How fake news will alter foreign policy

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column:

Just hours after Iran’s missile strike this week 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 that there were no U.S. casualties

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….

But not all is rosy:

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.

All in the tradition of Thomas Schelling of course.  Solve for the equilibrium!


The Japanese military routinely announced great victories in the Pacific War (opposite to the reality) when they still had ships left. Even when they had only human missiles they still exaggerated the results. I have met numerous old Japanese folks who told me, "we believed we were winning."
There's a old Star Trek (original series) where warring planets wage computer game battles, and then the "casualties" voluntarily turn themselves in to be vaporized. "Live long and prosper, President Trump!"

Bombs might take pretty interesting selfies.

Yes, it's odd that Tyler's article implies that this is a new phenomenon. Autocratic regimes have always done this. It's less possible now than ever in history. In 1945 the Japanese government had almost total control over the information its population received; in 2020, even North Korea can't prevent outside information from leaking in.

Fifty years ago, the Iranian regime could have convinced most of their population that they killed dozens of American soldiers. Today, they can provide a narrative for their most committed supporters who are ready to believe it, but they aren't going to convince anyone else.

It's telling that they just made the hugely embarrassing admission that they accidentally shot down a civilian aircraft. They appeared to be setting up the investigation to pin the blame elsewhere, but they couldn't control the narrative, because they couldn't stop photo and video evidence from being propagated.

Right. Autocrats have always propagated fake news. Also, the fake news needn't be credible, as questioning the validity of fake news outs oneself as a dissenter --- a risky move under a tyrannical regime.

Tyler also seems to suggest that the Iranian regime needs to satisfy some purported thirst for revenge among its general population, as if normal Iranians would seek vengeance for the assassination of one of their captors. In post-Saddam Iraq, for example, how much of the factional violence was motivated by vengeance for Saddam's death? As far as I know, the violence was driven completely by factions seeking power. The Iranian regime does seek to save face, both domestically and internationally, but providing vengeance for domestic populations is not the right way to think about it.

The Iranian regime, unlike Saddam in Iraq, serve a radical ideology that millions of people in the region find compelling and are highly devoted to. While they don't represent all Iranians, I believe they have a significant following that buys into their ideology, and this group most likely genuinely wants revenge. Also, there may be some people who are ambivalent about the regime who view the attack as an affront to the nation and want retaliation (less clear).

I think providing vengeance is probably one aspect of it. Saving face (and, closely related, not appearing weak and vulnerable to domestic threats) is part of it, as well.

It was interesting how just after the missile strike and some of the commercial imagery was available some news organizations were pushing the "precision" strike story.

I have no idea what level of tech the IRGC has with their missiles but thought some of the claims seemed a bit like fake news or buying into that line.

Not just Japan and Iran, but the US in Afghanistan. Wasn't that the big takeaway from the Afghan papers?

There was this in today's NYT.

Iran tried to cover up the Iranian missile killing its own civilians, the stampedes, as well the fabricating the death of 80 Americans. I'm skeptical of the NYT nowadays. I certainly do not trust it as I once did, yet I tend to believe the reporters implied takeaway that the Iranians are not as naive as we think they are.

What I noticed was how ridiculous twitter was to this episode. Foreign Policy analyst at CATO, writers at The American Conservative and Reason, not to mention the left wing rag tag of woke nazi’s all predicted WW3. It was embarrassing. Twitter is clearly an intellectual bubble and the biggest incubator of "fake news."

"Foreign Policy analyst at CATO, writers at The American Conservative and Reason, not to mention the left wing rag tag of woke nazi’s all predicted WW3."

I was amazed at all the "stories" about WW3. The idea was ridiculous given the facts to date, but TDS is very strong today.

Something flipped. It use to be that if we never use force we will look week and "fight them at home."

Not all Iranians are dupes of the regime. For the rest, unless the Revolutionary Guards manufacture plausible "fake evidence" to support their fake news claims, slowly or quickly, the inability to confirm eighty American fatalities will undermine the regime's baseless claims of "revenge accomplished". (How pleased will IRG underlings be knowing or suspecting that the claims are bogus?)

Instead of shooting down a commercial airliner in Iranian airspace, Iranian batteries should have continued firing on those American helicopters retrieving all those fictitiously-dead Americans.

