The Contested Space of Truth and History

The Abu-Ghraib image arguably defined that history far more than documentary evidence or subsequent investigations.

The Chinese appear to have fabricated an image to support a narrative that Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan. In the modern media dominated world, negative stories are quickly suppressed and ignored where they can be confidently denied by a robust and well-disciplined communications strategies. However, when there’s a picture, it is more difficult. Audio and video make the story even more difficult, as they lend themselves to blind sharing, hot takes, and indiscriminate proliferation.

In the post-event / post-allegation battle for control of the narrative, and for a definitive version of events, truth becomes defined. The immediate aftermath is the most important time. Witness Bill Barr’s decision to release his (inaccurate) version of the Mueller Report in the US several weeks before the actual report was released; even though it was wrong, and ultimately provably so, the narrative was sufficiently blunted to as to protect his ‘client’, the American president.

So then in the Chinese-Australian case, Chinese interests were served by undermining the legitimacy of the Australian military presence in Afghanistan. That position was advanced with the emergence of a story about potential war crimes, but the story was less potent for having no video or images as evidence. Remember the Abu-Ghraib scandal? The grainy image seared into your memory of that Iraqi prisoner, standing hooded on a box, a blanket slung across him, with his fingers wired up to some unseen electrical device. It was scandalous, and the image told the entire story. Absent the image, would that scandal have had the same resonance, the same delegitimising effect on the US presence in Iraq?

With the tools available today, images and video are relatively easy to create that manufacture a truth. It is difficult to construct something that is entirely fabricated, but as a tactical strategy to accelerate or reinforce the trajectory of a story, these are increasingly valuable communications actions.

Accepting this, it forces a deeper, more philosophical question about the nature of history. As I wrote about recently, history is not merely a series of events about generals and politicians. Even their own personal histories are far more complex and nuanced than the public events that they participated in. To reduce them to simple battles, elections, assassinations and conquests is to ignore their stomach aches, personal tragedies and lovers, each of which may have had as much deterministic potency as the others.

Truth and history exist in a contested space. That space has no grounding in our modern age, no definitive, objective foundation. It is only through interpretation, manipulation, and language that facts are established and agreed.

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