Truth under fire

Freedom of speech is threatened – frankly, tied up and thrown in the trunk of the car.
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Whilst to fool some of the people some of the time is a dead certainty.

Months into another European war we continue to see the despair, the destruction …the disinformation. We choose what we watch, what we swipe and share. An original source, a verified eyewitness account can be precious when truth is under fire.

A glance at my phone and my friend in Odessa tells me it’s another night of bombing: “…rockets past the windows,” she describes from her apartment block. So, I know there were rockets, or cruise missiles. I have a time stamp and location. I have an original source, my eyewitness. Precious.

A journalist is deported, an editor arrested, news agencies are shut down, social platforms are blocked – the choice of what we can swipe to can become restricted. Freedom of speech is threatened – frankly, tied up and thrown in the trunk of the car.

The truth is the first casualty of war – if we need be reminded.

Information operations are integral to war or military operations – special or otherwise. As part of any state’s weaponry, information operations are often designed to distort and disrupt a narrative to seize an advantage. It can be in the interest of a foreign policy to show people certain things, whether or not they want to see or hear them.

State apparatchiks as anonymous sources remain unidentified, like trolls behind a shadowy social media account. Whether this be a menace with a grudge or a commander-in-chief with an objective, fake news is usually fabricated content that matches in part to a truth readily acknowledged. This results in people being easily misled, swept along in a distorted national conversation. It might be an online pop-up to swing an election result, or a vaccine scare tactic – both dangerous in extremes.

In a war, information operations can seek to win over a population – reaching ‘hearts and minds’, influencing behaviour, or adding a warning, whilst a wholesale fake news campaign often seeds hatred, imports fear, or deceives the enemy.

Truth can be hard to establish or defend: an image is manipulated; the footage was taken years earlier, another place altogether… Or completely fabricated: it was in the aftermath of the Iraq War that images claiming to show British soldiers abusing prisoners of war appeared in the UK’s Daily Mirror as a tabloid exclusive. The images were later shown to be fake. The editor fell on his sword.

In Ukraine we saw a maternity hospital in Mariupol destroyed, killing three people, including a child, and injuring 17 others. TV footage showed a dazed young pregnant woman, Marianna Vishegirskaya, standing in the compound wrapped in a blanket, her face scarred with blast fragments. The ‘same’ case study on Russia’s state TV showed ‘Marianna’ walking down the stairs in a change of clothes. Social media seized on a Facebook post claiming ‘the same’ woman was an ‘actor.’

“The Ukrainians used the model Marianna from Mariupol for the shots. Marianna is a well-known beauty blogger and posed for the photo shoots in the ruins of the hospital. She played two pregnant women at once, changed clothes and applied new ‘bloody’ make-up.” Facebook post – 10 March.

Other commentators claimed the hospital was occupied by the far-right Azov Battalion, a small militia group in Ukraine.

However, supporting images, video evidence and, not least, those who witnessed the missile strike, confirm the hospital attack occurred and how two different women were now being conflated in a narrative.

That is why the International Criminal Court has its investigation teams on the ground. In what is as close as they can get to real-time documentation, allegations of atrocities and disregard for International Law will be substantiated.

Similarly, most news-gathers, video journalists and editors do their utmost to get to the truth. Often working under fire, foreign correspondents on the frontline will have vital information beyond their primary story coverage.

Go back 200 years to another European war, and it’s Francisco Goya recording his eyewitness accounts in sketches (the acclaimed Disasters of War series) depicting atrocities during the conflict between Napoleon’s French Empire and neighbouring Spain. Whilst I’ll not directly compare the ‘el desmembramiento d’España’ to today’s systematic undoing of Ukraine as a neighbouring nation state, the reportage from sketchpad to print can seem uncannily familiar.

Meanwhile, today it is public access to Maxar satellite imagery that has blown the cover off stalled heavy armour columns and the ill-disciplined retreating and regrouping of Russian forces, whilst mapping mass grave sites and other atrocities, and so imagery remains an avid witness for the prosecutions that will surely follow.

Moreover, while an intelligence disclosure strategy, where military intent is called out in the public square, may not have achieved its desired aim of halting the invasion, it has brought transparency: a clearer focus than the typical fog of war where, in recent conflicts, the public mostly saw intelligence sources mired in beleaguered inquiries and reports.

Gathering the truth under fire can be hard fought. Justice is often hard won.

The pen (and now the pixel) is mightier than… pretty much anything else.

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