serving Australian wine, which would have been a better gesture if this president had not allied us with the world’s liars and criminals for four years.
In the post-Trump era, the most important restoration will be that of truth.