Tag Archives: Big Lie

Fake News and the Big Lie

A few days ago, Vox reported that

Attacks on the “fake news” media have become a staple of the Trump administration — and nearly half of voters, including the vast majority of Republicans, believe the president when he claims that the media is making up stories about him.

Forty-six percent of voters believe that major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump, while 37 percent do not and 17 percent are undecided, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Note that the question was focused on “major” news organizations–journalism outlets with institutional commitments to verification and accuracy. The questions weren’t about dubious websites or partisan outlets.

A study by an organization called Study Soup, with which I am unfamiliar, found that Limbaugh, Breitbart and Fox News–rather than traditional media– were seen as the biggest purveyors of “fake news.” This particular study asked people whether they’d been personally duped; I suppose it is plausible that people who recognize that they’ve been fooled by dubious reporting would subsequently be less trusting of all media.

Americans across the political spectrum, led by Republicans, admit they have been duped by “fake news,” or partisan propaganda and outright fabrications, a new national study has found.

“In a heartening display of humility, many of our participants admitted they feared they’d been duped by fake news before. In fact, nearly 56 percent of Republicans said they had probably or definitely been deceived, and over 46 percent of Democrats said the same,” said the analysis accompanying the survey of 1,000 Americans by the education company StudySoup.com.

The study did find that Trump’s constant calling-out of specific media sources affected public perceptions of the accuracy of those sources. That shouldn’t surprise us. There is a famous Joseph Goebbels quote, describing the propaganda tactic known as “The Big Lie.”

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The Big Lie is an all-purpose propaganda technique. According to Wikipedia,

The expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Use of the technique isn’t limited to politics. Back in 2011, Joseph Nocera demonstrated how politically convenient myths about the collapse of the housing bubble had been promulgated.

 

So this is how the Big Lie works.

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views…

The success of the Big Lie rests on two characteristics of human nature. First, people have a tendency to believe a big lie more easily than a little one; most of us are familiar with”little white lies,” but we find it hard to believe that someone would invent an enormous (and more easily refuted) fiction. Second, if you repeat even a ridiculous lie frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.

So–accuse respected journalists of “fake” news.

Does media bias exist? Of course–although the bias is usually toward conflict, not ideology. (Conflict, after all, is what makes something newsworthy, or at least interesting.) And reporters are human–they see things through their own “lenses,” no matter how hard they try for total objectivity.

Credible journalists do not, however, simply fabricate stories.

That so many Americans believe mainstream news outlets are manufacturing reports out of whole cloth is disquieting, to put it mildly. It’s one thing to be leery of conspiracy websites and partisan propaganda. When people don’t believe anything, from any source, there is no civic common ground. Without agreed-upon facts, we become uneasy; we can’t communicate.

That distrust creates an environment conducive to authoritarianism. Which is, of course, the point.

 

The Big Lie(s)

With every announcement of a cabinet nominee, the news gets more depressing and surreal. Trump is deliberately naming agency heads who oppose the missions of the agencies they will control–nominees who can be expected to eviscerate efforts to address climate change, undermine public education and favor saber-rattling over diplomacy, among other disasters.

All of them are contemptuous–or ignorant–of demonstrable facts.

Case in point: Andrew F. Puzder, the fast-food chief executive Trump has chosen to be his secretary of labor. As The New York Times has reported, Puzder has a “passionate disdain” for both the Affordable Care Act and efforts to raise the minimum wage.

He says the law has led to rising health insurance premiums, “reducing consumer spending, resulting in a reduction in restaurant visits.”

He has also argued that the act has given businesses an incentive to cut back on full-time workers to avoid the costs of providing them with insurance, as the act frequently requires.

The problem is that the available data largely disagree.

Fast food sales are actually up since the ACA took effect, and there is no correlation between employment growth in the industry and health insurance premiums. States where premiums increased more did not tend to have lower employment, and the percentage of people who are forced to work part-time even though they prefer to work full-time has fallen dramatically since the Affordable Care Act was enacted.

He is similarly wrong about the effects of raising the minimum wage; employment has actually increased in the wake of most such raises.

Puzzler doesn’t know what he is talking about, so he will fit right in with the other cabinet nominees, and with Trump and his voters.

It turns out that most of those voters inhabit our new “post-fact” society. A survey fielded after the election may illuminate the gap between those voters and reality.

* Unemployment: Under President Obama, job growth has been quite strong, and the unemployment rate has improved dramatically. PPP, however, found that 67% of Trump voters believe the unemployment rate went up under Obama – which is the exact opposite of reality.

* Stock Market: Since the president was elected, the stock market has soared, nearly tripling since the height of the Great Recession. PPP found that 39% of Trump voters believe the market has gone down under Obama – which is also the exact opposite of reality.

* Popular Vote: As of this morning, Hillary Clinton received roughly 2.7 million more votes than Donald Trump, but PPP nevertheless found that 40% of Trump voters believe he won the popular vote – which is, once again, the exact opposite of reality.

* Voter Fraud: Even Trump’s lawyers concede there was no voter fraud in the presidential election, but PPP found that 60% of Trump voters apparently believe “millions” of illegal ballots were cast for Clinton in 2016 – which isn’t even close to resembling reality.

Soros Conspiracy Theory: A whopping 73% of Trump voters believe George Soros is paying anti-Trump protesters – though in reality, George Soros is not paying anti-Trump protesters.

The survey goes a long way toward answering the question repeatedly asked by so many anguished Americans: why on earth would anyone vote for this monumentally unfit, unethical buffoon?

Americans live in the age of confirmation bias, where you can find sources on the Internet supporting your preferred worldview, no matter how ridiculous or flat-out insane. Propagating the Big Lie has never been easier.

The strategy of the Big Lie comes to us courtesy of the Third Reich; as Joseph Goebbels helpfully explained it,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Joe Nocera wrote a column a few years ago in The New York Times, explaining our more sophisticated modern Big Lie techniques,

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views; even presidential candidates begin repeating the Big Lie.

Thanks to fake news and the Internet, Big Lies have become much easier to sustain.

Thanks to uncritical, uneducated citizens who lack both civic and media literacy, facts, credibility and reality no longer matter.

The rest of us are screwed.