Staying Afloat in a Sea of Lies

How political lies are used to fool people — and what we can do about it.

By Christopher Kent
(Adapted from the forthcoming book: The Tyranny of Certainty)


“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we know that ain’t so.”
— Artemus Ward

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
— Voltaire

As most of us are aware, our civilization is currently facing a number of very serious crises. They include a resurgence of authoritarianism, a pandemic, the potential collapse of the food chain, a mass extinction of species, the displacement of large populations, and — most potentially catastrophic of all — climate change (which is exacerbating all of the other problems).

However, none of these is actually our biggest problem. That honor goes to our susceptibility to lies.

Why is that our biggest problem? Because none of our other problems can be solved until we solve that one. (This, by the way, is the definition of a metaproblem: It’s a problem that keeps us from solving a host of other problems.) The fact that human beings are susceptible to believing lies is the main reason we continue to be bedeviled by the other calamities.

Of course, people have been manipulated by liars and their lies — especially liars in positions of power — for millennia. The consequences have often been horrifying, including justifying horrors ranging from slavery to ethnic cleansing to wars that have killed and displaced millions. Right now, we’re seeing a huge resurgence of that kind of meanspirited, manipulative lying. Today, however, the consequences of manipulative lying could go far beyond those seen in the past (as if those consequences weren’t bad enough). Today, this kind of lying is putting our entire civilization at risk.

There’s another important thing that our susceptibility to lies is threatening: America’s democracy. A democracy depends on people voting based on understanding what’s happening around them. When large numbers of people are fooled into believing something that flies in the face of reality, they may vote against their own best interests — not to mention almost everyone else’s. They can end up electing people who intend to use their power to tear down our democracy and shift power into their own hands. In fact, it’s not hard to see that much of the current epidemic of lies happening around us is a deliberate attempt to make that happen.

Furthermore, you could argue that this tool for undermining democracy is being used to stifle the spread of democracy around the world, helping to keep authoritarians in power. None of this bodes well for America’s future — or the world’s.

The bottom line is that if we want to preserve our democracy and address a host of other huge problems — which is becoming a matter of our survival — we have to figure out why people are susceptible to believing lies, and fix that problem.

Of course, many people will insist that being susceptible to lies is a human failing that can’t be overcome. To that I say, nonsense. A big part of the reason this problem is seen as insoluble — and hasn’t been addressed in any effective way up to now — is that people tend to assume our susceptibility to being fooled is a matter of stupidity. In fact, studies are now showing that this isn’t the case. (We’ll get into the real source of human gullibility shortly.)

It’s worth noting that many of these manipulative lies are put forward by politicians. The lies don’t always originate with politicians; today, especially in America, very wealthy individuals and corporations often use their money to get politicians to spread lies (and pass laws) that protect or increase their wealth. In fact, it’s rare that this happens without a politician as the middleman, because politicians are in a position to change the laws and present the lie or lies to the public. So I think it’s fair to focus our discussion on politicians and political lies. Without the help of politicians, we might not have so many lies turning people against each other for someone’s personal gain.

Mastering Manipulation with Lies

Let’s look at the process of manipulating people with lies from the liar’s point of view. To become a successful liar and manipulator, a politician has to:

1) know how to get people to suspend logic and reason. In many circumstances, people won’t easily fall for a scam. So, you have to understand what conditions make human beings more gullible, and know how to create those conditions (if they don’t already exist).

 2) have a way to lock people into their belief in a set of lies, so they can’t be easily dissuaded from the path you’ve set them on.  It’s not enough just to fool people once and then disappear (like a one-shot scammer who dupes people into parting with their money or personal information). Politicians who are lying have to use a game plan that can keep a con going for years.

3) know how to create lies that will sound believable to the target audience. There’s whole list of deceptive ways to present people with bogus ideas and information.

4) have a lie-spreading “machine.” A lie has to reach a lot of people, and it has to do so repeatedly, to sink in. That requires a system for getting that exposure to happen.

In the four sections of this essay I’ll shed some light on some key questions that are part of the problem:
In Part 1: Why do people fall for political lies?
In Part 2: What specific strategies do political liars use?
In Part 3: How are these political lies being spread?
In Part 4: What concrete steps can we take to help make this problem a thing of the past?