Mainstream news is now reporting an admission by Iran - - so any effects on diplomatic relations have been brief.

In my eyes the reputation of middle east countries including Iran and Iraq has been damaged by high level statements which were implausible lies. I also wonder about the underlying culture which makes it thinkable for high level officials to utter such nonsense.

You might also consider the economic costs if Feynman's famous quote is violated: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Killing Soleamani was a masterstroke because it changes the game. Significantly President Trump threatened 52 Iranian locations the same number of hostages Iran's mullahs took in 1979. America has unfinished business with Iran.

What's new here? Truth is the first casualty of war. American blood on American soil. Guns greased with pig or cow fat. The Iraqi information minster. The oft-memed scene from Downfall. Etc. Etc. Has something changed now that we can call wartime propaganda "fake news"?

Has something changed now that we can call wartime propaganda "fake news"?


And let's not forget those Vietnam "body counts."

I'm not sure weaker vs stronger states is the relevant variable here. Let's say there was a conflict between the PRC and Taiwan--which side would be better able to propagandize their population with fake news?

Not sure how this is "fake news" nor is it new. In the middle East certain nations have taught children for generations that Israel only won the 6 day war because the US assisted.

Actually, in Egypt, a "moderate" country, they teach children that Egypt won the six-day war because Israel attacked Egypt but never made it past the Suez Canal, and Cairo was never threatened. Seriously. I couldn't make this up.

As an American child, I was taught that the War of 1812 was more or less fought to a draw. And even that our opponents had the upper hand, but that the British didn't want another long-distance war. This still seems like a reasonable assessment (though I'm admittedly not an expert on the period).

There's always going to some room for interpretation when deciding who "won" a war that didn't end in total victory by one side. How do you measure winning: whether the aggressor achieved their goals; which side came out stronger; which side had the most success on the battlefield; etc.

Prior, why do you keep changing your handle.

We all know it’s you.

There are limits to fake news, even for Iran. They had to admit that they (mistakenly?) shot down a passenger plane. Not a good look after their initial attempt at "fake news", especially for the home crowd.

What’s your point? My parenthetical reflects my equal regard for Iranian deception and incompetence. You apparently don’t share my view, but it is unclear why.

My point is simple, too. Neither you nor I know whether the Iranians shot down the airliner intentionally. But, contrary to you, I believe that there is a possibility that they did.

As to whether I would have written the same thing about the American military shooting down an civilian airliner, the answer, as you have already surmised, is probably not.

While I don't rule out anything completely (including the actions of the American military), I would assign a much greater probability of the Iranians intentionally targeting civilians than I would the United States.

Insofar as there is anything new going on here; I would expect any potential benefit from increased ability of states to conjure up ‘fake corpses’ is far outweighed by their symmetric ability to ‘fake disappear’ them.

If it worked (if), doesn't seem rosy at all if the Iranian people felt that their forces were stronger than they were, as they'd seem likely to then demand a more retaliatory and aggressive posture in general, and at some point that would bleed into real action (can't be maintained purely by fiction forever). Feeding folk fake victories eventually will lead to the demand for real ones.

"Note that the U.S. does not have a comparable ability to invoke fake-news casualties…"

I'm getting confused by such reasoning, because President Trump did stop the reporting of civilian deaths from our drone attacks. I guess that not reporting events doesn't qualify as reporting fake news, but it's hardly conducive to assessing what's actually going on with drone attacks, other than trumpeting them when it's determined to be a plus. There's a level of sophistry nowadays that might be termed fake-analysis.

I recall a Star Trek episode in which a civilization on a far off planet was engaged in a war that had lasted for hundreds of years. Yet, there was no visible signs of physical destruction. That's because the civilization had decided to conduct a virtual war, with attacks and counter attacks simulated on computer. But that's more like fake news than war, right? No, this was had millions of casualties. The computers would determine the number of casualties from an attack/counter attack, and that number of citizens would voluntarily enter the death machine. War, being so appealing to some folks (Cheney?, Pompeo?), needs more than fake news to discourage it or it would go on forever.

Remember that one where Kirk was alone wandering the corridors of a deserted false Enterprise? I feel like that's the situation with rayward and MR and other commenters. After awhile a beautiful woman appears, only it's Donald Trump.

The first! The very first ...

So, which statement is true?

