I can’t recommend highly enough a new book by A.B. Abrams called Atrocity Fabrication and Its Consequences: How Fake News Shapes World Order. Despite using the term “fake news” there is not the slightest speck of a hint of Trumpism. Despite reporting on atrocity fabrication, there is not the slightest glimmer of a reference to nonsense claims that school shootings are staged, or any mention of anything at all that is not well documented. Most of the fabricated atrocities recounted here have been admitted to by their fabricators and recanted by the media outlets that had promoted them.
I’m talking about such fabricated atrocities as German public mass rapes and child killings in Belgium in World War I as concocted by British propagandists, Spanish horrors in Cuba invented by yellow journalists to start the Spanish American War, the fictional massacre in Tiananmen Square, the imaginary babies taken out of incubators in Kuwait, mass rapes in Serbia and Libya, Nazi-like death camps in Serbia and China, or the tales of defectors from North Korea who gradually learn to completely alter their stories.
The science of propaganda is a careful one. The first lesson I glean from this collection is that the fabrication of a good atrocity should follow some very careful study. Before inventing babies out of incubators, the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton spent $1 million studying what would work best. The firm of Ruder and Finn turned world opinion against Serbia after careful strategizing and testing.
The next lesson is the importance of provocation. If you want to accuse China of overreacting to terrorism, or of simply acting out of inexplicable evil, you should first encourage violence, so that any reaction you get can be wildly exaggerated. This was a lesson learned at Tiananmen, as elsewhere around the world.
If you want to blame some one for horrific atrocities, the easiest way can be to commit those atrocities and then misattribute them. During its war on the Philippines, the U.S. committed atrocities to blame on others. This was the whole idea behind the plans of Operation Northwoods. During the Korean War, various massacres blamed on the North were committed by the South (these were useful in creating war and also in preventing the war from ending — a helpful lesson for the current war in Ukraine where peace keeps threatening to break out). Misattributing actual atrocities has been an invaluable trick with chemical weapons use in Syria as well.
Of course, the key lesson is as predictable as that of real estate (location, location, location) and it is: Nazis, Nazis, Nazis. If your atrocity doesn’t cause U.S. television viewers to think of Nazis it really isn’t worth even considering it an atrocity.
Sex doesn’t hurt. It’s not absolutely required. This isn’t an impeachment or the prosecution of a criminal ex-president. But if your dictator has had sex with anyone or can be accused of having had or of handing out Viagra or plotting mass rapes or anything of the sort, you’ve got a step up with all the worst media outlets.
Quantity, not quality: tie Iraq to 9/11 even if ludicrous, tie Iraq to Anthrax mailings even if ludicrous, tie Iraq to weapons stockpiles even if disproven; just keep piling it on until most people believe that it can’t all be false.
Once you’ve followed all the proper steps and fabricated a beautiful atrocity or collection of atrocities, you’ll find that only those media outlets and populations that want to believe your ludicrous tales will do so. Much of the world may laugh and shake their heads. But if you can win over even 30% of 4% of humanity, you will have done your bit for the cause of mass murder.
It’s a rotten game for many reasons. One is that none of these fabricated atrocities would amount to any sort of excuse for war (which is worse than all of the atrocities) even if absolutely true. Even when wars are not generated, other horrors are, such as small-scale violence aimed at people associated with those falsely accused. Some believe that the biggest impediment to sensible human action on climate is the failure of the U.S. and China to collaborate, and that the biggest impediment to that is wild lies about Chinese concentration camps for a minority ethnic group — even though most of humanity doesn’t believe the lies.
War is the name of the game, however. War propaganda has been evolving, and the use of “humanitarian” or philanthropic war lies has grown. Those supporting wars for such reasons are still far outnumbered by those supporting wars for reasons of old-fashioned sadistic bigotry. But atrocities are a crossover propaganda type, appealing to all potential war supporters from humanitarian to genocidal, missing only those who either ask for factual evidence or consider it idiotic to use a possible atrocity as a reason to create for certain a larger atrocity.
Atrocity propaganda and demonization is probably the area of greatest advance in war propaganda in recent decades. The failure of the peace movement that arose around the war on Iraq 20 years ago to follow through with consequences for those responsible or with effective education about the facts of the war must take some of the blame.
A.B. Abrams’ book may lose a few nationalistic readers by including only U.S. (and allied) atrocity fabrication, but even doing that, the book is merely a sampling of examples. Many more may occur to you while reading it. But there are more examples included than most people are aware of, and most of the examples are batches, not isolated incidents. For example, there’s a long list of horrors that Iraqis were falsely accused of in order to start the Gulf War. The incubator babies is just what we remember — for the same reason it was invented; it’s a well chosen atrocity.
The book is longer than you might expect, as it includes a lot of war lies that are not strictly atrocity fabrication. It also includes a lot or recounting of actual atrocities committed by the United States or its allies. Most of this is quite relevant, however, and not just for pointing out hypocrisy, but also for noting the wildly different treatment that various atrocities and alleged atrocities can be given in the media, as well as for consideration of projection or mirroring. That is to say, the U.S. government often seems to project on others just the sort of atrocities it is busy committing, or to quickly pursue exactly what it has just falsely accused someone else of doing. This is why my reaction to recent Havana Syndrome reporting is a little different from some people’s. It’s good for much of the U.S. government to have dropped that tale. But when we learn that the Pentagon is still chasing it, and experimenting on animals to try to develop the sort of weapon it’s been accusing Cuba or Russia of having, my concern isn’t limited to the cruelty to animals. I’m also concerned that the U.S. may create and use and proliferate the weapon, and someday be able to accurately accuse all kinds of people of generating a syndrome that began life as a fiction.
The book provides a lot of context, but most of it valuable, including in providing actual motivations for wars for which fabricated atrocities have been used as pretended motivations. The book concludes by suggesting that we may be at a turning point in global refusal to believe U.S. hype. I certainly hope that’s true, and that the tendency to believe the Fools Based Order isn’t replaced with a tendency to believe anybody else’s war droppings.