Part 1: Why People Fall for Political Lies

 Political lies are everywhere these days, but it turns out there’s an art — and science — to making them work. Specifically, to get large numbers of people to believe lies, a politician must be adept at using four tools: fear, anger, contempt and certainty.

Most of us assume that those who are easily fooled are less smart — or perhaps more greedy or more elderly (meaning more vulnerable and forgetful) — than everyone else. That would imply that getting people to believe political lies requires finding ignorant, old or greedy people to target. Recent research, however, suggests that in most situations gullibility isn’t tied to having certain backgrounds or characteristics. Instead, there’s one simple condition that increases everyone’s gullibility: being in an emotional state. This is something every good con artist knows.

The American Association of Retired People (AARP) recently commissioned a large study intended to determine several things relating to people being fooled by scams. (You can read the report, A Moment’s Notice: Recognizing the Stressful Life Events, Emotions and Actions that Make Us Susceptible to Scams. (An AARP National Fraud Frontiers Report), ) Among the questions they sought to answer was the one we’re interested in: What makes someone susceptible to being fooled by a lie?

The researchers looked at all of the stereotypical ideas about this, such as susceptibility being tied to less education, more greed or advanced age, but for the most part these factors didn’t correlate with being successfully scammed. It wasn’t until the researchers interviewed expert scammers that the real answer became apparent: How susceptible you are to being scammed has to do with your emotional state during the scam.

The explanation for this has to do with the way the human mind works. When we’re feeling emotional, our “reasoning brain” takes a back seat to our “emotional brain.” Most lies—especially political lies—could be detected and rejected with careful thought, or by checking the facts, but when we become emotional our reason and judgment are clouded. That’s when we become susceptible to being fooled. (This is true even if we’re very smart and well-educated and don’t think of ourselves as being gullible.)

Interviews with successful con artists have made it clear that this works whether the emotion we’re feeling is a happy emotion or a sad emotion. We lose our rationality just as much if we believe we’ve won the lottery as if we think a dear friend has just died. That’s why scammers always do one of two things: They either look for people who are already in an emotional state, such as people who just lost a relative (whom they can find by looking at the obituaries); or, they hit their targets with an initial lie that will activate emotion, such as claiming they represent the IRS coming to collect back taxes, or that the target person just won the lottery.

A typical “con artist” scam is a one-shot; the scammer takes your money or personal information and then disappears. Political lies are a more widespread, long-term scam, akin to creating a cult whose mistaken ideas will persist for a long time. However, the same basic set-up strategies are used; they just have to be used in slightly different ways: To get people to suspend their judgment, you have to get the target person to be emotional.

An interesting side note: Surveys of scams and the people fooled by them, like the AARP study, don’t usually include political scams. Part of the reason may be that the push-back to doing so could be intense. But both kinds of scams — the one-shot con-artist scam and the long-term political scam — are destructive and cause suffering. And you can make a good argument that political lies have far worse consequences.

Generating Fear

To get people’s emotions aroused, politicians have relied on two time-honored devices that have worked well for millennia: generating fear and generating anger. If you can get people to feel these two strong emotions more or less constantly, you can keep your audience’s reasoning brains from functioning clearly almost all of the time.

The best way for a politician to keep the target audience in a state of fear is to convince them that other people are a threat to them (a threat that the politician naturally promises to help remedy). Convince your target audience that people who look different, believe differently, come from a different country or background, or simply disagree with you (about politics, for example), are a threat. You’re in danger because crime is rising! You’re going to lose your job to an illegal immigrant! You’re daughter is going to be raped by a minority person! A “sexual deviant” is going to pervert your children! There’s a very long list of reliable fear-generating bromides. Many people have no problem believing these statements, in part because human beings often have a strong belief that life is out of their control. Saying that we’re surrounded by dangerous people plays neatly into that picture of the world.

It’s also easy to provide what seems like supporting evidence for these claims; you just have to find one or two examples that appear to support your lie and then make a larger claim based on that. “Look! There’s an immigrant who raped an American!”