1. After shooting down a civilian passenger jet, the person in charge at the time of that action was awarded a medal following (though not for) that action by his nation, with the citiation citing "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer"?

2. After shooting down a civilian passenger jet, the person in charge at the time of that action said “I wish I could die and not witness such an accident.”

Trick question - neither is fake.

Now for the bonus question - which of the two describes the actions of the USA?

When whataboutism reaches autism levels. Or should I say history rhymes, first time as tragedy second time as farce.

1. Iranians have been making hate porn about the airliner we shot down in the 1980s for almost 40 years.

2. This time Iran shoots the airliner down themselves and lies about it.

2020. It’s gonna be a great year

Do let us know when Iran hands a medal to General Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC aerospace division for his outstanding service. Since we actually have two cases where a passenger jet was destroyed by mistake, we can now compare and contrast the reaction of the two nations that did it. For example, the U.S. also originally lied in the initial hours of the Iran Air 655 incident, claiming that the Vincennes was being attacked by an Iranian F14, and denying that the Vincennes was responsible for shooting down the passenger jet. For someone using the name Skeptical, one would have assumed you are fully aware that all governments lie about killing innocent lives.

From Capt. Rogers' Legion of Merit citation - "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer, USS Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989 . . . During the course of Persian Gulf operations, Capt. Rogers' tactical skills and calm direction enabled his crew to successfully engage seven heavily armed, high-speed Iranian surface craft attacking Vincennes. . . . As a result, five craft were destroyed and two retreated. . . . Capt. Rogers' dynamic leadership, logical judgment and unexcelled devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service"

Somehow, they managed to avoid mentioning killing 290 innocent passengers while praising Rogers' devotion to the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Keep us up to date on what awards General “I wish I could die” Hajizadeh receives from a grateful Iranian nation for exceptionally meritorious conduct.

Yes, I've been noticing this contrast. The reaction in Iran, by government and by the public, has seemed more decent than how we handled shooting down their airliner.

A lot of Iranians died in the recent mistake. When the US shot down the Iranian plane, no Americans were on it (I don't think)

The Iranian people are extremely pissed at their leadership about this. Ours were meh.

One recalls the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of an Ambassador + 3 others. The Obama administration initially went on TV and blamed the attack on the population being incited beyond control by some hapless film maker (who ended up going to jail), which conveniently avoided the need to respond against the people/organizations which actually planned the attack.

At this point, what difference does it make? C’mon, man.

Remember TC’s famous post on this?

Engineer, You must know the limits of claims of causation and how muddy it is with respect to human motivation. I guess you believe there was no riot or demonstrations, there or elsewhere at the time.

Bill, Honey, haven’t I told not to comment on blogs? Think of your family.

My wife is much smarter than you are, and I suspect you are not a female, but an imposter or cross dresser, although I believe in your right to be transgender.

It's only appropriate that in a post about fake news we would have a comment by a fake person.

What's the weather like in St. Petersburg?

Engineer, perfect example. I wonder how much of fake news is to keep yourself going. Right after the Iraq embassy siege, Ben Rhoades starts tweeting. Given his involvement in Benghazi, you'd think he be keeping his head down, but no, this guy belives even his own bullsh*t.

That's no more "fake news" than the poor guy who was wrongly arrested for a mass shooting and had his mugshot plastered all over the media. In the aftermath of attacks, it can take a while to gather facts and establish responsibility and motive. Better that officials are cautious instead of making premature accusations.

Re: "Note that the U.S. does not have a comparable ability to invoke fake-news casualties"

How quickly we forget: Saddam has weapons of mass destruction posing an imminent threat to the US. Soon a mushroom cloud.

As a democracy, where people make decisions or remove those from office who make bad ones, we do not want to be the manufacturer of fake news that spills over onto our populace.

In fact, just as Apple seeks to protect privacy, we want our brand to be real news and real facts.

But, it is hard to do this when you have a President who is a habitual and consistent liar.

Should we do our enemies the honor of taking their word as to their destructive capabilities? Or do they want/expect to be patronized and indulged? Certainly Saddam wanted the world to believe he had WMDs, and supposedly had his own generals fooled ... or is no one fooled in a place where no one ever tells the truth? Maybe not. But live by granting authority to a blowhard, die by granting authority to a blowhard. Is this not the constantly-promulgated fear of the left in regards to Trump? So, yeah, sorry, not sorry, Iraq.

