People who tell lies will always be two or three steps ahead of people who are dedicated to the truth. This bodes ill for the future of our civilization.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 22, 2017
The comedian Louis CK has made a career out of plumbing the dark underbelly of the human experience for uncomfortable insights. He has a great bit on the moment when children discover lying:
My nine-year-old, she's just figuring out about lying. And that's a tough thing. It's hard to roll that one back, because lying is pretty amazingly useful in life. How do you tell a kid not to use a thing that just solves every possible problem, like magic?
Of course, there are excellent reasons not to lie. Lying is hurtful to others, causing emotional pain and a sharp feeling of betrayal. Notwithstanding Louis CK's parental conundrum, lying frequently makes a problem worse and in the process destroys people's trust in you.
Lying is also cognitively difficult, because you have to maintain multiple incompatible versions of reality in your head and switch between them based on context.
Every enduring moral system warns against lying, for the obvious reason that too much of it destroys the baseline level of trust that holds a society together.
A society that loses general trust becomes a stressful, nasty, brutish, Hobbesian place where no one can ever let down their guard or feel safe. It becomes impossible to know what is true and what is false, and it becomes impossible to develop sensible public policies to respond to challenges.
In the long run, a culture of mendacity and distrust would be a horrible place to live.
But as John Maynard Keynes famously asserted, in the long run we are all dead.
What would happen if a number of sufficiently motivated, unscrupulous people with a determined agenda decide that the benefits of getting people to believe their lies are worth the broad erosion of societal trust and reality-based knowledge?
How might they go about doing that and getting away with it - at least for a time?
They would not get far telling obvious falsehoods, unless they came up with some way to hedge their lies against the existing system of social institutions and mechanisms that tell the society about itself and distinguish facts from lies.
The most powerful way to do this would be to create an alternative system of institutions and mechanisms that are designed to affirm their lies as truth and discredit the truth as lies.
In order to validate the lies, the alternative information system would itself have to gain the trust of at least a broad segment of the public.
That, in turn, would require competing successfully with the mainstream system of social institutions and mechanisms. To be truly effective, this new system would have to successfully undermine the public's trust in the mainstream system and offer itself as a superior alternative.
Achieving this would require an extraordinary amount of money - enough to build and run a whole ecosystem of newspapers, talk radio stations, TV channels, websites, think tanks, research and policy institutes, lobby organizations and more.
The internet would certainly help, as it has dramatically reduced the cost of publishing. However, to ensure truly broad reach, the alternative system needs to be cross-platform with a significant presence in the more capital-intensive TV, radio and print markets.
That way, the various messages coming in from different formats also help to reinforce each other through repetition.
But the alternative information system's lies - what we might call alternative facts - can't survive very long in the desert of the real. To thrive and spread, lies need a hospitable environment. They need an ideological context that supports and bolsters them.
In order to ring true, lies need to sound like common sense - and what we call "common sense" is really a person's cognitive worldview projected onto the events they experience, see, hear, and read about.
So the alternative information system can't just blast lies at an audience. It must first articulate and fortify a supportive ideological climate where the lies feel like truth.
There are several ways to do this. First and foremost, the alternative system needs to undercut and bypass people's capacity to reason from evidence by appealing more directly to powerful, deep-seated emotions. The strongest emotions are the negative ones: fear, anger, anxiety, paranoia. They light up the brain's limbic system and overwhelm the cortex.
So an alternative news system could start by tapping into and reinforcing people's fears, prejudices, preconceptions and bigotries as a transmission vector for the ideology that will sustain the lies.
And telling people scary things they already believe has an added bonus: people like to be reassured more than they like to be disabused, so this helps to build trust. It provides both fear and succor.
In contrast, consider the difficult and unenviable task of scientists and the reality-based community. They have to set prejudice and bias aside in order to uncover objective truth. Then they have to try and to explain to the public that what many people believe to be "common sense" is actually empirically false. Good luck with that.
The alternative system would be welcome to adopt the trappings of science - indeed, those trappings lend easy credibility - but the results of what we might call alternative science would be designed to reinforce an ideological worldview, not to question it.
Alternative science proponents could cherry-pick data - for example, picking start and end dates which make it seem as though average global temperatures have not been increasing - and then muddy the water by accusing actual scientists of having cherry-picked their data.
Chart: How skeptics view global warming (Image Credit: Skeptical Science)
The alternative system could feed into people's fears and insecurities as a motivation to take action, including committing to membership in institutions that promise to keep them safe. After all, people are cognitively hard-wired to place more value on avoiding harm and loss than on gaining a benefit.
In addition, priming people to feel scared or threatened tends to make them more closed-minded and afraid of change, which shores up the prejudices and preconceptions the alternative system is already exploiting.
As an added bonus, advertising is already largely based on appealing to people's fears and insecurities, so there would be a natural fit between advertisers and an alternative media system, providing it with a secure financial footing.
Finally, the alternative system could tap into the legitimate sense on the part of many people that the mainstream doesn't particularly care about their interests. After all, like any organization, the mainstream is concerned first and foremost with its own survival.