Interestingly, very few politicians try to get people into an emotional state using a positive “You’ve won the lottery!” message, although con artists know that this kind of set-up works just as well in terms of increasing people’s gullibility. Promising to lower taxes is nice, but not as likely to leave people in a long-term emotional state as convincing them that the people around them are a threat. Danger tied to the people around you is a threat that’s guaranteed to stick around. For that reason, it has the potential to keep your target audience in an emotional state almost indefinitely.

One interesting aspect of this was uncovered in a study that was published in the September 19, 2008 issue of the journal Science, titled Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits. The study monitored people’s visceral reactions to images (by measuring increased moisture on the skin — i.e., sweating) and then looked to correlate this with self-proclaimed political beliefs. Something extraordinary emerged: Some people reacted strongly to threatening images (for example, pictures of a large spider on someone’s face, a bloodied person or a maggot-filled wound), while others did not. Here’s what was really striking: The people who did react to the images self-identified as political conservatives. Those individuals had an emotional response to a symbol that represented a threatening situation.

You could argue that it’s perfectly sensible to have this reaction, but regardless of how you choose to interpret this finding, one thing is clear: Some — but not all — people have an emotional response to a symbol representing a threat. That makes those individuals a better target for a con artist or a politician trying to evoke emotion. This might explain why people who monitor messages from politicians, such as fund-raising emails, consistently find that conservatives are targeted with more lies — especially emotion-provoking lies — than liberals.

Generating Anger

The other time-honored way to keep people in an emotional state is to keep them angry. The best way to accomplish this is by fostering grievance — the belief that you’re being treated unfairly.

Obviously, lots of people really are treated unfairly in our world (and have been in the past — think slavery and genocide). If your target audience is one of those groups, you can play on that justifiable grievance to generate anger and minimize the chances that your audience will catch your lie.

However, your target audience might not be one of those groups. If that’s the case, then in order to generate the anger that will help prevent them from thinking carefully about your lies, you have to convince them that they’re being treated unfairly. “Your rights are being taken away! Your children are being taught terrible lies about our country! Being forced to look out for your neighbors is an infringement of your rights!”… and so on. Basically, you have to convince your target audience that their problems are someone else’s fault. You have to convince them that they’re being treated unfairly — that they have a grievance. If you can also make the “guilty party” one of the groups that you want them to fear, so much the better. Now you’ve got them attaching two strong emotions to that group.

So, the second thing lying politicians almost always do is tell people a story about themselves that portrays them as victims. We human beings love to avoid taking responsibility for the things in life that we don’t like, so most of us are quick to accept a narrative that supports the idea that someone else is to blame. And of course, once people buy the story, you can then present yourself as the person who will come to the rescue.

The Contempt Factor

As already noted, the easiest way for a politician to keep their target audience in an emotional state — thereby making them more likely to fall for a lie — is to make them fearful and angry, especially by generating “fear of the other.” However, the strategy of presenting another group as a threat has a serious potential drawback, especially if the group in question is all around you (for example, all the Americans who don’t agree with your political views). The problem is, you may interact with those people in your day-to-day life and realize that they aren’t so bad; they’re actually not a threat. That could undermine the whole scam that’s protecting your political lie.

That’s why if you want your target audience to continue to believe that those people are a threat to you, you have to stop your audience from interacting with those people. The more they interact with them, the more likely they are to realize they’ve been told a lie. That means that a key part of keeping a set of lies going is isolating your target audience from those you want them to fear.

In a classic religious cult, that might be accomplished by literally keeping the cult members physically isolated from the rest of the world. That won’t work in modern-day America, however, so liars have to rely on other methods of keeping their audience isolated. The fear you’ve used to make people susceptible to believing lies is a good start; but by itself, that won’t keep your target audience isolated for long.

That brings us to the next thing a politician has to instill to keep a lie going: contempt. Contempt means a complete lack of respect for someone or something — in this case, it refers to the idea that a member of some group is beneath consideration, worthless and deserving of scorn. It’s often reflected in a display of disgust and anger. Politicians can get their followers to have contempt by portraying the members of the other groups as stupid, vicious, dangerous and/or greedy.

