Staying Afloat in a Sea of Lies:
Part 2: The Liar’s Handbook
(Adapted from the upcoming book The Tyranny of Certainty)
“Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste: Everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.”
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
“To succeed in politics, it is often necessary to rise above your principles.”
— author unknown
Lies are everywhere around us, but some have far more of an impact than others. Big-time lying—the kind undertaken by politicians and some people in the media—is an art and a science, one that can have disastrous, deadly consequences. Unfortunately, the public often buys into political lies without questioning them. That’s made it easy for politicians and media figures who want to manipulate the public to wreak havoc in our society, threatening our democracy and our future.
What can we do about this? It seems unlikely that anyone will be able to stop liars from lying any time soon, so the ultimate solution will hinge on changing people’s susceptibility to lies. Getting people to be immune to lies—or at least more immune than they are now—will hinge on getting them to understand how liars get away with lying, and how certainty makes all of this deception possible. We can get the ball rolling here, by doing a deep dive into the art and science of telling effective lies.
Political liars have a large toolbox of strategies and tricks they can use to win over unsuspecting individuals and then keep them in line. For example, during World War II, the U.S. government put together a psychological analysis of Adolph Hitler and his strategies for maintaining control over the German population. The report concluded that Hitler’s primary rules were:
- Never allow the public to “cool off” (in other words, keep them in an emotional state, which—as we discussed in Part 1 of this essay—is a way to keep the rational mind from functioning clearly);
- Never admit to a fault or being wrong;
- Never concede that there may be some good in your chosen enemy;
- Never leave room for any alternative beliefs besides the ones you espouse;
- Never accept blame for anything;
- Concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong;
- Keep your lies big, because people will believe a big lie sooner than a small one;
- Keep repeating your lies, because if you repeat a lie frequently enough, sooner or later people will come to believe it.
(If you’re curious, you can read the entire report about Hitler at https://phdn.org/archives/www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/documents/osstitle.htm)
The point is that big-time political liars are not just “shooting in the dark.” There’s a real method to their madness.
Some people may wonder why we should bother looking at the details of the tricks and strategies used by political liars. Isn’t it enough to realize we’re “swimming in a sea of lies?”
Actually, no. Allow me to switch from a watery metaphor to a jungle metaphor: If you’re walking through a jungle, it’s good to be aware that there are creatures who may attack and kill you. But it’s even more useful to know exactly what those creatures look like and how to spot them. In fact, a recent study conducted by social scientists from Cambridge University and Google demonstrated that learning about the art and science of lying is one of the ways to take away its power. The folks who conducted this study showed people a simple, nonpartisan explanation of some of the basic ways people attempt to manipulate us. Doing so did have an effect, making people less easy to fool. (Psychological inoculation improves resilience against misinformation on social media, Roozenbeek et al, 2022) So this is not a waste of time.
That’s the reason for this article: If you have a good sense of the specific ways political liars are going to try to mislead you, you can minimize the likelihood that you’ll be fooled—and you’ll be more able to help those around you, who are also at risk.
The other important reason for looking carefully at the strategies and tricks liars use is that if you hope to resolve a problem—like an epidemic of lying—you have to understand the problem very well. Hopefully, this careful look at some of the most popular strategies used by liars will help to make a remedy possible.
Before we get into The Liar’s Handbook, let’s recap the key message from Part 1 of Staying Afloat in a Sea of Lies: Why People Fall for Political Lies. To summarize: If you want to manipulate people into believing a lie and holding that belief long-term, you need to do three things:
1. Generate EMOTION (usually fear and anger) in your target audience.
This is crucial, because studies have shown that emotion of any kind causes the human brain to suspend reason. Thus, if you can make your target audience upset, they’ll be far more likely to fall for your lie. The two most common ways to generate fear and anger are by convincing you that some one around you is a threat, and by convincing you that you’re being treated unfairly, leading to resentment.
2. Do everything possible to generate CERTAINTY in your audience that your lies are true.
This is important because the type of thinking we call certainty puts up a wall around an idea. Certainty causes people to reject evidence that a lie is false, causes them to accept bogus “evidence” that supports the lie, and causes them to ignore the consequences of actions based on their certainty. And, certainty can keep an idea protected indefinitely.
