by Alexandra Bosbeer
[24 January 2017] ‘One person’s fake news is another person’s truth’. I was horrified to hear this expressed in a public seminar by a representative of Facebook. But then I heard the same sentiment voiced by Czech President Milos Zeman: “Nobody has the monopoly on truth,” he said. And, this week, the press spokesman of US President Trump said, “… yes, I believe that we have to be honest with the American people… I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” Another member of the Trump team referred to misrepresentation of numbers at Trump’s inauguration as ‘alternative facts’.
Politics and people
We are in a crisis. We have a global economic system which, for many people, is not bringing the contentment expected. People are angry. At the same time, we have democracies, which give people a voice through elections and referenda. Angry voices may shout, even though shouting may not help with finding solutions. To drop the metaphor, results of some votes have surprised many recently, with results including the UK leaving the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US President.
Voters make decisions based on information as well as their own experience. Wild promises and accusations are being debated, and the internet helps spread assertions regardless of accuracy. Where we previously had professional journalists required to try to be objective in reporting in conventional print and other media, today anyone can publish a report on the internet. Even worse, payment via advertising revenue apparently stimulated increased publication of false and sensationalist news that readers did not realise was fake.
In our democracies, many of us tend to share a vision of objective information being easily available, so that citizens can inform themselves and engage in democratic governance to make the best choice for their own future. We assume facts are real, interpretations may vary, and that we can debate the interactions between the two.
This model is too simplistic. People are not rational: we are bundles of emotions and experiences. We like the way someone looks; we feel comfortable with those who speak with mannerisms to which we are accustomed. People are busy: working, cooking, cleaning, sleeping, eating, socialising, all take up time and may leave little time for reading all about what is happening in the world.We’ve got social media and the capability to set up topic streams to filter our news. We take shortcuts to understand the world and our options: we listen to speeches and to our friends. Sometimes, we might just vote for something different, without having much time to assess if it might take a shape we want, or if it is even realistic.
Truth and lies
Part of what might be called the common illusion, is that most of us maintain a belief that we should, and do, tell the truth.. However, this is self-deception: a study led by psychologist Bella DePaulo, for example, used detailed diaries to ascertain the frequency with which we lie in our daily life. The result: we tend to lie on average once or twice a day. Lying is not only frequently, but it is functional.Only about a fifth of the misrepresentations are discovered, and many lies help the liar, such as avoiding being judged when one is honest about why one was late to work.
Given that humans probably tell untruths frequently and to good end, we should not be shocked to hear lies told by leaders such as Donald Trump and his team. Perhaps the shock comes from the blatant nature of the untruths. Or that ‘news’ sites on the internet may publish fiction. However, we should remember that in marketing and business, truth is not the objective. Marketing is about persuasion (persuading one to buy, such as Edward Bernays’s work in the development of commercial marketing through implying products would fulfil deep human desires.)
One of Bernays’s early marketing successes was to associate women smoking with social and political liberation, for example. He also helped market involvement in the First World War to Americans, with the message that it made the world safe for democracy. In 1928, Bernays published a book called Propaganda, in which he propounded the idea that democracy requires deliberate manipulation of people’s opinions and habits. “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. …Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society,” according to Bernays. Our political and social beliefs – whether we vote for a populist leader or other – might depend in part on the marketing by people who understand how the human mind works.
US news channel CBS has reported that Americans assume politicians lie (and one can hardly claim this is unique to the United States). We humans are illogical: experiments indicate if the lies serve one’s own viewpoints, we find them acceptable. Research also indicates that listeners may be less likely to spot an evasive answer when given by someone whose views are similar to their own, or when one is evaluating whether one likes the speaker. So, a politician’s supporters may accept – or not notice – evasion, while those who do not support the politician might react with horror and anger. A gulf opens in possible dialogue.
But more dangerous is what author (and philosopher) Harry Frankfurt called ‘bullshit’ in his 2005 book: simply making things up without concern for fact. Lying is a type of perverse acknowledgement that there are truths; bullshit is free of concern for truth. This is also what is referred to by the concept of ‘post-truth’: fact is simply irrelevant. As Garry Kasparov tweeted in December, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Practice makes… truth
Election campaigning is, to a certain extent, marketing. Looking like ‘one of us’ is a successful tactic in campaigning. Voters will support someone they believe will be effective: various techniques can help increase the sense of trustworthiness. Trump’s inauguration speech references to God is one of these techniques. Another way to build trust is to seem to be effective and to be able to solve problems. Obviously, knowing what is going on, is a pre-requisite to solving problems. And here, repetition is very useful.
Repetition on its own, can turn statements into facts. This is how it works: our brains process information again with each repetition, as the knowledge is transferred from shorter-term storage to the longer-term storage in the cortices of the brain. Repetition of statements thus enhances their appearance of being truth.
