Truth, lies and not-quite-lies
This column had to be sent to newspapers Tuesday, so you know how the election turned out, and I don’t yet.
The good news is, there will be another one in two years.
That’s the good news? Yep. Elections – annoying, divisive and cacophonous – are one reason we live in a free and prosperous country. We could have been born elsewhere, perhaps North Korea. There, instead of 30-second political ads interrupting our pleasant evenings, our televisions would bombard us with propaganda about the Supreme Leader who is actually keeping us subjugated, impoverished and isolated.
Still, seeing the glass half full doesn’t mean we ignore the empty part. Our politics has flaws, including this: far too many not-quite-lies. What is a not-quite-lie, and how do you spot it? In politics, look for two types.
One is using part of the truth in order to deceive. Political spinmeisters do this by, for example, singling out an action by an opponent in order to paint an inaccurate picture. One ad might say “Senator So-and-so voted against a bill to put drug dealers in prison!” It’s factually accurate, but it leaves out the rest of the truth – in particular, the reasons the senator voted no, or the other tough-on-crime bills the senator may have voted for.
The other type of not-quite-lie is sharing unverifiable information that cannot be proven or disproven. Among these are conspiracy theories, unfounded accusations, rumors, gossip and assigning bad intentions to another person without solid evidence to back it up. They’re not really lies if the presenter isn’t communicating information he or she knows to be false. But they’re not the truth, either.
Social media has enabled not-quite-lies to travel at warp speed. The platforms encourage users to share or retweet bad information before taking the time to determine if it is true. A study published this year by the journal Science found that falsehoods on Twitter reached 1,500 people six times faster than true claims, with political falsehoods traveling faster than other types.
We have a tendency to believe lies that confirm our worldview over the truth that calls it into question. That being the case, we all should ask ourselves what proof we have before asserting that the government under President George W. Bush was complicit in the September 11 attacks, or that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fake, or that school shooting victims are “crisis actors” hired to build support for gun control. By spreading unsupported allegations, we often bear false witness against our neighbor.
All these not-quite-lies help us mentally process a complicated, confusing world in simple, good-versus-evil terms. Meanwhile, they justify our fears and prejudices. They exaggerate our feelings of victimhood. They give us an excuse for inaction. And they’re a threat to democracy. If many Americans tell themselves and others that their own government somehow participated in the killing of thousands of Americans on Sept. 11, what kind of government would they be willing to replace it with?
So what’s a responsible truth-sharer to do?
First, let’s reject bad or incomplete information. A Facebook post or meme with no sourcing should be treated with as much skepticism as a riches-promising email from Nigeria.
Second, let’s confront our biases. If an information source completely confirms our worldview, paints others as evil, foolish and ill-intentioned and causes us to feel outraged and angry, then it probably doesn’t come from a fair and objective place.
Finally, remember that nobody gets paid $40 million a year to tell the truth, religious or political. That kind of money only goes to people who are selling us something. They’ll tend to present only the parts of the truth their consumers want while leaving out the complexity and nuance the real truth requires.
The standard should not be, am I lying? It should be, is the information I’m sharing true? If the answer isn’t yes, we should probably check ourselves before saying it, posting it or retweeting it.
Otherwise, we may not be lying, but we could be not-quite-lying, and that’s not really better. In fact, now that I’ve written the column, I’m not even sure if it’s all that different.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas.
This article provided by NewsEdge.