In most western countries over the past few decades, the mainstream has broadly and loosely been wedded to political neoliberalism: a mixed basket of policies that includes deregulated capitalism, economic globalization, corporate welfare, limited public spending on social welfare, privatization of public assets, and moderate or progressive cultural policy on issues that don't challenge the economic agenda (like same-sex marriage and the right to an abortion).
Neoliberalism has been a bonanza for the rich, but median incomes have been stagnant for decades and stable, well-paying jobs with benefits have gradually been displaced with work that is insecure, part-time, low-paying and lacking benefits. That provides fertile ground for an ideological movement looking to tap into fear, anger and resentment.
A lot of people are feeling frustrated, and they're looking for someone to blame.
An alternative media organization could surely find ways to tap into that frustration and direct it against the mainstream as a whole - including, ironically, those vestigial parts of the mainstream agenda that continue to help lower- and middle-income citizens.
Indeed, the mainstream media system is already quite vulnerable to undermining from such an imagined alternative system. No system is perfect, and the mainstream is by definition broad and variable in quality.
It's not hard to find shoddy news reports with missing or inaccurate information, clumsy or misleading writing and even false claims. Even careful, responsible journalists occasionally make mistakes, but retractions and corrections tend to be buried and hard to link back to the original report.
Since the mainstream media are mainly funded through advertising, they are desperate to attract an audience. Organizations are under enormous pressure to sensationalize news, chase fluff and engage in clickbait rather than providing sober news in the public interest.
As a result of the various competing pressures on limited media resources, some stories are covered to excess, while others are covered minimally or not at all. Every missed or under-reported story is an opportunity to accuse the mainstream of bias.
In addition, ideologies and agendas are very much in evidence throughout the mainstream. After all, everyone has an ideology and an agenda, and it is extremely difficult to park them when attempting to do objective research.
And because the mainstream as an aggregate does not have a single shared ideology, the mishmash of agendas and dogmas means everyone will be able to notice examples of whatever kind of bias they are primed to watch for. (This is why, for example, mainstream newspapers simultaneously receive letters to the editor complaining about the newspaper's left-wing and right-wing bias.)
Further, much of the science that forms the basis for news reports and public policy is not entirely settled. Researchers are constantly challenging and debating each other, even on issues where there is broad agreement.
Within scientific communities, this vigorous debate is a healthy practice that allows the best-supported ideas to bubble to the top, but it requires good faith on the part of its participants.
By abandoning good faith and selectively playing up the uncertainty - say, on the link between smoking and cancer or between fossil fuels and global warming - an alternative information system could paralyze the public policy discussion over whether and how best to respond to this information.
Social science and economics are even fuzzier and more hotly contested terrain, and much of the research is fairly low quality: small sample sizes, poor controls, no attempt at replication. Like the news, there is pressure to "publish or perish" and exciting studies tend to get more attention.
What this all means is that the mainstream is a babel of overlapping and contradicting voices, continually embarrassing and undermining itself - an easy target for a more disciplined, motivated and ideologically consistent alternative system where everyone is rowing in the same direction.
None of this is theoretical, of course. What I have just described already exists.
It is the broad right-wing alternative ecosystem of Fox News, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, National Post, Sun Media, Drudge Report, Breitbart, Newsmax, National Review, Free Republic, TownHall, WorldNetDaily, Rebel Media, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, Glenn Beck, Michael Medved, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Alex Jones, and so on ad nauseam.
Its central tenets - that big tax cuts for the rich somehow 'trickle down' to the poor, that global warming is a left-wing myth, that immigration is the cause of job loss, that a minimum wage hurts employment, that poverty-stricken ethnic minorities are just lazy, that Muslims pose a bigger risk of terrorism than white nationalists, that 'traditional' western values are under attack from leftists and religious minorities, and so on - are audacious lies, calculated to pit vulnerable people against each other while delivering huge benefits to the world's wealthiest people.
To be sure, the institutions and personalities of the right-wing media don't march in lockstep. There is lively debate about how best to achieve the determined agenda that launched the whole enterprise. Naturally, there are personality conflicts, drama, politics and all of the other stuff that happens whenever a group of people work on something.
And it's only fair to acknowledge that many adherents and commentators are principled, true believers in traditional conservative values, not cynical manipulators and xenophobic populist demagogues. For some on the right, their greatest sins are conviction, loyalty and credulity, not mendacity.
But over the past couple of decades, the ugliest part of the right-wing media ecosystem has grown and flourished, fuelled by funnels of money from billionaire ideologues like the Koch brothers and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch.
They also enjoy mutual validation from the right-wing political parties and politicians that advocate the same agenda and benefit from the media cover.
I want to clarify what is dangerous and pernicious about this right-wing media ecosystem. After all, there is nothing inherently wrong with having an agenda, and there is nothing wrong with making legitimate criticisms about the mainstream media.
