Malcolm X warned us that the media is the most powerful entity on earth. It has the power to determine innocence and dictate guilt, but does it have the power to kill?
The death toll in Palestine has surpassed 10,000 and anti-Palestinian violence has made its way to US soil in the form of anti-Arab hate crimes. The president of the United States, Israel and the US media have even formed a reciprocal relationship inventing, parroting and amplifying unverified – often Islamophobic – propaganda.
Today, Palestinians are fighting a two-pronged war — one on the ground and one in the media. Although the conflict is recent, beginning in 1948 with the establishment of Israel, anti-Muslim and anti-arab tropes are not. The seeds of these ideas were planted centuries ago during the Crusades. Unfortunately for Palestinians, fact-checking is not enough to contest narratives that stem from long before 1948 and the violence of this past month.
Many mainstream outlets, such as the New York Times, CNN and Reuters have covered disinformation on social media targeting Palestinians. Ironically, many of these outlets are equally culpable. Several of them, such as the LA Times, the BBC and CNN have published allegations of mass rape, the beheading of children and all sorts of barbarism allegedly committed by Palestinian resistance fighters before evidence was available, only to retract the reports and admit there was a lack of proof days later.
Even the IDF could not confirm allegations of mass rape made by US President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and several news outlets.
Ideas about violent Muslims date back to the Crusades. Muslim men during Christendom were painted as barbaric, perverted savages. This fervour justified the most brutal military conquests, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Naturally, these tropes extended into enlightenment literature, such as Dante’s Inferno, and nowadays into Hollywood movies, like American Sniper and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
These ideas go beyond entertainment media to colour every aspect of our media ecosystem. Ideas that justified colonialism now justify $14 billion of US military aid to Israel. The problem is that these ideas are based on a lie.
Disinformation is only as powerful as existing narratives. The narrative of the bloodthirsty Muslim man is as powerful as it is ancient.
For the viewer aware of this, now-retracted claims of Hamas beheading 40 children showcase the increasingly bold misinformation campaigns that have no backing or prior instance. Such unrealistic claims are only believable in a society that’s already been primed for it for centuries. It also creates a false equivalence between apocalyptic terrorist groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda and organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. Similarly, recent Zionist claims that Palestinians have baked Israeli babies alive only bring about memories of the Deir Yassin massacre where a Palestinian boy was reportedly thrown in an oven by Israeli soldiers, with no known cases of Palestinian fighters doing this prior nor any images or corroborating evidence.
Every false claim about Palestinian resistance puts Palestinians at risk, both in Palestine and in the diaspora. If the pen is indeed more powerful than the sword, then the keyboard of Western journalists is a bomb. At the very least, it further emboldens the US to turn a blind eye toward Israel’s bombing of Gaza.
There is no neutral language in Israel-Palestine. Every word must be intentional and has meaning. Conflict versus occupation, Arab versus Palestinian, and terrorist versus freedom fighter, each has different meanings. They either highlight or obfuscate oppression. They can either demonstrate the uniqueness and sovereignty of Palestinians or lump them in with a larger Arab diaspora while misrepresenting the colonial power structures at play.
Palestine liberation has a unique place in progressive politics and human rights circles. It is not because of anti-Semitism, contrary to Zionist slander, or even because it is the most brutal conflict. It is because Palestinians experience a unique type of violence — it is one of the most clear-cut cases of apartheid and settler colonialism in modern times. The minute this fact is lost is the minute Palestinians are expected to concede at least some of their ancestral homeland to Israeli settlers.
This is why language is so important.The damage of false reporting remains long after headlines are retracted. Western leaders call for more military aid to Israel, the public supports it, and democracy is subverted over false claims that never held merit. And Palestinians are subjugated to crimes against humanity that can only be justified by their dehumanisation.
In the case of Palestine, the war on facts cannot be won through fact checks alone, because mainstream outlets and even the president of the United States are using the bully pulpit to repeat blatant lies. The president of the US went on live TV and lied about seeing pictures of children being beheaded with his own eyes only to retract his statement hours later. The significance of this cannot be understated. Whether this is on purpose or by accident, the result is the same — the genocide of Palestinians and the corruption of US media.
Biden would then baselessly accuse the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza of lying about the number of Palestinians killed and also accuse Palestinians of bombing their own hospitals without any clear evidence.
The US president might as well put on a helmet and vest because in many ways he already is Israel’s strongest soldier. He just happens to not be stationed in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, but rather on the battlefield of truth.
The war on facts can only be won through narrative. Unluckily for Palestinians, narratives of violent Muslim men sell newspapers. These narratives are so deeply ingrained in the US cultural psyche that reporters are willing to repeat them without verification. After all, what could be more believable than the existence of violent, sexually deranged Muslim men?
Journalists, politicians and civilians alike understand the world through narratives. Fact-checking can only be so effective when Islamophobic bias permeates across news stations and political parties.
What Palestinians have going for them is that their narratives coincide with the truth — the truth that they are victims of settler colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, who refuse to simply die while the international community watches.
These narratives deserve to see the light of day while those who spread falsehoods deserve accountability.
The Palestinian narrative is the larger context that they have been fighting for their freedom since 1948 when Israel was created on the land they call home. Palestinians make up the world’s largest refugee population at 5.9 million. And despite these obstacles they have endured and inspired support from the general public well beyond the Muslim world.
The mission of journalism is to tell the truth through stories, but every story can’t begin with settler suffering and end the moment Israelis cease to be the protagonists. Most importantly, the stories need to be true.
Most Americans have never lived under occupation and as such do not see themselves in the lives of Palestinians. Neither do most Western journalists. However, that’s the power of stories and the role of storytellers: the power to humanise or demonise the unknown.
Journalists have a responsibility to shine a light on the plight of Palestinians, honestly and with proper context, even if it contradicts the president of the United States.
We will never solve the problems of this century if journalists continue repeating the tropes of the last.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.