The Modern Survival Guide #99
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I promise! I wouldn’t lie to you, now would I?
Sure I would. If I were an unprincipled, ambitious, power-seeking person, I absolutely would. If I were a political hack seeking to push my narrative, I definitely would. If I were an ideologue or religious nut, I manifestly would. In fact, it’s getting really hard to find the “truth” these days with all the lies that are filling up our mainstream media outlets, blogs, forums, websites, radio programs, and print media.
Mark Twain’s famous quote that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” is not only relevant today, it’s more important than ever to understand what he meant — that there are simple untruths, blatant untruths, and sneaky shit. The sneaky shit is what we’re going to be talking about here.
Look, I’m not going to say that “Modern Lies” are fundamentally different from historical lies. What I am here to do is to remind you, dear reader, that people have been working on the science of lying like it’s the cure for cancer. It’s not enough to know that people are lying to you anymore — now it’s just as much a necessity to know how they’re doing it.
Detecting lies in the modern world is very much a survival benefit. It keeps you from falling prey to the lies, sure, but it does something much more profound as well — it alerts to you to information sources that simply are not worthy of trust. We’ve talked about this topic extensively in this series, but just to recap, we live in the information age and bad information is more readily accessible now than it has ever been. We have an obligation — not an option, an obligation — as citizens and adults to ferret out the truth.
So let’s talk about Modern Lies. These are the big lies. The lies that Hitler would have been proud of because they are so balls-out, blatantly incorrect that people tend to believe them out of a sort of shocked reflex. Dealing with Modern Lies is necessary because these are the lies that shape policy, win elections, influence major philosophical debates, mold the media narrative, and produce the world we live in. You can’t get away from them. But you can, and should, know when they’re happening.
The Qualities of a Modern Lie
A Modern Lie is defined by a handful of qualities, and these make them so much worse than a good old-fashioned lie:
- Mass distribution — the lie is spread by a deliberate campaign across multiple modes of communication.
- Cognitive exploitation — the lie deliberately and insidiously seeks to use known logical fallacies and cognitive biases.
- Gaslighting — the lie seeks to completely redefine reality.
- Volume — the lie is subsumed within a mass of other lies or misrepresentations.
I’ll tackle these each in turn, but the takeaway is that when you see something come at you with one or more of these qualities, know that it is a Modern Lie: a deliberate, coordinated effort to mislead not just you, but everyone you know. These things are dangerous. And in the current political climate, they are getting to be positively prolific.
A Modern Lie taking advantage of mass distribution is coordinated across multiple media and communications platforms. These lies are spread by social media posts, memes, surrogates, speeches, radio talk shows, TV programming, commercials, print media, and mailers to targeted demographics. They are a campaign. That’s an important word. It means that there is a dedicated logistical apparatus behind the lie, and that’s an important feature, because every good general knows that wars are won through logistics.
Mass distribution is why the Daily Show has clips that show a whole slew of politicians or media talking heads repeating the exact same words. Its purpose is quite simple. It is an attempt to push the lie so far, so fast, that you can’t get away from it. This paves the way for the lie to take advantage of a psychological phenomenon called the illusory truth effect — in short, people tend to believe things that they hear often. Mass distribution seeks to weaponize this phenomenon for the purposes of the people behind the lie.
So when you start seeing the same narrative — not news, but narrative — pop up everywhere, keep an eye on it — it may very well be a modern lie.
Modern Lies make heavy use of cognitive exploitation — employing logical fallacies and targeting cognitive biases in order to make false arguments.
If you haven’t seen this excellent cartoon explanation of the common logical fallacies, click it. It’s really good, and gives a better explanation than I can convey in the space of this article.
A cognitive bias, on the other hand, is a phenomenon like racism or the gambler’s fallacy — a situation where our brains try to make sense of a confusing world, fail, and give us bad advice as a result. I’ve written on this before, too. The defining feature of a cognitive bias is that a person trusts their intuition or perceived reality over factual evidence.
A common instance of cognitive exploitation would be a “truthy” argument. You see these all the time in memes and on social media, where an argument is presented that appeals to emotion, preconceived notions, and/or fallacious logic to seem like it ought to be true. For example, the numerous memes relating to the Hillary Clinton email scandal which allege that she committed a criminal offense (in the face of numerous investigations which found otherwise) are “truthy” arguments. She didn’t follow the rules, so it must be a criminal offense, right? And if it’s a criminal offense, she should go to jail, right? Lock her up! Lock her up!
Cognitive exploitation is nasty because it takes advantage of the basic operating functionality of the human brain. You are predisposed to fall prey to these kinds of lies. The trick is to train yourself not to.
We’ve all heard of gaslighting by now — the practice of blatantly telling a falsehood, acting as though it is the truth, and refusing to bow to the weight of evidence to the contrary. Gaslighting is an increasing problem — it takes advantage of ignorance and creates situations of false equivalency, in which people are forced to counter the gaslighter’s argument, thereby wasting effort which might otherwise go to more productive causes while at the same time repeating the gaslighter’s point over and over. Gaslighting is powerful because even when you try to prove it wrong, some damn fool in the audience will believe it anyway just because you raised the point.
Gaslighting is nasty because it spawns conspiracy theories, discredits experts, makes people question reality, and exhausts the audience. It’s downright dangerous too, because some people will believe anything said in a declarative tone. Doing it to someone you know is a douchebag move. Doing it to a large audience is how we wind up with populist know-nothings in charge. Watch out for gaslighting.
