Last week, the world believed that Hamas beheaded Israeli babies and slit the throats of children.
Days after the terrorist organization’s ghastly Oct. 7 massacre left at least 1,400 Israeli citizens and soldiers dead, Tal Heinrich, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, claimed that infants and toddlers were found “decapitated” in Kfar Aza, one of the communities in southern Israel that was targeted by Hamas.
In a speech to Jewish community leaders at the White House, President Biden said, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.”
Given what was already documented, viewers and readers readily believed these terrorists were capable of such ruthless acts, although no one produced evidence to back the allegations up.
That’s because there was no evidence.
Hours after Biden made his comments, a White House official said that neither the president nor anyone in his administration had seen photos of infants beheaded by Hamas. According to CNN, the official “clarified that the president’s remarks were referring to public comments from media outlets and Israeli officials.”
Repetition is not a substitute for veracity. But as Aeschylus, the dramatist considered the father of Greek tragedy, reportedly said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
No war is fought with bullets and bombs alone. For as long as enemies have taken up arms against each other, propaganda has proven a robust weapon. During the Civil War, Southern printing presses put out materials that claimed Northern victory would lead to “race-mixing” and newspapers portrayed Union soldiers as rapists and thieves. World War I brought the rise of “atrocity propaganda,” which highlights, exaggerates, and sometimes outright fabricates the gruesome acts of violence committed by opposing combatants.
More than a century later, the goal of atrocity propaganda is the same — to agitate outrage, justify severe retaliation, and to dehumanize the enemy in the public heart and mind. It’s a message both Israel and Hamas can employ — what happens to their adversary is a result of that enemy’s own actions and initiation of violence. And 24-hour news cycles are far more efficient delivery systems of such messages than leaflets and posters.
Propaganda feeds off the very real horrors of war. What Hamas fighters did to young festivalgoers in the desert and to families awakened in their homes by missiles and gunfire on what turned out to be the last day of their lives gave credence to heinous stories of decapitated children. Few were inclined to believe the denials of terrorists.
So serious journalists made the damnably unserious decision that while their media outlets had not “independently verified” details about the headless bodies of children, they would report them anyway. Newspapers around the world blared headlines about dozens of Israeli children who were beheaded or had their throats cut by Hamas.
“Yesterday the Israeli Prime Minister’s office said that it had confirmed Hamas beheaded babies & children while we were live on the air,” she posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Friday. “The Israeli government now says today it CANNOT confirm babies were beheaded. I needed to be more careful with my words and I am sorry.”
Of course, Sidner needed to apologize. (Others should have followed suit.) But her mea culpa as well as the White House walking back Biden’s comments didn’t garner the viral traction of the falsehoods that preceded them.
In the chaos of war, the bar for truth and facts shouldn’t be lowered. With stakes measured in life and death, that measure should be exponentially higher. So far, at least 2,800 Palestinians in Gaza have reportedly been killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. A probable ground invasion by Israel Defense Forces is looming. The whereabouts and well-being of possibly more than 200 Israeli hostages in Gaza, kidnapped by Hamas during the massacre, remain unknown. As civilians, especially children, pay the impossible cost of this burgeoning conflict, both Israel and Hamas are looking for any advantage to gain sympathy and foment anger to vindicate the coming atrocities.
Social media and its unchecked disinformation thicken the fog of war. But it’s the job of journalists to suss out facts from self-serving fictions and behave as more than stenographers for propagandizing politicians who — willfully or recklessly — are already making truth another casualty of this still-nascent war.