October 31, 2023 - 11:20am

Are we entering a new age of CGI war propaganda? At the weekend Chei Wenhua, a reporter for the CCP-run China Daily propaganda outlet, tweeted an image purportedly from Gaza alongside the caption, “Atrocities endorsed by the collective West.” The image depicts a man helping five small children through blasted rubble: three on his back, a baby in his arms, another holding his hand.

Twitter’s Community Notes fact-checking group swiftly flagged the image as AI-generated, pointing out a number of suspect features — including an odd distribution of limbs, the wrong number of toes, and other “uncanny valley” quirks typical of AI imagery. Even so, the picture has received 1.1m views at the time of writing, and a glance down the quote tweets suggests at least some have taken it at face value.  

We should expect such propaganda imagery to become both more frequent and more difficult to detect, as AI imaging gets more sophisticated. And one disturbing potential consequence may be a critical loss of faith in the kind of reporting able to galvanise humanitarian efforts during wartime. 

The twentieth century was the great age of war reporting — and especially of its pity and horror. From Holocaust footage through Vietnam war reporting to the broadcasting of both Iraq wars, journalism stripped away older narratives about heroism, focusing on the suffering of innocents. This helped energise a wave of efforts to impose restrictions on warfare with the aim of minimising such casualties.

More recently, too, it has impelled a new kind of propaganda warfare, as belligerents compete for the sympathy of an implied global digital audience. This has been powerfully in evidence from the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with reports and counter-reports of gains, losses, and atrocities eagerly circulated online by and for warring political tribes, well beyond the physical battlefield in a competition for international public sympathy. 

If secured, this public sentiment can tilt the scales on real-world decisions, for example in helping to grant political legitimacy for military or financial support from foreign allies. So it’s well worth the effort to try and shape it. And in the digital-era media battles that do so, a picture is proverbially worth a thousand words. But this twentieth-century relation between media and warfare has grown more ambivalent, especially as the world has become increasingly multipolar and the internet has de-centralised broadcasting. 

Today, a multiplying number of actors with an interest in shaping public opinion struggle for influence, across multiplying media outlets. The heavily youth-focused (and CCP-owned) platform TikTok, for example, has been linked to overwhelming support for Palestine among US youth. Russian TV produces fake BBC bulletins linking Ukraine with Hamas. And against this backdrop of intensified propaganda war, we must now also reckon with a rising tide of increasingly convincing AI imagery. 

The aggregate effect is already discernible in the Israel-Palestine conflict. As reports and counter-reports of atrocities circulate, it’s increasingly common for overseas supporters of the warring sides to each dismiss the other’s claims simply as fake: not just exaggerations but pure fabrication. 

Beyond the immediate conflict between Israel and Palestine, we should expect this new landscape to degrade the media’s relationship to humanitarianism. For the power of such calls on public empathy was always predicated on a shared belief that there was at least some relationship between the images in circulation and what’s happening in the real world. What happens, though, when fakery is so good we can no longer take this for granted? 

The end of trustworthy battlefield imagery is the end of wartime humanitarianism. If no one is willing to believe anything they see or read about foreign atrocities, because no one is willing to accept media evidence, we will slowly lose our grip on every postwar convention governing human rights during wartime. It is a sobering prospect.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.