Just hours after Iran’s missile strike on U.S.-Iraqi bases in Iraq, the Iranian government made an incredible claim: The attack, it said, had killed 80 Americans and wounded about 200, all of whom were immediately removed from the site by helicopter. U.S. officials, meanwhile, said there were no U.S. casualties.
My point is not that the U.S. authorities are correct, though they undoubtedly are (otherwise, to ask but one obvious question, where are the grieving families?). My point is that the two sides disagree — and what that says about how “fake news” could change foreign policy.
Consider the two versions of this story: From the American point of view, the U.S. took out a major Iranian military commander and the Iranians did not kill a single American in return. From the Iranian government’s point of view, the missile strike was a highly effective form of revenge.
There is a lot of talk about the effect of fake news on domestic politics, but not enough discussion of its impact on international relations, including military operations. U.S. officials may be quite happy that Iran is claiming this “victory” without any Americans having to die. In essence, manufactured casualties may now be able to substitute for actual casualties, at least for some limited purposes.
The most likely purveyors of these fake-news casualties are the weaker sides in military conflicts. They can use fake news reports of revenge to pacify their populations. And the prouder a nation’s citizens are, the more useful such fake-news casualties will be. Fake-news casualties are also easier to fabricate in countries with censorship of the press, such as Iran.
To use the game-theoretic language of deterrence: Threats to retaliate in a painful way are now less credible because lying about retaliation is now an alternative.
Note that the U.S. does not have a comparable ability to invoke fake-news casualties. If the U.S. government announced it had killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani when in fact it had not, its report would be easily refuted by the media and also by his public appearance. Furthermore, the American public was hardly clamoring for that particular act of revenge, even though Soleimani had engineered attacks against Americans. Most Americans didn’t even know who he was.
In sum, the first-order effects of this development favor peace. But there are significant additional dangers if this hypothetical is followed for another step.
The possibility of fake news means that when more powerful countries wish to take action, they need to do something quite vivid and dramatic. There is no doubt — in either the U.S. or Iran — that America did in fact kill Soleimani. There was a huge public funeral for him in Iran, validating that reality.
In contrast, the possibility of fake news lowers the benefits of attacking military facilities. Imagine the U.S. had bombed some military installations in central Iran. America might have claimed a big success, but even if that were true, Iran could counter that very little damage had been done. No one would be sure who was right, and the American public — which, it turns out, has a low level of trust in its own government — might not be convinced, either. After all, many Americans still recall the misinterpretations (some would say fabrications) of evidence of weapons of mass destruction from the Iraq War. Attacking Iran’s military facilities, even if it had some modest practical value, would not produce much symbolic or public relations value. Thus it becomes less likely.
This point is all the more true for cyberattacks, as both the source of the attack and any damage it would inflict are very difficult or perhaps impossible to verify.
In a world of fake news, the major powers may well find fewer attacks to be worthwhile. That’s the reassuring part. What’s worrisome is that, when attacks do come, they will have to be very public and very decisive. They will have to be difficult or impossible to deny, and they will almost certainly need to affect the enemy’s military capabilities. They will have to be the kinds of attacks that cannot easily be countered by fake news and media censorship.
In sum: Stronger powers will have more powerful threats. Weaker powers will have less credible deterrents. Low-level retaliatory strikes will become less common; large-scale hair-trigger situations more so. The attacks that matter most will be the ones the public knows about. Could this be what the “Trump doctrine” in foreign policy leads to?