Truth Decay – some corrective action is necessary and possible

The Middle East war has shown us the challenge of "truth decay”, where misinformation and emotions often intersect.

Written by

Mike Kelly and Anthony Bergin

Australia’s Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell recently described the challenge of “truth decay”, where misinformation and emotions often intersect. This has played out in recent incidents in Bondi Junction and Western Sydney. An innocent person’s reputation was traduced by the media. Live streamed footage of the Wakeley incident resulted in the mobilisation of mob violence. 

During the Gaza conflict we’ve seen frequent media recycling of Hamas propaganda material. It’s been pointed out time and time again, for example, that the Hamas figures on civilian casualties are demonstrably unreliable. The Gaza Ministry of Health now admits that they can’t substantiate one third of the widely-reported “34,000 civilian deaths” figure.

The IDF has been fighting a war of self defence against somewhere between 55-60,000 combatants, killing at least 13,000 of them. Hamas regularly posts footage of these combatants attacking the IDF.  But miraculously not a single casualty from this fighting has been acknowledged in the global deaths figure, which would account for another third of the claimed figure.

Substantial casualties are caused by the regular misfires of Hamas rockets. Hamas engages in routine summary executions of Gazans that they accuse of cooperating with the IDF. They’ve killed many more while looting relief supplies. These are included in Hamas figures. Aside from this they’ve deliberately put civilians in harm’s way as human shields. Hamas is not held to account for any of this. 

The effectively pro-Hamas demonstrators in Australia have succeeded in popularising the “genocide” libel among its adherents. They’ve claimed, wrongly, that the International Court of Justice’s procedural ruling in January found Israel was perpetrating a genocide. But the outgoing President of the ICJ, Joan Donoghue, has recently confirmed that no such finding was made, not even one of “plausible genocide”.  

Reporting by mainstream media hasn’t included footage or reports of anti-Hamas protests in Gaza. None of the comments by Hamas officials confirming their human shield strategy or their intention to continuously repeat 7 October style attacks are reported. Little media attention is given to the Hamas Covenant, the genocidal strategic agenda of annihilating Israel and all Jews.

The media impression is that only Israel has agency and is the only side engaging in hostilities. The subtext is that any use of force by Israel in Gaza is intentionally and exclusively making war on unarmed civilians. There’s a refusal to accept that Hamas launched an illegal war of aggression and has continued this aggression, attacking the IDF and launching rockets at Israeli territory whenever possible. 

Even more shocking has been the disinformation dynamic playing out on university campuses, our temples of learning. This isn’t a peace movement nor the “summer of love”, it is the “winter of hate”. One of the protest leaders at the ANU in Canberra asserted that “Hamas deserves our unconditional support”. Neither they nor fellow protesters would condemn the 7 October terror attack on Israel. They call for the destruction of the “Zionist colony”. There have been blatantly anti-Semitic elements involved in the protests, but Canberra ABC says this “can’t be verified”, while happily repeating Hamas propaganda, such as its casualty figures, without that caveat. 

Our media should report the abuse of children they’re perpetrating through indoctrinating them with hate material. The propagandist elements amongst our academics and teachers seeking to use their position in disseminating Hamas propaganda should be highlighted.  

Israeli tactics have been described as “disproportionate”, (according to the UN Satellite Centre the scale of the damage in Gaza is 35% of structures) or “indiscriminate” (professor of urban warfare studies at West Point, John Spencer, has concluded that Israel “has implemented more precautions to prevent civilian harm than any military in history.”)  There is often uncritical reporting of the activism of the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese. Ms Albanese has no qualifications or practical experience related to the laws of armed conflict. But she seems happy to make pronouncements in this field.   

In a similar vein, we’ve seen the ACTU leadership make an ill-advised foray into Middle East politics, condemning “the use of starvation as a weapon of war”. Israel has not imposed restrictions on the entry of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and starvation is demonstrably not how the IDF is conducting the operation (despite the fact that siege warfare that denies sustenance to enemy forces is still completely legitimate under the laws of armed conflict, as confirmed in the ICRC commentary on the customary international in this field). 

The ACTU has called on the Australian government to enact targeted sanctions on Israeli military and civil servants because it alleges that they’ve deliberately denied essential food to civilians.  All the evidence is that the contrary is happening, with more crossing points open and shipments facilitated, with record numbers of aid trucks entering Gaza.  The union peak body demands the dismantling of Israel’s security barrier. But that barrier would legitimately remain in place on an international border with a future Palestinian state and is essential to an initial peace agreement. 

It has been encouraging to see Prime Minister Albanese be clear that the infamous “river to the sea” chant is unacceptable in all it represents, and a clear rejection of the government’s two state solution policy. Also noteworthy is that the BBC has now acknowledged that its reference to the Hamas casualty figures has been misleading, particularly in neglecting to refer to the fact that combatant figures are not distinguished.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been taking the threat of “truth decay” seriously for some time and has launched initiatives to engage private industry help harness advances in AI to detect and defeat deepfake online assaults.

This would be an excellent area for AUKUS Pillar II collaboration. The truth is found only when sought. It is time to step up to the information warfare challenge or else watch our democracy corrode steadily from within. 

Mike Kelly is the co-convenor of Labor Friends of Israel. Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia.