Even before the timely political demise of Donald Trump and the unfortunate persistence of British prime minister Boris Johnson (BoJo), the issue of lying and liars has been hotly debated.
Our time may well be The Age of Mass Deception. A few decades back, German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno linked mass deception to the emergence of the cultural industry. A cultural industry can be defined by what the corporate media does in society: mass deception.
Capitalism depends on mass deception. For example, capitalism needs to hide its very own contradictions and global pathologies like global mass poverty, ever expanding slums, rampant environmental destruction, rising inequality, etc. or needs to frame them as something positive, short-lived, soon to be overcome, etc.
Equally, many if not all right-wing populists depend on mass deception to hide the inhumanity of their ideologies, destructive worldviews and callous policies. Some evil heretics might even have suspected that in politics, truth-telling is not exactly universal. Yet as a society, we depend on truth- telling even when it comes from politicians. Indeed, we honor those who tell the truth – from Albert Einstein to Nelson Mandela and from Anne Frank to Sophie School and Rosa Parks.
However, many of today’s political lies have become part of something entirely more evil: fake news. Fake news, just as accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation, is spreading like wildfire throughout the internet and our online platforms.
Online platforms are euphemistically mislabeled social media even though they are considerably anti-social and operated by profit-making corporations rather than social organizations. Furthermore, charges of fake news are often themselves fake. In Donald Trump’s case, for example, the strategy behind accusation of fake news is to attack liberal media organizations that are critical of Trump.
What’s more, lies, fake news and disinformation all seek to destabilize public discourse. Essentially this has two aspects: firstly, Trump’s accusation of fake news is designed to create distrust blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. In public relations (PR), this is known as Gaslighting – reality and imagination merge into an insecurity that unhinges and disorients people. Secondly, it seeks to present those who speak the truth as liars while casting themselves as truth teller.
Liars, mass deception, conservative demagogues and our present-day curators of right-wing populism (Trump, Bojo, Modi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, etc.) also seek to lead people into thinking that good people do terrible things while those being accused of being terrible actually do good things.
The public perception of what is truth and what is false can easily be reversed. This can be shown by the example of the Crimea and Iraq. Sanctions against Russia are generally accepted because Russia has annexed the Crimea (zero deaths).
Simultaneously, there are no sanctions against the USA (Bush), the UK (Blair) and Australia (Howard) for invading and destroying Iraq for no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) while giving the world 100,000s of war deaths – decorously labeled collateral damage. Their Iraq war also gave the world Abu Ghraib.
Perhaps the ability to do this has something to do with power. Indeed, the chance of truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim or perhaps even none-existent. Already French philosopher Foucault had noticed the relationship between truth, knowledge and power. In short, some have the knowledge while others have the power. Right-wing lobbyist and Bush advisor Karl Rove explains,
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
One might like to look at George Bush’s lies about WMD and Donald Trump’s lies that he had won the 2020 presidential election. Trump claims this even though more people voted for Joe Biden than in any presidential election before. When comparing Bush’s lie to Trump’s lie, one can consider three issues in order to understand the enormity of their lies as well as lying in general:
a) the magnitude of harm: grave, moderate, minor or non-existent;
b) the likelihood of harm: certain, probable, improbable, and highly improbable; and
c) the timing of harm: immediately, near future, reasonably soon, distant future.
Seen from this standpoint, Bush’s Iraq/MWD lie was much more serious than many of Donald Trump’s lies. The consequences of Bush’s lies were grave (thousands of people were killed and tortured), the likelihood was certain (in war people are killed – some are tortured) and it was instantaneous as the killing started immediately.
All this represents the most severe forms of lying. At the complete opposite of the scale are what we commonly believe to be white lies or simply telling a fib. Fibbers tell fibs and white lies. They do this because all too often fibs and white likes do not result in any harm to others. The likelihood that fibs and white likes will do harm is relatively small and in an unspecified future. People tell fibs, for example, to protect friends and relatives and to avoid personal embarrassment.
In contrast, lies are very different. A lie is understood to be a statement made by a person who does not believe it. It is made with the intention that someone else will be let to believe in the lie; white lies are generally more acceptable. Many lies are in fact white lies – a quick fib to avoid something unpleasant. For example, people engage in white lies to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. Often white lies are done not for malicious reasons but are seen as acts of compassion.
By comparison, real lies are way more dangerous especially in the arena of politics. If people were unable to separate truth from lies and when deception reigns, society might collapse.
In evolutionary terms, speaking the truth has been essential for human society ever since we started to speak. The philosophical argument is that lying is morally wrong because it violates the autonomy of the person at whom a lie is directed to. Quite correctly, lying is often seen as the evil twin of manipulation and deception.
Philosophers tend to argue that a normal person will not lie. A lie, however, will benefit the liar. Yet these benefits are rather limited. On the downside, a lie will inevitably harm the person at whom the lie is directed much more. As a consequence and seen from a purely self-interest standpoint, lying is morally wrong because the outcome of the lie is self-harm and harm to society.
In the field of politics this can have even more dire consequences. When people in political office lie to ordinary citizens, they tend to treat ordinary people with contempt. What they deny citizens of a functioning democracy is personal autonomy.
They also violate a central premise of democracy, namely that democracy depends on autonomous, well-informed and critically thinking citizens – not citizens who are lied to, who are deceived and who are exposed to fake news and disinformation. Without truthfulness, democracy collapses. This is a point that escapes Donald Trump and his Republican bedfellow Mitch McConnell who was voted into the US senate with 1.2 million votes (Biden: 81.2 million). As a consequence, the lying by officials represents a direct attack on democracy.
Strangely, almost all democracies allow some degree of lying – Plato’s noble lie, for example. Public lying is not forbidden or made a crime. Most people would not think that governments should punish people for immoral acts like lying and would also agree that it should not be up to a government to judge what is a lie and what is not.
Yet many people have started to think about this issue since the advent of online platforms with the capability to transmit lies to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people instantaneously.
Via online platforms, calculated lying, accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation can spread far and wide in a very short time. When artificial intelligence supports the faking of videos creating so-called deepfakes, mass transmitted lies can be perfected to an almost unrecognizable level.
Despite the global monopoly of a few corporate media organizations and a handful of online platform providers (YouTube, Facebook, Google, TikTok, Twitter, etc.) some people are still committed to the hallucination of a free marketplace of ideas. They are addicted to a practically quasi-religious belief that there is a free market of ideas in which the free trade of ideas will ultimately be accepted and will win the competition.
History tells us that this can go horribly wrong. But not only in history. Only recently a right-wing mob were misled into believing that an election was stolen. They stormed Capitol Hill to change an election outcome. Five people died. The misguided right-wing extremists and conspiracy believers that went to Washington are not alone.
Millions of people still believe global warming is a hoax and the Coronavirus pandemic will go away – another lie for which many American had to pay a bitter price as the USA exceeded 620,000 Covid-19 deaths.
Some people contend that truth is not a determining factor when evaluating whether or not a statement will be widely accepted. Quite apart from some politicians, they argue that most people will not say things unless they are sure that they speak the truth. Believers of rational choice ideologies claim that politicians will not lie because their opponents might also be tempted in lying. Ultimately, mutual lying would lead to mutual self-destruction.
Yet the counter example is Donald Trump and, of course, the UK’s BoJo. Boris Johnson lied about Brexit and got Brexit done; he lied during the election and was elected; he lied about the Coronavirus pandemic and is currently made into the great savior of the UK. Systematic lying got Boris Johnson the job. To maintain power, BoJo, no longer needs the Orwellian thought police.
Some politicians have themselves become marvels of Orwellian rhetoric. In any case, is most likely that the though police minions of authoritarian and populist leaders are going after those who challenge their order. They will use it against opponents, democracy, science and those who speak truth to power.
