When I was living in Kosovo in 2013 as a reporting intern for a small news agency, the country’s 1999 war with Serbia lingered in its dilapidated streets. The attempt by Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, to purge ethnic Muslim Albanians from Kosovo was still lodged into the minds of natives and physically apparent in segregated school systems. During the war, more than 800,000 Albanians were forced to leave their homes and nearly 9,000 were brutally murdered during the war. Because of their enduring fear of Serbian municipalities, multiple Albanian taxi drivers refused to drive me to those communities, even though the war had ended 13 years earlier. In short, the Kosovo War will have lifelong effects on the region and its people.
While I was uncovering these human tolls in Kosovo, the civil war in Syria erupted. I wrote about the growing carnage back in 2013, pleading that the United States needed to do something in Syria. Anything. It’s now 2017 and, multiple chemical attacks later, 400,000 Syrians have died. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump was elected on a dangerous, completely unpredictable mantra of “America first.”
With this week’s news of a chemical attack killing at least 70 on Tuesday, however, Trump has finally become critical of Bashar al-Assad, remarking, “something should happen.”. At the time of writing this, the White House had already authorized an airstrike in Syria, but no matter what happens next, the greater question may be whether Americans will even believe that such atrocities are happening.
The fact that America is (or isn’t) stepping in to settle an international dispute has been the argument on both sides of the aisle since at least the U.S.’s loss in Vietnam but more recently after George W. Bush led us into two misguided wars in the Middle East. Today, the more depressing, gut-punching issue at hand is that some Americans are questioning whether a civil war in Syria is even happening. Chug some sort of alcoholic beverage before scrolling through the trending pro-Trump #SyriaHoax hashtag on Twitter, which makes apparent just how far the fake news phenomenon has infiltrated America.
Infowars, a right-wing conspiracy site, also claimed the recent chemical attack was “faked” by groups funded by liberal billionaire George Soros. This comes from the same site that said the Sandy Hook shooting and Boston Marathon bombing were hoaxes. Yes. Totally. Fake. And if alt-right leader and white supremacist Richard Spencer is on your side, you have to believe you’re doing something wrong.
This is true: autopsies on Syrian victims have confirmed death by exposure to sarin. Chemical weapons experts have also explained to NPR that “Even if the nerve agent was pre-mixed, a bomb strike would fail to disperse it in a way that could cause mass casualties.” But none of this evidence matters because of the infiltration—and influence—of “fake news” in U.S. society. It truly doesn’t matter if the World Health Organization confirms Syria’s use of chemical weapons in warfare. It doesn’t matter if The New York Times, BBC or the AP—some of the most trusted news sources in the world—have reported the same from multiple bureaus. Fake news is rearing its ugly head. Even so, this much is true: it won’t help Trump with Syria.
Like in Kosovo, the 1995 massacre of Srebrenica was carried out by the Serbian military. It’s Bosnia’s version of the Holocaust, and families to this day are still being notified of their loved one’s remains being found, having been buried for decades in some dump in Arkan’s Tigers’ attempt to hide the evidence. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until physical proof of the atrocities in Bosnia emerged that global leaders shifted their views on intervention. The evidence came in the form of a photo, shot by Ron Haviv, of the body of a lifeless Muslim woman being kicked by Serbian solders on the street. Americans started to pay attention to southeast Europe. After seeing what happened in Srebrenica, President Bill Clinton decided to intervene in Kosovo.
Fake news is rearing its ugly head, but it won’t help Trump with Syria.
In 2016, a photograph of a young Syrian boy covered in dust and dried blood sitting in the back of an ambulance is only enough to tug at the heartstrings of Americans for a week. That photo, just like Haviv’s photo, is photojournalism at its best. It was retweeted and shared thousands of times. People around the world hoped it would influence international policy and pressure the American government to act. It didn’t.
August will mark a year since that photo was released to the world. NPR recently asked, “Can One Photo End a War?” It hasn’t so far, and it likely won’t win the ideological war, even as the U.S. launches air strikes into Syria. That’s simply because some Americans have lost the sensibility to believe in cries for help.
More than influencing a presidential election, fake news seems to be leaving its mark on one of the most important parts of our democracy: sympathy. In the past, Americans would rely—and trust—credited newspapers, sources and journalists to decipher truth and propaganda. This is no longer the case. If the American people can look at a photo of victims of a chemical attack and cry “fake news!”, what other catastrophic event of human suffering will they be able to look at in plain sight and deny?
The same people denying the chemical attacks are walking the very fine line of echoing those who vehemently deny the Holocaust. Evidence, photographs and testimonies simply do not matter in an America where a president has called the mainstream media “the enemy.” So even though the White House launched a missile attack based on evidence printed in newspapers, the damage to American journalism has been done. When Haviv’s chilling photo of Muslims and Bosniaks being murdered by Serbs hit the mainstream media, no one was able to turn away. Now, Americans have an excuse—and one that is often used by their president on Twitter every day—to deny the legitimacy of hard evidence.
You are free—literally free—to sit safely behind your computer and comment “America doesn’t need to get involved in another war,” but if you met a woman who lost eight family members to genocide, victims she can’t even bury because she doesn’t have their remains, you’d probably change your mind. In the meantime, we have Trump’s rhetoric about fake news to blame for #SyriaHoax. I hope his attack on the free press will forever haunt him.