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Part III: How The Powerful Manipulate Truth

A Soviet-sponsored youth rally in the Lustgarten in Berlin, Germany, 1st June 1950. The youth carry huge portraits of Communist leaders such as Joseph Stalin (pictured). (FPG/Getty Images)
A Soviet-sponsored youth rally in the Lustgarten in Berlin, Germany, 1st June 1950. The youth carry huge portraits of Communist leaders such as Joseph Stalin (pictured). (FPG/Getty Images)

This series is produced in collaboration with The Conversation

In the third installment of our series on truth, we’ll unpack how media, the information machine and the powerful manipulate the truth.


Shelley Inglis, executive director of the Human Rights Center. Professor of human rights and law at the University of Dayton. (@inglis_shelley)

Cynthia Hooper, professor of history and director of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. (@CynthiaHooperHC)

Razzaq Al-Saiedi, researcher and fellow with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He also works with Physicians for Human Rights documenting war crimes. (@Razzaq_alSaiedi)

Interview Highlights

On life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule

Razzaq al-Saeidi: “We all lived in lies. In fact, we lied to each other, you know, to our family, we lied to our kids, because among our kids or our family, we could never say something bad about Saddam. We said to our kids, Saddam is your father, Saddam is our uncle, Saddam is our hero. Saddam, he destroyed our lives. He destroyed our family and our youth. And guess what? His photo is in our living room. It may even be in our bedrooms. We cannot dare not to have a photo, a nice photo not just a photo. Well-framed, a huge one, not small. And you have to put it in the living room because when the member or Baath Party visits you on the regular visit to every single family in order to check records about the information, if they don’t see the photo, they will tell you, ‘Where is the Mr. President photo?’ So you have to live with this lie.

“On the 28th of April of each year, we had to decorate because it’s Saddam’s birthday. We had to decorate our offices and our stores, and celebrate. We had to show that. The consequences — I remember  I ran a store as a business and one of the members of the Baath Party in the neighborhood came to me and said, ‘Today’s the 28th. You know that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Where is the decoration?’ I said, ‘Oh I’m sorry. I just sent for someone to buy the decorations.’ And then within a few minutes I would decorate it and put up Saddam’s photo and celebrate, or pretend to celebrate Saddam’s birthday. So that’s the lie we lived. And we know this man. We all despise him. He destroyed the country.”

On the disappearance of his brother

Razzaq al-Saeidi: “I have a brother who disappeared in 1993. At that time he had three kids and we were together, and he was just kidnapped or arrested, if you may say, by one of these secret police or security apparatuses and, you know, he disappeared. And then I spent 10 years of my life looking for him. I tried to find the truth of what happened to him, why he was taken, what happened. No information. We were afraid to even ask about what happened to him. Ten years later, after the invasion in 2003, I find out about him when I found his grave.

“I would have lost my life if I were to keep asking, because there is no way to ask. So the only thing to do, I bribed some people behind the scenes in order to get any information on him. Someone told me, you know, ‘You can find him here.’ Someone said, You might find a man that way, because you had no idea. It’s just like a black hole.”

On the ways the powerful manipulate truth

Shelley Inglis: “I think there are other means by which authoritarian governments create an understanding of truth or a misunderstanding of truth in addition to what Razzaq mentioned. And a lot of that is around more subtle ways in the culture and in society — and particularly through history, curricula, teaching and education — that regimes instill ways of viewing fact and information and ways of viewing the regime itself. So you even look at a contemporary place like Bosnia and Herzegovina that went through quite a significant war in the ‘90s. And it really depends on which ethnic group, which part of the country you’re in, what history you get, whether you get the Bosnian Muslim version of history, whether you get the Croat version of history, or whether you get the Serb version of history. So it’s not only through the lack of independent media or independent sources at the time, it’s also through the institutions that are cultivated within society. Through the home, through education, through song, through what’s allowed on TV, traditional music. There are many different ways that certain ideas about how truth is formed and certain ways of repressing truth are manifested in autocracies.”

On the legacy of censorship in Russia

Cynthia Hooper: “After Stalin’s death, when Nikita Khrushchev took control, and then when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power a couple decades later in 1985, they both began to speak about the need for more ‘glasnost,’ which is the Russian word for openness. And when that happened, there was an immediate public backlash. Not everybody was against openness, but half the population, at least, was livid that suddenly it was OK to dig your hands into the country’s dirty laundry and try to expose crimes and generally make people feel badly about sacrifices that they may have made for the sake of the regime. And this is something, to bring it, if you don’t mind, to the present day for a second, this is something that Vladimir Putin is extraordinarily aware of. And surveys show that the majority of Russians today actually don’t entirely disapprove of censorship. They actually think that it’s appropriate if it’s in the interest of national security or if it’s to preserve the dignity of the state. And he has invested all kinds of resources into constructing a positive history of the Soviet Union.”

From The Reading List

The Conversation: “Russia responds to Mueller report: Moscow wins, Putin is stronger than Trump and US is a ‘pain in the a – –’” — “‘A mountain has given birth to a mouse. The ‘Russian affair’ falls to pieces before our eyes.’ So pronounced the Russian news site, as word of the completed Mueller report swept around the world.

“Thus far, official Russian response to the Mueller findings has been scornful. Leaders are taking the conclusions of U.S. Attorney General William Barr – that the report shows no collusion between the Kremlin and U.S. President Donald Trump – as a chance to dismiss all claims of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“The Mueller investigation in fact confirms that Russian government agents did meddle in U.S. politics, resulting in the 2018 indictments of 25 Russians. But Russian agencies like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs call charges of covert information warfare ‘far-fetched lies.'”

The Conversation: “In the wake of Syrian missile strike, a look inside Russia’s alternate media reality” — “On April 11, the White House released an intelligence report accusing Russia of trying to cover up the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad through a global disinformation campaign replete with ‘false narratives.’

“As a professor of Soviet history with an interest in media studies, I’ve been following Russia’s response to the chemical attack and subsequent U.S. missile strike – the various television and print news stories, tweets and analyses put forth by Russia’s domestic and international media outlets.

“Together, they’re reflective a larger Russian information strategy: Stress a unified message at home but sow discord abroad.”

Deutsche Welle: “Iran election: Voters likely to punish ‘powerless’ reformists” — “Many Iranians chose to abstain from voting in the parliamentary election on Friday. Ahead of the polls, there was a lot of chatter on social media and other platforms about boycotting the election.

“A survey by the Institute for Social Studies at Tehran University in early February said that not even one out of four Iranians in the capital Tehran would cast their ballot. This is in sharp contrast to the 2016 vote, which recorded a 62% turnout countrywide, and around 50% in Tehran.

“Mohammad Sadeq Javadi Hesar, who is a member of the reformist Etemad Melli (National Trust Party), anticipated a low turnout this year. ‘The driving force behind elections in Iran has always been the youth, as well as academics. But now they are disappointed by the government’s hollow promises. They are frustrated, especially because they haven’t seen a reasonable response to the crises in the past two years,’ Hesar told DW.

“Women activists in Iran are also disgruntled. ‘Whoever goes to the polls will endorse the regime’s crimes,’ 12 women political prisoners at a prison in Tehran wrote in an open letter. These activists called for an election boycott to protest against the regime’s brutal handling of demonstrators.”

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