The photo looks faked. It's so heavy-handed. A grinning Australian soldier, his insignia clear as day on his helmet and arm, stands on the Australian flag holding a small, barefoot Afghan child in front of him. He grasps a bloody knife to the child's throat. The caption reads "Don't be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!"
This not particularly well-disguised piece of propaganda (it's the work of Chinese graphic artist Fu Yu, aka Qilin) was posted to Twitter by the government of China, part of a broad-based campaign China is waging against Australia. Why? Simple: Australia has told the truth.
Marise Payne, Australia's foreign minister, delivered a scathing speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September outlining China's many human rights abuses, including the maltreatment of Uighurs and the repressive measures China has lately adopted toward Hong Kong. This has infuriated Beijing, which has retaliated by imposing sanctions against a lengthening list of Australian products, and now, a disinformation attack.
The ammunition was supplied, indirectly, by Australia itself. Like other free countries, Australia investigates itself, and a recent report found that Australian soldiers had killed 39 Afghan civilians. Upon the report's release, Angus Campbell, chief of the defense forces, apologized to the Afghan people and to the Australian people, and the Australian government is looking into paying compensation to the families of those wrongly killed.
China took the nugget of truth — Australian forces had committed war crimes — and transformed it into a ghoulish image of a rapacious Aussie about to sacrifice an innocent child.
I said at the start that the photo looks faked — who poses for war crimes pictures on a flag tableau? And yet, in our time, truth has become more elusive than ever. Technology presents real challenges. How many people in China and around the world will view that photo and believe it's real? And we keep hearing about the "deep fakes" — doctored video images — that are around the corner. How many would believe a fraudulent video image of, say, Hunter Biden confessing to child abuse?
In an era when technology can produce phony images and doctored videos of real people doing and saying things they never did or said, the question of how to find truth becomes ever more urgent.
Credibility comes down to reputation — which is why we have much damage to our own standing to repair.
President Donald Trump's assault on truth and his insistence that all news critical of him is fake is reminiscent of the world's worst regimes. The first thing to go when the jackboots come is the free press. Trump's attacks on the press were rhetorical, not literal. But it's no coincidence that his term, "fake news," has become a favorite of thugs worldwide.
During the Cold War, it was understood that the West, for all its flaws, was more honest than the Communist bloc because of the free press. The media in the old USSR was full of cheerful workers exceeding their quotas and ruddy farmers luxuriating in golden fields of wheat. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan had a succinct summation of the state of play. "When we travel about the world and come to a country whose newspapers are filled with bad news we feel that liberty lives in that land," he quipped, "When we come to a country whose newspapers are filled with good news, we feel differently."
The governments of free countries, of course, attempt to lie. But at least the free press can often expose them, and fear of exposure keeps them in check to some degree.
Reputation matters. It's why China is so incensed that Australia has had the temerity to criticize it. Why do we trust Canberra more than Beijing? Because the Australians are free and accountable. They've admitted their war crimes and agonized over them. The Chinese have never acknowledged their far more massive human toll. Even without going back to the Great Leap Forward — the most devastating catastrophe in China's history, causing between 18 million and 45 million starvation deaths — we have the Tiananmen massacre within living memory, the rape of Tibet, and, of course, the widespread infanticide accompanying the One Child policy.
Our own reputation for honesty has taken a severe hit under Trump. How will other nations trust the word of the U.S. when we elected someone who supported the lies of Kim Jong Un and other corrupt and cruel dictators, and valorized our own war criminals? What does it tell the world when our president conducts a nonstop jihad against the press? Who can respect this nation when our president expressed his belief, in defending Vladimir Putin, that we commit just as many sins?
Australia is showing courage by standing up to China, and paying a price. The White House has announced this week that it will be serving Australian wine, which would have been a better gesture if this president had not allied us with the world's liars and criminals for four years.
In the post-Trump era, the most important restoration will be that of truth.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the "Beg to Differ" podcast.