3. Get your followers to have CONTEMPT for those who don’t believe the lie.
This is important because it helps to ensure that your “true believers” won’t hang out with—or listen to—those who aren’t falling for the lie.
And now, Part 2 of Staying Afloat in a Sea of Lies: The Liar’s Handbook.
The 10 Key Strategies a Political Liar Relies On
As noted, political liars have a big bag of tricks to help them make a lie sound convincing, spread it around and make it stick. We can loosely divide the strategies into these 10 categories, based on my own observations and research:
- Make the lie sound legitimate.
- Create a “family” of believers.
- Make the lie difficult to refute.
- Create a distraction to keep people focused on something other than your lie.
- Attack anyone who isn’t buying the lie.
- Frame current issues and events in a misleading way.
- Predict a scary future and rewrite the past.
- Fall back on promoting “classic” political lies.
- If you’re caught lying, use defensive strategies to keep the lie going.
- Always imply, but never explicitly state, the two great falsehoods: The end justifies the means, and all lies are equally bad.
Let’s look at each one more closely.
Strategy #1. Make the lie sound legitimate.
If a lie sounds absurd, it’s much harder to convince people it’s the truth. These strategies help make a lie sound reasonable:
• Lie with statistics.
As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
In fact, using statistics to misrepresent the truth can be astonishingly effective. A whole (classic) book was written about this back in 1954: How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff. The premise is straightforward: The liar cites a statistic that’s technically true, but which, without the full context, is totally misleading. It’s a particularly choice way to mislead people, because you’re not stating something false; you’re just leading people to a false conclusion by cherry picking what you say and how you say it.
For example, you might point out that your political spokesperson in the media has higher ratings (i.e., a bigger audience) than any of the people espousing other viewpoints. The implication is that your message is the most popular message—which in turn implies that “everyone knows you’re right.”
The trick here is that different viewpoints may have different numbers of spokespeople. If your side has one popular spokesperson on TV, for example, and the opposing viewpoint has 20 people sharing the other viewpoint on 20 different channels, your spokesperson could easily have the most viewers—even if those viewers only represent a tiny fraction of the total viewing audience. The people who disagree with you have 20 options to choose from, so their viewership is divided up, while yours is not.
Sometimes lying with statistics is accomplished by using comparisons. For example: During the pandemic, a claim was spreading via the internet that a higher percentage of vaccinated people in the hospital were dying than unvaccinated people. This makes it sound like you’re more likely to die if you get vaccinated.
Again, understanding the context makes all the difference. Most of the people in the hospital in question were not vaccinated. Let’s say that 100 unvaccinated people ended up sick in the hospital with a disease, along with 10 vaccinated people. Obviously, far more unvaccinated people got sick. But if four of the 10 vaccinated people die from the disease, while 20 of the unvaccinated people die, you can truthfully say that 40% of the vaccinated people died, but only 20% of the unvaccinated people died.
This serves to provide ammunition for those who claim the vaccine is deadlier than the disease—even though 10 times as many unvaccinated people ended up in the hospital, and five times as many unvaccinated people died.
If you found that hard to follow, well, that’s why lying with statistics is so effective. Seeing through the ruse can be challenging! It’s all about making a numerical comparison where you’re cherry picking what you compare, instead of revealing the big picture.
The bottom line is that you should always be suspicious of numbers that are cited to support an argument. They may be technically correct, but chosen to give you a false impression that you wouldn’t get if you saw the bigger picture. If you don’t have time to research the real numbers further (most of us don’t) then just make a mental note not to assume the numbers you’re being presented with tell the whole story.
• Always say: “Everybody knows that…” before you repeat the lie.
Talking heads in the media who are sharing a lie constantly say this, to reinforce the notion that the lie is actually a truth everyone has always known—or should know. (Saying this also makes those who don’t believe the lie sound like imbeciles for not sharing this “common knowledge.”)
• Repeat the lie constantly.