The reason this works to a liar’s advantage is twofold: First, if a politician (or his messengers in the media) can get you to feel contempt for a group of people, that pretty much guarantees that you won’t interact with anyone in that group — or if you do, you’ll treat them with scorn, and treat anything they have to say as worthless. This ensures that you won’t encounter evidence that the politician’s lie about that group is bogus. Second, it helps keep you in an emotional state, maintaining your susceptibility to the politician’s lies.

This is why so many politicians knock themselves out spreading contempt among their followers: It keeps the target audience isolated from the group being blamed for their problems, and it helps to keep them in an emotional, more gullible state. The result is a pandemic of contempt.

Unfortunately, contempt is a particularly awful part of this, because it has the side effect of encouraging people to do harm to others. Without Hitler generating contempt for Jews and other immigrants, the Holocaust probably wouldn’t have happened. Countless similar examples of ethnic cleansing and brutal conquest throughout history wouldn’t have happened without widespread contempt being used to justify the bloodshed.

Ironically, the same thing is true on a personal relationship level. John and Julie Gottman, experts in the science of what makes relationships survive and thrive, have demonstrated that the strongest predictor of whether a relationship will survive long-term is whether one or both partners have contempt for the other. In short, contempt is a relationship killer.

That’s one reason the current pandemic of contempt seen in America is such a bad omen for the future. Disagreeing is one thing; but when the people with the megaphones are working to spread contempt, they’re working to break apart the country and terminate democracy. (“Why should those people that I have contempt for be allowed to vote??”) When a person who disagrees with someone else has contempt for the other person, working together is off the table.

Lies and Certainty: Perfect Together

Contempt is an effective tool for keeping your target audience isolated from those you portray as a threat. But there’s another problem with maintaining belief in a lie: rational thinking. To keep a lie safe from rational analysis, you have to get people to make your lie “set in stone” in their minds. If you can get people to lock your lie behind a mental wall that doesn’t allow it to be challenged — no matter what evidence your target audience is presented with — then your lie will withstand almost any attempts to discredit it.

That’s where certainty comes in.

Certainty is a liar’s best friend. In previous centuries, a liar could sometimes fool people simply because they were ignorant. The people being lied to didn’t have any way to check and see if they were being told the truth. Today, ignorance isn’t something you can rely on if you want to deceive people. Facts are too easy to check, thanks to most people being literate, widespread communication and the internet. So today, liars mostly rely on a different strategy: promoting certainty.

Certainty — being 100% sure that something is true — is one of the great curses of mankind. Everybody likes certainty, because it makes life seem easy; you don’t have to think any further about that subject. But it can have catastrophic side effects: It stops us from learning; it removes our flexibility; it makes us judgmental; it can lead to poor choices; it undercuts our ability to influence others (because people don’t trust the opinion of someone who clearly has certainty); it interferes with our ability to solve problems; it encourages fear and anger; it makes it easy to justify actions that will have bad consequences, and then ignore the consequences when they occur; and perhaps most damning of all — and most important to someone who wants to manipulate you with a lie — it makes you easy to fool.

Certainty is an invaluable tool for a liar trying to create a long-term con, because once people have certainty that something is absolutely true they’ll dismiss any contradictory evidence that’s presented to them. If someone has certainty that the world is flat, for example, you can show that person evidence that the world is round until you’re blue in the face; he’ll simply dismiss all of your evidence (and probably lower his opinion of you for disagreeing with his certainty).

Even worse — unless you’re a liar — certainty causes people to accept bogus evidence that appears to support their certainty, without looking at it carefully. That means that once someone gets you to have absolute certainty that something is true, he can reinforce that certainty by presenting you with made-up or distorted evidence, which you’ll accept uncritically. And the more your certainty is reinforced by bogus evidence, the more immune you become to actual evidence that contradicts your certainty. Certainty effectively builds a brick wall around your belief — a wall that’s that’s self-reinforcing, making your belief nearly impossible to change.

It’s not hard to see how having certainty about something can alter your behavior. If you’re certain that one politician is fighting for something important and the other politician is a mean-spirited liar, you’re going to vote for the first person. If you’re certain that a product that’s actually causing death and destruction is harmless and creates jobs — or maybe even is good for you — then you’ll never vote for someone who says that product needs to be taken off the market. Getting people to have certainty about lies can lead to unbelievable amounts of money and power flowing into the pockets of the people telling the lies.

