Just four days into September, a story out of Iraq caught the attention of Western media. Burqas, the traditional, full-body covering on Muslim women living under some Islamic traditions, were reportedly banned by Islamic State commanders.
According to the story, women in burqas opened up on Islamic State fighters with pistols hidden under their thick garments.
The only problem was, it never happened.
We took the bait, as did many other media sites — The Daily Caller, the UK’s Daily Mail, U.S. News and World Report, and Foreign Policy were among the many news outlets that posted stories on the bad information.
Katie Zavadski at the Daily Beast tracked exactly how the story came to the West. Women in ISIS-controlled territory are routinely forced to wear the niqab, a gown-like garment that covers the head and includes a veil for covering the face. They are also forced to wear gloves and other accessories – but never a burqa.
There is also the question of an Iranian news source in the reporting.
“I’m thinking, why would anyone in Mosul contact an Iranian [news] agency,” Rasha al-Aqeedi, a Mosul native and research fellow at the al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, told The Daily Beast.
These planned campaigns of “covert influence” are more common than one might think.
It is widely believed Russia is trying to tamper with the November elections in the United States by manipulating American media. Recent hacks to the Democratic National Committee and to Hillary Clinton’s email server are said to be providing “propaganda fodder” to disrupt U.S. democracy-building policies worldwide.
During the Cold War, the United States had its own foreign influence machine. The CIA program dubbed “Mockingbird” placed reports from the agency to unwitting reporters in over 25 major newspapers and wire agencies, including the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, and Time magazine.
Mockingbird was very influential in the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954.
The Guatemalan military never fully trusted Guzmán. So when a shipment of arms bound from Soviet-dominated Poland arrived in the country, it was outed by The New York Times, who quoted “Guatemalan Army officers” saying “some of the arms … were duds, worn out, or entirely wrong for use there.” It was the first anyone in the Guatemalan military knew of the secret shipment and created even more mistrust in the government.
In addition, the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency wrote hundreds of articles based on CIA reports, distributing them throughout Latin America.
Even though agencies in the U.S. are prevented by law from influencing American media, this doesn’t mean wire stories don’t end up there. And some misinformation campaigns can become real in the minds of people, regardless of how true the stories are.
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the KGB planted a story in an Indian newspaper, The Patriot, that AIDS was a product of a U.S. biological warfare program. That story has since shifted to include other diseases and has even traveled to the United States itself. Similar stories evolved about Sickle Cell Anemia and even crack-cocaine.
Propaganda stories like these work for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they represent a fear that is logical. They also play to the core values of the target country; people want to believe these stories.
The West wanted to believe that women under ISIS domination would use the tools of their oppression to strike back at their oppressors. Some would like to believe they would do the same in similar situations.
Iran’s goal with stories like these is to limit the scope of our discussion in Iraq and Syria, to remind us that ISIS is evil and any action in support of ending their reign of terror should generally be seen as a good thing, some experts claim.
It is also to remind the West that secular and Shia-dominated countries like Iran, Iraq, and Syria are not as oppressive of women as Sunni areas of the Middle East. Where ISIS and Saudi Arabia (Iran’s chief foes in a greater ideological war) force women to wear full-body coverings, face veils, and even gloves, Syrian and Iraqi women are not forced to do these things. In Iran, a simple head scarf and loose coverings are sufficient.
The important thing to remember – for all of us to remember – is the old adage that sometimes what seems “too good to be true” probably isn’t.