This works because one of the ways certainty develops is from repeated experience of something (and certainty is a liar’s best friend). If the sun rises every morning, we become certain it will continue to do so. If someone says over and over that a horrible massacre never actually happened, we’ll eventually accept that as truth (unless we have a personal connection that confirms it really did happen).
Another benefit, from the liar’s point of view: If people have already accepted you as a fundamentally honest person who is on their side, than the more someone hears you repeat a lie, the more they accept that you really believe it, which makes them more likely to accept it as well.
• Use the number of people you’ve fooled as proof the lie is true.
First, knock yourself out to get a large number of people to accept a lie. Then say, “If so many people believe this is true, there must be something to it.” This rationale can also be used to justify pouring more time and money into “investigating” whether the lie really is true. Then, the fact that you’re putting time and money into your investigation adds credence to the idea that the lie is true and the truth is being covered up … at least in your audience’s minds.
This bogus bit of logic also implies that if you question the lie, you’re impugning the judgment of all of those people who believe the lie. How dare you!
• Create a belief about one example, then generalize.
For example, if you convince people that one mainstream reporter or writer is corrupt or has done something bad, then you can say that this proves that all mainstream reporters are bad. If you can point to one immigrant who raped an American, you can then make it sound like this proves that all immigrants are rapists.
• Make it sound like there’s only one alternative to believing your lies, and it’s unacceptable.
This strategy, sometimes called “false dichotomy,” makes it sound like you have only two alternatives to choose from: either you go along with the program or something terrible will happen.
There are actually two aspects to this strategy that are bogus: First, the claim that you only have two options is always untrue. Second, the “alternative” to the lie that’s being presented is always chosen to be something outrageous. So, if you accept the claim that this really is your choice, well then, you’ll choose to go along with the lie.
• Claim that “the science isn’t settled.”
This is a classic piece of bogus logic used to attack something that’s actually backed by a lot of evidence, based around the false notion that something is unproven unless everyone agrees that it’s true. It sounds sort of reasonable—although it’s completely false—so it can be easy to get people to believe it. This bogus logic is often used to allow a dangerous product to continue being sold, so someone can keep raking in profits while the product hurts or kills people, by implying that the evidence that the product is dangerous is “just an opinion.” As some experts have described it, this is a way of jumping from the idea that we don’t totally understand something to the idea that we don’t understand anything at all.
Once you sell your target audience this idea—that something isn’t proven unless everyoneagrees that it’s true—all you have to do is produce one or two authentic-sounding sources who say “These conclusions are not justified by the evidence!” (If you can’t find people with legitimate credentials who believe the lie, you can always pay a couple of people to say this.) If your audience believes that something is only true if every “expert” agrees about it, then this strategy will shoot down almost any fact-based warning.
Of course, the premise is ridiculous. There will always be someone who disagrees with everyone else’s conclusions—especially if they’re being paid a lot of money by a company that’s working to preserve its profits.
Cigarette makers used this strategy to keep people from believing that smoking is dangerous. Oil companies use it to convince people that climate change isn’t being made worse by burning fossil fuels. And politicians use this type of bogus claim to keep people from noticing the overwhelming evidence that they’re being lied to.
• Get powerful, wealthy or successful people to espouse the lie.
This will make many people more likely to assume it’s true. For example, some people truly believe that rich people are smarter than they are, simply because they’re rich. (Just in case this needs to be stated: Most rich people didn’t get rich because they’re smarter than everyone else.)
In any case, hearing an opinion from someone we think is smarter than us—whether they really are smarter or not—gives their opinion more credence.
• Claim that believing a lie that contradicts mainstream belief is part of being “free.”
his plays into the idea that going along with what most people believe—or what the government says—is a way of giving up your intellectual sovereignty. The implication is that anything the government says, or most people believe, is inherently just people “doing what they’re told.” So, if you refuse to believe something that science or the evidence says is true, you’re “being your own person.” You’re refusing to “follow the herd.” This is especially effective in a country like America, where most people prize their individualism and personal liberty. Unfortunately, this can be turned into a very self-destructive idea, used to justify ignorance. Contradicting what the evidence says is true has nothing to do with “being an individual.”