It can also lead to catastrophic suffering and death.

Certainty: A Review

Let’s take a minute to review how certainty works. Certainty is a way of thinking about something that sets it aside in our mind as inarguable fact. It’s important to remember that having certainty is a world away from just being “pretty sure” about something. Until we reach absolute certainty, the negative side effects mentioned earlier (as well as a long list of others) don’t kick in. It’s when we step over that fine line between, “I’m pretty sure this is true,” to “I KNOW this is a fact!” that the side effects of certainty occur.

There are several different types of certainty:

—  Certainty learned from others. Sometimes certainty is passed down from parents, friends or authority figures in your school, your community or your religion.

—  Experience-based certainty: Sometimes certainty is the result of first-hand experience. This can be deceptive, however, because our experience is our subjective interpretation of what happened to us. For example, someone could interpret an accidental negative event as a deliberate offense, contributing to that person’s certainty that a person (or a group, or the world) has it in for him.

This is also where the power of repetition comes in. When our experience includes repeated indications that something is true, our brains eventually move it into the certaintycategory. That’s why the number one strategy liars use is repetition.

— Evidence-based certainty. This is certainty that’s supported by a pile of agreed-upon facts. It’s different from experience-based certainty, which is more personal.

Unfortunately, this type of certainty is unreliable as well, because the “evidence” may be biased. A good scientist knows this: Even in the case of the best, most unbiased scientific studies, an experienced scientist will acknowledge that new evidence may come along and show that the previous evidence-based conclusions were inaccurate — or flat-out wrong. And of course, “evidence” can be subject to interpretation; once people have certainty about something, they may accept flat-out lies as solid “factual evidence” that it’s true.

—  “Certainty of convenience.” This is my term for certainty that we choose to put in place because it serves our personal interests. Certainty offers protection from having to see what’s really happening; so, people sometimes allow themselves to declare they’re absolutely certain about something, simply as a way to avoid having to change their behavior, or to avoid a loss of status or money.

It’s unfortunate that the human brain doesn’t have a problem doing this, because it’s part of the reason people continue to do things that they know are harmful. If the way you make your living happens to be destroying the air we breathe or the water we drink, having certainty that everything’s fine (or isn’t as big a problem as others are claiming) will allow you to keep your job … while you continue to poison the air or water. Another example is a rich person deciding that each person’s wealth — or poverty — is deserved. By putting this belief into the “I KNOW this is true!” category, a whole lot of angst and guilt about others suffering because they’re less well-off than you can be bypassed.

In short, certainty of convenience is what keeps a lot of liars lying. It short-circuits our conscience (having a conscience can be so inconvenient) and let’s us avoid thinking about consequences, in order to maintain behavior we’re engaging in that’s causing harm to others, while benefitting us.

Creating True Believers

To summarize, this is how people are manipulated into holding a long-term belief in a lie:

First, a politician puts out a message designed to generate two things: fear and anger. He or she will usually generate fear by convincing you that someone around you — an immigrant, a person who doesn’t look like you, a person of a different religion, or a person who doesn’t share your political beliefs — is a threat. He or she will also usually generate anger by stoking grievance — convincing you that you’re being treated unfairly.

Once you’re alarmed by these messages, the politician mixes these lies with assurances that the politician will protect you from the threats and correct the injustices, and furthermore, that the other things the politician is saying are true. As the scam studies have shown, in your alarmed state, you’re less likely to use reason to cautiously evaluate what you’re being told.

The politician will then do everything possible to generate contempt for those the politician is portraying as a threat—and that “dangerous” group includes the people who aren’t falling for the lie. Finally, the politician will do everything in his power to get you to have certainty about the lies, so that they become set in stone in your mind. Once that’s accomplished, it becomes nearly impossible to dislodge your belief that the lies are true.

Coming later this year: Part 2. The Liar’s Handbook: A compendium of strategies for telling effective lies —  and what to do if you get caught.

Copyright 2022 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.