(Indeed, the publication you are reading has both an explicit agenda and a tradition of critiquing the mainstream media. We started RTH because we felt that the mainstream was excluding important voices and perspectives in terms of city-building.)
What makes the right-wing ecosystem dangerous is that it entails four specific premises that are toxic when combined:
I should note here that there is also a left-wing alternative media ecosystem, and it shares some qualities in common with the right-wing ecosystem - including anger and cynicism toward the mainstream, ideological credulity and even, in some quarters, a willingness to publish lies.
However, the left-wing mediasphere is comparatively tiny and starved for funding (most billionaires are not lining up to fund organizations calling for a higher top marginal tax rate). It is also committed to an agenda of much broader public interest than its right-wing counterpart.
The left-wing media tend to advocate environmental and energy policies that are based on sound science, not on the financial interests of oil and coal companies. Yet the right-wing hate machine attacks climate scientists and writers by accusing them of representing some imagined shadowy, deep-pocketed interest group - an exact inversion of reality!
The left is also a lot more ideologically polyglot and self-critical than the right, which hurts its ability to set and push a clear, consistent agenda. People on the left spend as much time going after each other as they spend criticizing the mainstream or the right.
Due to its far greater funding, organization, ideological focus and strategic communication program, the right has been vastly more effective at building a broad-based movement that is mobilizing supporters and setting the agenda in countries across the developed world.
In the face of this well-funded right-wing communications universe and the political movement it supports, we must make several sad acknowledgements that bode poorly for the future of our civilization as a broadly modern society based on Enlightenment values of free will, reasoning from objective evidence, and progress toward greater justice and prosperity.
Tell a strategic, truthy-sounding lie, no matter how outrageous, enough times and with enough confidence, and a significant number of people will believe you. The more often you repeat the lie, the more people will believe you, and the more strongly they will believe you.
People who have higher name recognition can get away with more outrageous lies because many listeners, not having time to fact-check each claim they hear, will fall back on the heuristic that the claim comes from someone they recognize as a high-profile source.
In fact, once you have decided that lying is okay, you can tap into the full suite of cognitive biases - shortcuts in human thinking that bypass logical reasoning - to strengthen and reinforce your lies.
Meanwhile, people who are committed to honesty will be far more constrained in their willingness to manipulate belief through these biases.
Telling the truth requires being scrupulous to the evidence. It means accepting whatever the data show, whether or not it fits your agenda. It requires carefully fact-checking claims, analyzing arguments for validity and defending the facts and arguments against criticism.
Lying, on the other hand, mostly just requires stating and restating and restating the lie, and has the added bonus that the liar can also defend against counterargument by accusing the truth-teller of lying.
At the very least, this has the effect of wrestling the truth to a draw. If two people are calling each other liars, to the casual bystander one sounds as plausible as the other.
In such cases, most people, most of the time, will simply default to whoever is saying things that sound more like what that person already believes - hence the need for the right ideological climate.
Again, the liars have the advantage here because they couch their lies in comfortable truisms that reinforce the worldview they have been cultivating.
The casual bystander might just conclude that you can't trust anyone. Even this helps the liars more than it helps truth-tellers, because the liars are actively trying to destroy public trust in order to neutralize the civilizing forces that might otherwise restrain them.
This is a corollary of the second point. On a purely logistical basis, people who lie can crank out lies faster than people who care about the truth can disprove the lies.
Debunking lies takes time. It requires research, analysis, finding and citing sources, constructing and testing arguments for validity, and constructing defences against counterarguments.
It also requires a willingness on the part of the audience to accept the norms and standards of evidence and argument, norms that the alternative information system has spent decades undermining among its growing audience.
In contrast, lying just requires developing or picking up a lie that supports the liar's agenda, and then repeating it until it becomes accepted as part of the common sense worldview.
In this respect, lying is like vandalism: since it takes a minute to tag a wall but ten minutes to scrub off the spray-paint, the taggers always have the upper hand.
Best of all, the more lies you tell, the farther the debunkers fall behind. People who tell lies will always be several steps ahead of the people who are dedicated to the truth.
As long as the lies enjoy the cover of a thriving alternative news system, they will continue to gain currency among citizens - and those demagogues and politicians who pander to them will continue to gain power.
However, there are limits. An actual government based on a deranged ideology of lies and falsehoods is bound to lurch from crisis to crises as the ideology makes contact with reality. It is at least possible that a sufficiently disastrous political legacy will do real damage to the credibility of the information system that produced it.
United States President Donald Trump is the epitome of the dangerous, hate-fuelled demagoguery at the heart of the right-wing media ecosystem. Barely a month into his mandate, he already threatens to destroy the credibility of the swamp from which he emerged to sweep his party's leadership convention and take over the reins of the world's most powerful country.
But Trump's stampede through the checks and balances that are supposed to hold the system together raises a terrifying question. Can our civilization figure out how to inoculate itself against the predations of this parallel universe of self-serving dogma before its adherents manage to destroy so much of our civic institutions that we cannot recover?
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