The creation of belief through repetition, is certainly something that works for Donald Trump. So, for example, Trump reported on Twitter, using simple and emotive language, that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had described the intelligence report on Russian election interference as “the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated. Made up, phony facts. Too bad!” This is in direct contrast to Clapper’s own public statement, in which he reported he had informed Trump that “the intelligence community has not made any judgment that the information is reliable, and that he emphasized to Trump that he does not believe it was leaked to the media by [US] intelligence sources.” Or, as another paper, the New York Daily News, put it, Clapper did not comment on the credibility of the document but only on his concern regarding the impact on the US public.
By the time this was described by a Trump supporter to UK paper The Guardian, Trump simple view was dominant: “It’s pretty clear. The fact that director of national intelligence Clapper has stated the intelligence community doesn’t believe it’s reliable should be a pretty clear message to observers that the media jumped the gun on this. With trust in the media at an all-time low, I’m not sure this is going to improve it.”
The effect of belief in one person’s view over the media, has knock-on effects on trust of the same media. As another Trump supporter said, “The US mainstream media has no love lost for Trump and they’ll do whatever they can to challenge him. If anything, it makes me support even more what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Trump markets his viewpoints very effectively with repetition and clear language. Supporters hear his words as truth, and others can be convinced by the repetition. None of this is particularly new in political contests. What is new is that he is promoting statements which can be easily belied by objective means – photographs, statistics, etc. Is it deliberate or is it a personality flaw? Why would a leader lie?
The University of Amsterdam’s Linda Bos, who studies and teaches political communication, describes four objectives that could be served by Trump’s lying. For example, Trump could be creating a cover of legitimacy for himself by sowing confusion: people don’t know which of the contradictory truths to believe. As Swedish journalist Anders Lindbergh says: “You don’t need a new narrative. You just say everyone is a liar, everyone is the same, there is no definition of truth, is my truth the same as yours? Don’t trust the media. Don’t trust the authorities.” According to German magazine Der Spiegel. “Rather than try and beat its opponent in its battle for the truth, Russia simply sabotages the whole game. “Russian propaganda does not put out one version of a story but many, and in doing so it pollutes the realm of information,” says an EU insider. “In the end, people no longer believe any version” — including the one that’s true.”
Propaganda, whether from Russia or others, does not require a believable alternative story: it only requires making those listening unsure if the other story is reliable. We know from psychological experiments that people remember information and see as more convincing arguments supporting positions with which they already agree. And this is apparently not related to innate intelligence, education, or analytical skills: the subjects in the experiment cited above, were students at a prestigious, private university and therefore most likely had high levels of all three (intelligence, education, and well-developed analytical skills). It is human to recall and to believe information that is congruent with our beliefs.
A second objective of Trump’s lies could be to grab attention away from other newsworthy items (such as the protest marches on the day following his inauguration). This is a tactic said to be used by Russian politicians. A veteran reporter who worked in Russia says, “So my message for covering President Trump’s administration is this: don’t get distracted by what they say, focus on what they don’t.”
A third reason could be deliberately further increase the divisions between Americans. The uncritical reporting on the inaccurate numbers by right-wing news channels could further split the society. Or he could be bolstering his own policies by portraying himself as the one who can save the people – to whom he has said he will return the power – from the lying press. He has, after all, declared he is at war with the media.
Facts – and the alternatives
One trend which is contributing to the schism in what news is, what is true, and what is relevant for people to know, is the division in how ‘facts’ are viewed – and how that word is even used. Not many of us are extremely sceptical about all information. This is one reason we need journalists committed to the truth: we rely on their objectivity, diligence in ferreting out the truth, and their integrity. It may be that evaluating and assessing information, takes more effort and many of us simply take the easier route of accepting it. For busy or worried people, accepting the truth of what you hear may be particularly attractive.
In order for this to work, we need a well-functioning press. The code of ethics of the International Federation of Journalists cites ‘respect for truth’ as its very first principle. Misrepresenting something – or someone – out of malice is considered a serious offence, as are unfounded accusations; a journalist who has discovered that their report was not entirely accurate make efforts to have this corrected.
In our strange new world, it is possible that errors should be left to lie. Correcting misinformation may strengthen rather than undermine a lie, simply by the repetition of the original error.
Doing one’s bit
So, what can we do about what seems to be a mess? Well, first of all, we should promote the importance of objective journalism – but without repeating the untruths we’ve heard. Repetition of views, helps confirm them as true in the listener. Thus, much of the media coverage of campaigns may have created an impression that untruths being spouted, were in fact true. We must understand human psychology, and not simply shake our heads at those who do not agree with us.