(Not surprisingly, there are a long list of additional logical fallacies that liars can use to mislead us. You can download a terrific poster that outlines 24 of them at www.yourfallacy.is.)
Strategy #2. Create a “family” of believers.
The feeling of belonging is important to almost every human being, so creating a “family” of people who share certainty about a lie motivates people to join the group and then motivates them to maintain their certainty in order to remain part of the group. The more popular you make your lie, and the more people are swept up into believing it, the more this factor—being part of a group of people who agree about the lie—becomes a part of the game. It’s one way of creating a reward for buying into the lie.
These strategies help to create this “family” of believers:
• Create certainty among your target audience that they’re too smart to be fooled!
That sets them up to not be on guard. It also gives them another rationale for having contempt for those who disagree. (Those idiots will believe anything!) And of course, it implies that you can’t be the one lying, because your followers would see through it right away!
In reality, a good rule of thumb is: If you believe you can’t be fooled and manipulated by a lie, you’ll be the easiest one to fool and manipulate.
Peoples’ willingness to believe this ties into a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that people who are less competent to manage a task (such as detecting a lie) tend to overestimate their ability to manage that task. Liars take advantage of this.
• Exaggerate the problems your audience faces and then appeal to their feelings of grievance.
“We’re being treated the way the Nazis treated the Jews!” “Our rights are being taken away!” “We’re the real victims here, not those other guys!” Spreading these feelings and beliefs can make it appear that the people who are actually mistreating others are the victims—and the people who are actually being mistreated are the bad guys. This is a standard Nazi tactic: Hitler often claimed that his horrific actions were justified because “his people” were under attack.
As writer Eric Hoffer noted in his 1959 book The True Believer, people throw their weight behind a cause when they believe they’re in a bad situation (as long as the situation isn’t perceived to be hopeless, and as long as they think that joining the cause might remedy their problems). It turns out that this not only works for people who really are in a bad situation; it also works if you can convince people that they’re in a bad situation. In other words, all you have to do is convince them that they’re victims, being treated unjustly in some way, and that their grievances can be addressed if they support you and your political plans. Then, they’ll throw their weight behind your cause—even if the “grievances” are a matter of perception, not reality.
• Reinforce the idea that your “greatness” is reflected in your believer’s “greatness.”
“The idea that the liar is a powerful figure gives the believer a sense that he or she is also great and powerful because they’re on the same team. This is useful not only because it makes the believer feel superior, but because it allows the liar to frame any attack on the liar as an attack on everyone in the “family.”
• Give people a way to take action based on the lie.
This helps minimize feelings of helplessness in the face of whatever you’ve told your true believers is the threat. Let’s pass laws to prevent what we don’t like from happening! Let’s use our resources to elect people who believe the same things we believe! Let’s get rid of books that contradict what we “know” is true! Let’s attack people who we believe are guilty of being a threat to us! (This is where the fallacy that “the end justifies the means” comes in handy. See Strategy #10.)
Strategy #3. Make the lie hard to refute.
This is important to ensuring that any attempt to question the lie fails.
• Make your lie really big and outrageous.
This works because a big lie is harder for people to refute. The cost of refusing to accept it becomes so big that most people will just go along with it. It also makes it a better rallying point for a movement than a small lie would be.
• Make it as difficult as possible for people to reason their way out of their certainty.
Make it complicated. The reason lying with statistics is so useful (see Strategy #1) is that it’s complicated. Most people can’t figure out the trick you’re pulling, even if they’re suspicious that they’re being lied to.
• Make the lie difficult or impossible to check.
Conjuring up an unseen enemy, like a secret cabal of powerful enemies, or a “deep state,” works well as a lie because it’s impossible to check. Likewise, claiming that a billionaire is secretly funding bad things is a great type of lie, because no one can check to see if it’s true.
• Raise the price of disagreeing.
Once someone has fallen for the lie and become part of the “family” of believers, you can use the contempt factor to make it scary to walk away. First, make sure those who disagree are seen as monsters. Demonize anyone who doesn’t go along with the lie. Attack their credibility and humanity. This helps to ensure that if someone in the group says, “Well, actually, the other side may have a point,” the group will cast them out and start treating them with contempt.