All this might have been prevented, had we not gone along with the pretense the oil was "theirs".

People need to be a little more hard-nosed about the requirements and limits of affording dignity to others, and avoiding little affronts that then lead to the actual affront of killing people.

Somebody was in a bad mood yesterday - today it's me.

peri, I don't quite understand the response so I can't say whether I agree or disagree with it entirely, but let me tell you what I do agree with.

If we are to live in a democracy, which means that Congress must appropriate money for wars, approve them, and persons must volunteer to fight them, it is deeply corrosive to have fake news be the basis for that commitment.

First, fake will ultimately be discovered, and should be. We have commissions, as after the Iraq invasion, we have oversight, etc.

Second, those who died can never return.

Third, the next time, when there might be a real danger, we may not act or we may not give the commitment we need to make. Nor will we have allies if we lie or are caught lying.

So, in game theoretic terms, the best strategy is to always tell the truth, and have robust mechanisms in place to discover and disclose the truth.

Let me help you out.
-peri is responding to your implication that Saddam's nuclear program was a US lie, when in fact it was Saddam's lie. Peri pointed out that even his generals thought they had nukes, and I'll add, as well as all the western intelligence agencies.
- As to Congress' involvement, you seem to forget there was an overwhelming vote to go to war.
- When it comes to war, no one will tell the truth to their enemies, that's on absolutely no one's strategy list.

Let me then explain to you.

Your response would suggest that lying to yourself has hazardous consequences because your enemy may believe you.

But, it also means you are fooling your citizenry to either give them a false sense of security or a false sense of danger.

Neither would seem to be optimal, would they, if intelligence services can discern the truth, unless they choose not to for other reasons, such as pleasing VP Cheney.

...anyone who opposed the Iraq War was a traitor? That might have something to do with the vote in Congress.

Purchase of yellowcake from Niger; the contract signed with a purple crayon.

I don't know why America "can't" play this game, when we did as recently as Vietnam body counts. We'd just, as the Iranians are now, claim that the other side was hiding casualties and *they* were fake news.

We are back to why truth itself must be defended as a foundation of democracy. If we don't demand truth from our own government, no one else will.

I'd presume middle class small-d democrats in Iran feel the same.

Vietnam body count was a case of the higher-ups asking to be deceived and receiving what they asked for. Deception of the public and congress about war progress, yes, but most importantly McNamara et al. deceiving themselves.

I went looking for a link to the recently declassifed/leaked report on Iraq truths. Could not find that, but found this:

Afterward, I chatted with a furious, wheelchair-bound soldier with (partial) functionality in only one limb. He thought Rice had lied to our faces. But neither of us should have been surprised. Lying casually to the public about war is a privilege Americans have granted the executive branch.


Does anyone in Iran believe their pronouncements? This isn't fake news, these are shibboleths. Those loyal to the regime will listen and believe it because their position and future within that regime depends on it.

But that is extremely dangerous for any regime, because the false or spun information becomes the truth and they truly have no idea what really is going on.

I suspect that the Iranians were blindsided by the events over the last few weeks. There isn't 24 hour coverage by CNN or someone else where they can get the information they really need of what is happening, so they are only getting their official reports, which are either wrong or badly twisted to cover for some mistake.

Media organizations who depend on a broad subscriber base in a competitive market reflect what it's subscribers want to hear. If due to production and distribution costs a very large and broad base is required, they end up reflecting roughly what is of concern to the citizenry. They become a very important means to find out what is happening in the real world.

That has all fallen apart. The current media economics are driven by narrow groups of interests, they don't have reporters everywhere anymore, and they are desperate to maintain their positions of influence without having the costs of actually reflecting any reality. So you end up with news being the latest blatherings of some idiot who doesn't have the faintest clue, and the vestiges of power structures who depended on media as a feedback mechanism from the citizenry at large make serious mistakes based on the information collapse.

The vivid and dramatic thing was the election of Trump. And the power structures haven't figured out what hit them. Not unlike the Iranians who now have extremely radical well armed groups floating around with no one with the influence to direct them. Oops, we shot down a civilian aircraft. By mistake.

Fake news is getting old. I'd replace it with 'we don't have the faintest clue what the hell is going on, we will make it up'. This is very dangerous. If CNN had any vestiges of seriousness they would take the Nick Sandmann settlement as an indication of how dangerous their out of control blatherings could be.

