Lies are dangerous in a number of ways. Putting aside that there are lots of situations where a false belief leads to very bad action (e.g., believing homeopathy is an effective cancer treatment leads to forgoing treatment that would have saved one’s life or mitigated suffering). They are also dangerous because people with bad agendas tend to resort to lying because they can’t win on the merits. And they don’t just resort to a bit of deception, or even clever deception. It turns out that wholesale, massive, shameless, easily rebutted lies are pretty effective, at least for something.
Consider the decades long attack on the EU:
But Britain has a long and well-observed tradition of fabricating facts about Europe—so much so that the European Commission (EC) set up a website to debunk these lies in the early 1990s. Try our interactive quiz below and see if you can spot the myths.
Since then the EC has responded to over 400 myths published by the British media. These range from the absurd (fishing boats will be forced to carry condoms) to the ridiculous (zippers on trousers will be banned). Some are seemingly the result of wilful misunderstandings.
Sadly, for all the commission’s hard work, it is unlikely to be heard. The average rebuttal is read about 1,000 times. The Daily Mail’s website, by contrast, garners 225m visitors each month.
And, of course, the Leave campaign, itself, was almost wholly lie based. Remain made some (economic) predictions that were falsified (and that needs to be understood), but it didn’t traffic in wholesale lies, to my knowledge.
Similarly, we have a decades long campaign, almost entirely easily-debunked-lie based, against Hillary Clinton. Just take claims about her honesty (esp. next to Trump). Robert Mann produced a very interesting graph of Polifact’s fact checking of a selection of politicians:
It isn’t even close! HRC is one of the most honest politicians (in terms of telling falsehoods) and Trump is one of the most dishonest.
Yet, when I was debating folks on Democratic leaning blogs, I had people saying that Clinton was a pathological liar. When presented with this chart, they stuck to their guns. (Note, they didn’t think Obama was a liar.)
You can quibble with the methodology (see Mann’s blog post for a discussion), but Polifact’s fact checker tries to be evenhanded. One should be at least a little struck by this evidence.
But correction often just doesn’t work, backfires, or isn’t effective in changing attitudes and behavior. For example,
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
Or consider Emily Thorson’s concept of belief echoes:
However, through a series of experiments, I find that exposure to a piece of negative political information persists in shaping attitudes even after the information has been successfully discredited. A correction–even when it is fully believed–does not eliminate the effects of misinformation on attitudes. These lingering attitudinal effects,which I call “belief echoes,” are created even when the misinformation is corrected immediately, arguably the gold standard of journalistic fact-checking.
Belief echoes can be affective or cognitive. Affective belief echoes are created through a largely unconscious process in which a piece of negative information has a stronger impact on evaluations than does its correction. Cognitive belief echoes, on the other hand, are created through a conscious cognitive process during which a person recognizes that a particular negative claim about a candidate is false, but reasons that its presence increases the likelihood of other negative information being true. Experimental results suggest that while affective belief echoes are created across party lines, cognitive belief echoes are more likely when a piece of misinformation reinforces a person’s pre-existing political views
We see this in the various formulations of the Clinton Rules.
One major harm of such mechanisms is that it opens up a line of defense for very bad people, e.g., Trump, to wit, that there are “Trump rules” and the bad things pointed out about him are fake. They aren’t, but why trust a gullible media about it?
I’ve had personal experience of this. I used to comment a lot on LGM. One commenter with a propensity for persistently saying very silly things (about, e.g., statistics, causality, politics, and even the law (they are a lawyer)) got to a point where they couldn’t stand my repeated refutations (including pointing out how they’d been refuted before). They embarked on a pretty systematic campaign to lie about me, primarily about my mental health and that I was “stalking” them, on the verge of a breakdown, that they were frightened of me, that I had no sex life or other kind of life, that I spent large period of times looking things up on them (stalking!), etc. These were transparent lies and obvious gaslighting. No one took them directly seriously, but they did have effects. People would see an exchange and assume that there was some fault on my part (however mild). This would pop up elsewhere, in other comments. Some of these people were more sympathetic to a gaslighting liar than they had any right to be.
So, pretty exemplary behavior and a sterling reputation vs. transparent lies and extremely bizarre slanders and…well, I’m the one not commenting any more. It worked, in a way. (Trump winning had an effect too. It’s not solely due to this bad behavior.)
Given sufficient shamelessness and no structural counter (e.g., moderation) and no big effort on my part (e.g., an active campaign), there’s little penalty for such lying and it advances their noxious cause.
These examples can be multiplied easily (anti-vaccine, pro-tobacco, climate change denial campaigns come to mind).
It’s very difficult to deal with. We need to.
How severe is the problem? I just saw a report on a survey using Trump’s and Obama’s inauguration crowd photos:
For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.
But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.
The article discusses the idea of “expressive responding”:
Why would anyone give the wrong answer to a pretty simple question?
To many political psychologists, this exercise will be familiar. A growing body of research documents how fully Americans appear to hold biased positions about basic political facts. But scholars also debate whether partisans actually believe the misinformation and how many are knowingly giving the wrong answer to support their partisan team (a process called expressive responding).
Expressive responding is yet another form of lying with potentially far reaching consequences.