In some cases, this may include threats of violence. If a political group is told that those who don’t agree with them are a threat to their lives, the idea of violence may seem perfectly justifiable. (Plus, people who have certainty are quick to believe that any action is justifiable if it’s done in service of their certainty.) That means you might be physically attacked if you disagree with your group—a scary thought indeed.
This setup helps keep your believers inside the group and isolated; it makes it almost unthinkable that someone would want to be a member of that non-believer group. No one wants to be treated with contempt—or threatened—by the people they’ve come to see as their friends.
Strategy #4. Create a distraction to keep people focused on something other than your lie.
Every good magician—and every good thief!—understands this strategy. Look at the shiny coin in my right hand, while my left hand picks your pocket!
Some religious cults use a very simple version of this: They keep the members of the cult constantly occupied, so they have little opportunity to sit around and think about what they’re being told. By the time they go to bed at night they’re exhausted. They are, in a word, completely distracted at all times.
In the case of a political liar, the need for a distraction is another great reason to convince you that someone out there is a threat to you. When we perceive someone or something to be a threat, we devote our full attention to the threat. (Plus, we often see the person who warned us as an ally who wishes us well.)
Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, author of the 2017 book On Tyranny, calls the strategy of creating an “enemy” sadopopulism. He describes this strategy as involving four steps: 1) Select an enemy. 2) Enact political policies that hurt your constituents but bring you more power and wealth. 3) Blame the resulting pain on the “enemy.” 4) Present yourself as the hero who can protect your constituents from the enemy. This focuses attention away from your lies and the harm you’re doing to your constituents, makes the “enemy” look bad, and makes you look like a hero.
Hitler certainly understood this strategy. When someone once asked whether he thought the Jews should be completely obliterated, he said no, because then he’d have to come up with another enemy for his followers to focus on!
Some industries have even used this distraction strategy to keep people from looking closely at the dangers of their products. A classic example of this is the sugar industry. Studies have made it clear that consuming sugar is responsible for all kinds of health problems, including obesity, fatty liver, diabetes and vascular issues. But by convincing everyone that fat is the dangerous thing to eat, they’ve gotten people to eat ever more sugar, while they rake in the profits. (This has gone on for decades. Only recently have people begun to realize that a big reason for America’s health problems is our enormous sugar consumption, not our fat consumption.)
If you’re a politician, keeping people focused on something other than the questionable things you’re saying minimizes the chance they’ll question your lie. And by making the object you’re telling them to focus on a seeming threat, you also help keep your followers in an emotional state. As noted earlier, being in an emotional state keeps rationality turned off.
Strategy #5. Attack anyone who isn’t buying the lie.
This is an important part of creating and maintaining contempt for those who aren’t buying the lie. Overall, this is the strategy sometimes referred to as an ad hominem attack: If you can’t refute the message, attack the messenger.
Classic ways to attack the messenger include:
• Use “pigeonholing”: First, demonize a category. Then, lump anyone or anything you want people to turn against into that category.
This gets people to dismiss a person or an idea without actually evaluating it.
You begin by creating certainty in your audience’s minds that a category is very bad. Politicians do this all the time. Recent examples include socialism, being “woke,” critical race theory, “Obamacare,” and a very long list of other terms. Often, the audience has no idea what the term actually means (for example, socialism or critical race theory); they just hear it repeatedly referred to as something monstrous.
Once you have a bank of these already-demonized categories, when someone comes along that threatens to disrupt your lies, you portray them as being a member of, or supporter of, one of those categories. “That person is a socialist!” “That person is a liberal who wants to defund the police!” “That person is woke!” That automatically pigeonholes that person as a bad person that no one should listen to. It effectively prevents people from evaluating what the person in question is actually saying.
• Whatever bad thing it is you’re doing—and lying about doing—accuse the other person (or party) of doing it.
Hitler, in Mein Kampf, said that the Jews were possessed of “bestial cruelty and an inconceivable gift for lying.” Which, of course, was a perfect description of himself and the Nazi party, and what they were doing to the Jews and others in Europe.