One of the most significant persons who challenged an established order was Italian astronomer Galileo Galilee. For that, he was almost tortured to death by the Catholic Church. It took the Catholic Church a meager 359 years to admit that Galileo Galilee was right and the Catholic Church was wrong, never admitting that it had almost tortured an innocent man to death for speaking the truth.
From this we learn that when authorities – not only the Catholic Church – challenge people, they do so not to eliminate falsehoods but to preserve their power. We also learn that open discourse remains fundamental for science, social and intellectual advancement and our freedom.
Yet an even more interesting argument about lying is about false statements. It argues that false statements can help us to define what is truth. This idea says that falsehoods can bring about a clearer understanding of what is truth. Most of us know that the moon landing was not faked. All of us also know that the Holocaust is real. By challenging, debunking and disproving false arguments, we understand what truth is, so the argument goes.
Years ago, an UK court case instigated by Holocaust denier David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt showed the truth: the Holocaust remains a historical fact. Beyond that, it also shows what Holocaust deniers wrongly believe and how they twist and misinterpret evidence to supposedly support their ideology.
Yet this does not deter people who, for example, live their lives in online echo chambers from believing that the Holocaust isn’t true despite overwhelming factual evidence to the contrary. Inside such echo chambers, they meet likeminded people. Simultaneously, they also evade what is known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance avoids mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. People tend to seek consistency in their perceptions by eliminating conflicting perceptions even when they are true.
Finally, there is also negative information – like Donald Trump’s claiming that Hillary Clinton is a crook (successful) or about President Biden being Sleepy Joe (unsuccessful). Donald Trump and many others know that when people receive negative information they are influenced by it. This remains so even when the information they receive is not true. Such negative information tends to stick in the human mind and removing it is not easy.
Donald Trump is a master of negative information – quite apart from the usual lying, falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation. Donald Trump also knows that falsehoods are more likely to spread faster and further on Facebook, Twitter, etc. than the truth. And this is despite fact checking institutions such as:
Studies have shown that false statements, especially if they are sensational, conjure up disgust, are emotionally charged and so on. Those about business, science, entertainment and politics do better than true statements. This is particularly true in the area of politics. For some reason, it seems that human beings here are far more likely to spread falsehood than truth.
Perhaps this is because deliberate falsehoods in politics are now constructed by professional agencies called PR firms raking in millions of dollars from corporations, lobbyists and (mostly conservative and right-wing) politicians with deep pockets filled with corporate campaign funding dollars.
Beyond powerful PR firm, there still is ordinary TV and in particular tabloid TV. Ever since Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments we know how easy it is to influence people. This is even more true when an influencer or right-wing populist appears on TV. There is also hard evidence about the harmful effects on what people see on TV, even on Fox News. This also applies to different statements made by two TV hosts inside the same TV station: Murdoch’s Fox News.
Rather unsurprisingly, a recent Chicago University study found that in places there were more people watching super right-wing demagogue Sean Hannity rather than the conservative ideologue Tucker Carlson (both are Fox News hosts, read: propagandists), and there were significantly more Covid-19 cases and deaths in areas where people watched Hannity more often than Carlson. In other words, the worse the lying the more people die.
Humanity is looking into a future which will potentially be more dangerous as liars and their lies are turbo-charged by new, more sophisticated and ever more dangerous technologies. With machine learning and artificial intelligence everything that has been said above can – potentially – get much worse.
New technologies that can mass manufacture disinformation can also be combined with the ability of sending out ever more personalized and targeted online messages to an ever more narrow and very specifically defined group of people. Deepfakes, disinformation and lies can, for example, target key groups in a handful of swing states in the USA during presidential elections.
Combine this with voter suppression and a return of the global master liar Donald Trump, it becomes a real possibility. In any case, those who assist the master liar spreading lies will increasingly be able to reach a highly receptive audience for their lies. The problem of liars, fibbers and fabricators of lies is only going to get worse.
This article was originally published at BuzzFlash on 5 July 2021.
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