Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Responding to Political Lies

One of the recurring subjects of this blog has been cognitive dissonance or the willingness of people to believe something even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But the issue is really broader than just this. If you read, watch, and listen to enough political reporting, you will find example after example of people (whether candidate, surrogate, or voter) repeating a talking point that has already been debunked as false. I’m not talking about issues themselves, like whether abortion should remain legal or whether the United States should bomb Iran. Rather, I’m talking about the facts cited as the basis for policy decisions. As I’ve said over and over and over, we can and should have debates about policies, implementation, goals, and whatnot. But, as I’ve also repeated, probably ad nauseum, we can’t have those debates if one side (or both sides) rests its view on false evidence or lies.

And therein lies the question: What do we do to stop the proliferation of the lie as a legitimate political tool?

I think that this is actually something very important that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, far too many of our fellow citizens have neither the time nor the inclination to really dig deep to discover if what they hear from a politician, read in the newspaper, or see on TV is accurate. When that voter goes into the voting booth having made his or her decision in whole or in part on the basis of a lie, then both our democracy and our country are the worse for it.

So let me offer several practical (I hope) suggestions for what we, as citizens, can do. And please remember, when I’m talking about lies, I’m talking about facts that are easily demonstrable, not simple alternate interpretations of a particular set of numbers, for example.

1) If you happen to attend a campaign rally or debate or political forum and you hear a candidate or the candidate’s surrogates say something that you know to be a lie, say something. Use your cellphone to try to find the evidence showing that the statement is a lie and then use the Q&A time as an opportunity to challenge the candidate or surrogate on the claim. Do so respectfully (i.e., don’t say “You lying sack of shit, that’s not right!”) but be sure to offer supporting evidence in your query. Thus, for example, you might say, “Gov. Romney: You said that President Obama has doubled the deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, when President Obama took office the deficit was $1.2 to $1.3 trillion. It rose to $1.4 trillion and has since returned to approximately $1.3 trillion. Your statement was thus incorrect. Will you kindly retract the statement?”

2) When you see a lie repeated in a newspaper or magazine as “fact”, write a letter to the editor. Don’t editorialize with your views on the issue (though that’s fine to do in a separate letter). Rather state with specificity what the paper got wrong and provide evidence to support your claim that the “fact” was wrong. And ask that the newspaper print a correction or a retraction.

3) When you receive a chain email restating a lie, compose a Reply (I’d recommend a Reply, not a Reply All, but if you think that the sender will just ignore you then a Reply All may be appropriate) with the correct facts. Again, I’d note that you are not trying to engage in a discussion of the underlying issue, but only trying to be sure that any discussion that people do have is based on accurate information. The more evidence that you can include in your response, the better. It may be easy for people to ignore a single comment or link, but it becomes much more difficult to ignore an overwhelming amount of evidence.

4) If a friend or acquaintance repeats one of the lies to you, I’d suggest by responding that you believe that the statement is incorrect, but that you’d like to check. Ask that the person who repeated the lie send you the information supporting the claim being asserted (“Hmm. That seems contrary to what I’ve read; I’d love to see the source for that piece of information”) and that you’ll send the information that you believe will show that the information was not accurate. If the lie is, in fact, a lie, then the person who spoke it will have a difficult time offering any sort of “proof” other than links to the original claim that they repeated. Your evidence that goes “behind” those statements should trump and debunk the lie.

I know that all of this sounds like a lot of work and a pain in the ass. But I think that the result should be worth the effort. We shouldn’t settle for a democracy and laws based on lies and deceit because we’re too lazy or afraid to call out a lie when we hear one.


Here are a sampling of some of the other posts I’ve written on the subject (some of which date back to the 2008 and 2010 elections):

When a Lie Becomes an Insult

And the Lies Keep Coming

Analysis of a Malicious Lie

Burton Repeats Debunked Energy Cost Figure

Dan Burton Parrots a Glenn Beck Lie to Smear President Obama

The Further Deterioration of Responsible Journalism

The Lie “Was Not Intended to be a Factual Statement”

Cognitive Dissonance in Action

Cognitive Dissonance in Action … Again

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