This is subtly different from the idea of mass distribution, in the sense that a Modern Lie taking advantage of volume isn’t just being distributed over multiple media platforms, it’s also taking cover in a flock of other lies.
This is a classic of talk radio and propaganda (insofar as there is a difference between the two) — simply vomiting out a huge number of lies and misstatements so fast that the audience doesn’t even have time to process each one before you move on to the next.
Volume-based lies work because quantity has a quality all its own. If you tell 1,000 lies and the fact-checkers counter 999, that’s still one lie that gets through and is accepted as fact by a certain percentage of the viewers. In practice it’s actually almost confirmed as fact in the minds of the audience because the fact-checkers didn’t challenge it.
Volume-based lies are nasty because it takes much more time and effort to counter them than it takes to tell them in the first place. A lie can get around the world before the truth has its boots on, and all that. If you encounter a situation where someone is rapid-fire spouting “factual” statements one after the other, with no supporting evidence and no accompanying discussion, be very wary. It may be an attempt at a volume-based Modern Lie.
Countering Modern Lies
We have an obligation — not an option, an obligation — as citizens and adults to counter Modern Lies. An obligation as citizens, because Modern Lies are corrosive to our democratic process, community interactions, social norms, and businesses. And an obligation as adults, because Modern Lies are corrosive to our ability to be responsible, knowledgeable, human beings capable of exercising informed choice.
Ultimately, this obligation rests on two points — guarding ourselves against Modern Lies and challenging them in our community.
This is hard. It takes introspection. It requires that you have and maintain a standard for what you are prepared to believe. It takes research and time. It requires that you make decisions on your information sources that may seem draconian. It might make you come to the realization that you have been wrong (horror of horrors!).
Do it anyway.
You’re going to have to be introspective. That means that when you see an article or program that makes a point you agree with, you need to understand why you agree with it. Is it an evidence-based decision? Is it an emotional decision? Is it an ideological point? Is it a resonance point with your past life experiences?
Next you’re going to need standards of belief. In short, if there is no reasonable evidence to support the claim, I would advise not giving it your whole-hearted trust. You will need to decide for yourself what constitutes “reasonable evidence,” but in general I would argue for multiple sources of proof, expert support, and direct links to causal events as opposed to correlation-based arguments.
Then you’re going to need to apply your introspection and standards to the information your receive. This is more commonly called “research.” It takes practice, but it’s not actually that hard in the age of Google. There’s a whole separate topic about how to Google for serious research. In general, though, it’s worth it to remember to stay away from leading statements or emotional language in your searches, because Google gives you what you ask for. A search for “Is Obama a Muslim?” as opposed to “Obama is a Muslim” will turn up very different results.¹
Finally, once you’ve established a habit of introspection, figured out your standards of belief, and practiced Googling for research, it’s time to put all this in action and make some decisions. When you hear something from a source, check on it. If it doesn’t check out, keep that in mind. If you start seeing patterns of stories not checking out, don’t use that source for information.
The advantage of this method is that instead of search algorithms curating you into an echo chamber of Modern Lies based on things you want to believe, this will get you out of echo chambers. Getting out of echo chambers is a very good thing. Staying on your guard in this way is the best method to ensure that you do not become a carrier of Modern Lies, which is step one in preventing their spread.
The second part to countering Modern Lies is to challenge them when you see them. This point is more complicated and, frankly, has the potential to create some conflict in your social groups and family. Challenging a Modern Lie will, eventually, involve disagreement with someone, and most people don’t like it when another person disagrees with them.
Do it anyway.
Modern Lies thrive in an environment where they can spread unchallenged. They thrive by creating situations where they can be accepted as alternative facts. They thrive when people are too scared or ignorant to believe the truth. All that is required for a Modern Lie to thrive is for the adults in the room to do nothing. So do something.
This doesn’t mean you have to cut ties with people, or get in fights on Facebook, or be disrespectful. It simply means that you do not let an obvious Modern Lie stand unchallenged. There are a few things you can do here:
- Try to change people’s minds
- Attempt to correct ignorance
- Offer your own interpretation as a counterpoint
- Ask questions to prompt someone to examine their own evidence
- Offer resources to people who are looking for evidence
- Conduct or support research and publish the results
- Give support to organizations that offer unbiased information
- Vote for people who respect and act on unbiased information
And that’s just scratching the surface. Doubtless other people who have thought about this more than I have will come up with more tactics to counter Modern Lies, and I encourage you to find them.
A final point — as we say so often in this series, don’t be an asshole. It’s not necessary to fight with or insult people when countering a Modern Lie, and it’s almost always counterproductive to do so. The point isn’t to make someone else feel dumb, or destroy their ideals, or tear down their worldview. It’s to push back against Modern Lies — not modern people. Treat people with respect. But don’t let them push Modern Lies without a challenge.
Ultimately this genie is out of the bottle. Modern Lies aren’t going away — they work too often. They’re literally part of the curriculum for a lot of different degrees these days. Neither advertisers, politicians, corporations, lobbyists, advocacy groups, nor religious groups are going to stop using Modern Lies any time soon, and they will continue to affect our world for the foreseeable future.
So stay on your guard. Recognize the lies as they come at you. And for the love of God — push back.