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How fake news could lead to real war

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon write:

Who really bombed the oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman three weeks ago? Was it Iran, as the Trump administration assured us? Or was it Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel—or some combination of the three?

Here’s a confession from two former senior government officials: For days after the attacks, we weren’t sure. Both of us believed in all sincerity there was a good chance these actions were part of a false flag operation, an effort by outsiders to trigger a war between the United States and Iran. Even the film of Iranians hauling in an unexploded limpet mine from near the side of tanker, we reasoned, might be a fabrication—deep fake footage just like the clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi staggering around drunkenly.

Perhaps you felt that way too. But for the two of us, with 30 years of government service and almost 20 more as think tankers between us, this was shocking. Yes, we are card-carrying members of the “Blob,” the all-too-conventionally minded Washington foreign policy establishment, but we weren’t sure whether to believe our government.

This was more than a little disconcerting. Imagine waking up one morning and catching yourself thinking that alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was making good sense, that perhaps the Sandy Hook shooting was faked or that the 9/11 attacks were really an inside job? Imagine what it might be like to be in the grip of a conspiracy theory, when you’ve spent your whole professional life being one of those policy mandarins who could smell a conspiracy theory a mile away?

And we weren’t alone. In conversations with former colleagues—ambassadors, undersecretaries and the like—we found that plenty of others also bought the notion that the tanker attacks were a false flag op. To these eminences, it seemed plausible the Saudis or others had staged the bombings. After all, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has practically been cheerleading for a conflict, and the idea that the Iranians would risk a U.S. attack seemed risible. It wasn’t obvious why Iran would court humiliation in a military showdown, or, for that matter, attack a Japanese tanker while the Japanese prime minister was visiting Tehran.

After conversations with other colleagues still in the government whom we trust and who attested that beyond a doubt, the Iranians were behind it, we came around to the official position. The narrative that Iran was, through the attacks, trying to prod other countries to pressure the U.S. to relax its sanctions makes sense—it is not far from the kind of stunts North Korea has pulled in the past.

But the whole unsettling episode opened our eyes to a deeply troubling reality: The current fake news epidemic isn’t just shaking up U.S. politics, it might end up causing a war, or just as consequentially, impeding a national response to a genuine threat. [Continue reading…]

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