Ah, truth from an incomplete democracy:

Incomplete truth. The could only hide that they did it for so long, but then you get the '...but the US made us do it....'

One of the disappointments of my life was seeing Tom Schelling only share an economics Nobel, and for something I thought was relatively minor. This may have happened partly because the new Nobel echoes the old Nobels by officially honoring a "discovery".

Of course, the old Nobels have done similar disservices. Einstein only got one, and it was for the photoelectric effect. Physics nerds will tell you that he deserved many more.

Here is what I was looking for earlier:

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said one official. Another called the assessment shop, “more of a PR shop.” The revelations unearthed in the Washington Post’s release of 611 documents last week as part of “The Afghanistan Papers” are in many cases shocking.

Hard to say we can't play fake news as we do, unless this is some kind of Straussian headfake.

Soon we will have deepfake videos to bolster the credibility of fake news. Anti-aging technology originally developed for movies and a state-actor budget will manufacture some scandals in the past of inconvenient persons.

Did you know your Supreme Court nominee once shot a man just to watch him die? Look, see?

More on the fake news front ..

Go right to the source and ask the horse!

I'll give you credit for posting something that makes Trump look good. Makes you look more even handed.

As Part Of Settlement With Nick Sandmann, CNN Hosts Must Wear MAGA Hats During All Broadcasts

'Note that the U.S. does not have a comparable ability to invoke fake-news casualties....'
So, the $Trillions of dollars spent on WWT in the Middle East since 911 & much, much more over the past 50 odd years has made it a safer place to live & raise a family.
Hmm, just think of what could have been done with all that $$$ if spent on food, medicine, housing & education.
The former is 'fake news', the latter is not but it all depends if you'd prefer to believe the maniacs who pose as our leaders.
Jack was right - 'we can't handle the truth'...…….

This is MR, where Elizabeth Warren represents the real danger.

No matter how honest and authentic she may be.

Which reminds me,

‘In essence, manufactured casualties may now be able to substitute for actual casualties ...”
Now? As compared to a few decades ago? I don’t think so. Even for totalitarian governments that attempt to control the Internet, it is now more difficult to lie to their own people. People may not know what the truth is, but they do know their government’s version is not it. This is a good development for the path towards democracy.

Surely Mr Tabarrok will be along shortly to tell us that transparency only makes things more opaque. Clearly Iran lying about shooting down a passenger jet was good for the world.

Always interesting to pit them against each other. How about this spin:
Iran saving face by directly aiming at US bases in Iraq with cruise missiles.

ctrl + f in comments section:

'1953 Iran coup'
'Iran Air 655' (two results in comments)
'Yellowcake and/or yellowcake'
'WMD' (one result in comments)
'Saddam meeting Al Qaeda and/or Bin Laden'
'self awareness'

Don't worry, specific mention of Iran Air 655 is no longer in the comments.

JFK is alive and well.

TC, any thoughts on the implicit pact between MSM and DoD for embedded journo access?

If a media agency pisses off DoD too much or asks too 'questionable' questions, that may lead to the journalist losing access at a press briefing let alone a seat at the table, perhaps?

Book rec: This isn't propaganda, by Pommerantsev.

Iran's admission of guilt in shooting down the airliner provides a counter argument to this thesis: With new technology and video available everywhere, it is getting increasingly difficult for lies to last. 20 years ago Iran could have kept their lie going for a quite a while, maybe permanently.

In retrospect the Iranian regime may have had no choice but to admit the truth, but what I expected from them -- and got, initially -- was the usual BS that we get from dictatorships. So it was a pleasant surprise when they 'fessed up.

Meanwhile, a coronavirus that was thought to infect only animals has recently infected dozens of people in Wuhan, China. In marked contrast to the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, which China's government tried to cover up, China has been publicizing the work of its epidemiologists and public health officials. (Albeit with less than complete disclosure of all of the relevant information.)

There's been a worldwide retreat from truth-for-truth's-sake and liberalism to partisanship and xenophobic populism in recent years, but authoritarian middle income countries' governments may be more truthful now than they were several years ago. Maybe the internet and more abundant flows of information have forced this upon them, but whatever the cause it's one small bit of progress.

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