Ways we see this strategy in use today include:
— If you’re stealing elections—or changing laws to make it easier to steal future elections—accuse the other party of stealing elections.
— If you’re trying to change schools and schoolbooks to prevent children from encountering truths that you don’t like (for example, historical facts that might conflict with what you want your children to believe), justify it by claiming you’re preventing the other side from forcing their opinions on your children.
— If you’re doing something that Hitler did, such as invading a neighboring country without provocation, claim that you’re “de-Nazifying” the other country.
— And of course, if you’re telling lies, accuse the other person of being the liar.
• Portray a difference of opinion as “The other person is lying.”
This implies that the other person is a liar, rather than just someone who disagrees with you.
• Attack others using popular negative stereotypes of a category they fall into.
This is a form of the pigeonholing strategy that doesn’t require demonizing a word or category, because it takes advantage of negative stereotypes that many people already accept. For example, if you don’t like Biden, attack him as being forgetful and incompetent—something people frequently associate with being old. (Some videos of Biden have been carefully edited to make it appear that he’s lost or confused, for example.) If you’re verbally attacking a woman, say that she’s too emotional, another stereotype. If someone is a Muslim, claim that he or she is anti-American.
These statements, when they’re not true, will be readily accepted by many people anyway, simply because they fit into many people’s ideas about the world. The fact that they represent stereotypes makes them easy to accept without looking to see if the “evidence” supporting such a claim is bogus.
Strategy #6. Frame current issues and events in a misleading way.
Whatever is happening, it’s important for the liar to frame it in such a way that the “true believers” interpret it the way the liar wants.
• Claim that disputing the lie is a sign of disrespect and contempt for all the people that believe it.
Claiming this misrepresents any attempt to show that a lie is being told as an attack on the true believers. It’s yet another lie that will generate anger and emotion, helping to keep your true believers in line.
• Claim that two completely different things are the same, to make something bad seem justifiable, and something reasonable seem bad.
For example, you can claim that peaceful protests about mistreatment of minorities are the same as the January 6th Capitol insurrection. This can be used to both make a horrifying event with serious consequences sound like it’s being overblown, while making the legitimate thing you’re comparing it to sound bad.
• Don’t just misinterpret events to support your lie, make up stuff wholesale.
People who have certainty about something don’t check the facts. Thus, you can create elaborate lies that people with certainty will accept without giving it any thought. Foreign governments hoping to divide the American people often use this tactic. A classic example is the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a sex-slave ring in the basement of a well-known Washington, DC, pizza shop. (The pizza shop in question doesn’t even have a basement.) Or claiming that “secret government organizations” are coming to get you.
• Name things (such as laws or political actions) the opposite of what they are.
If you’re passing laws to keep people from voting, call it the “Voting Rights Protection Act.” If you’re passing a law that will give tax relief to the rich, call it the “Fair Taxation Bill.” If you’re passing a law that will hurt children you don’t approve of, call it the “Child Protection Act.” And so forth. (These are hypothetical examples.)
I’m not saying that every name for a law is hypocritical—but many are. Base your opinion about a bill before Congress on its content, not its name.
• Attack things that aren’t actually happening but will evoke an emotional response.
For example, attack schools for teaching critical race theory—even though they don’t teach it. (Only a few colleges ever actually teach this subject.) Or pass laws against teaching kids about sex or gender in the first few grades. That doesn’t really happen, but passing such laws can make you sound heroic to your audience.
While the fact that these laws are attacking things that aren’t even really happening might make them sound harmless, many of them are worded so vaguely that they have a much wider and more destructive effect than their names imply. (Of course, the politicians behind such laws will claim they didn’t actually mean for the law to have all those other effects.)
• When others start using your own dirty tricks against you, make it appear that it’s all their doing, not yours—even though you did it first.
It’s been said that any weapon you create will eventually be used against you. The trick here is to make it seem like the people using your own dirty tricks to attack you are the bad guys. How dare they use such dirty tricks!
Strategy #7. Predict a scary future and rewrite the past.
• Present scary hypothetical futures that might happen if people don’t accept your lie—or in politics, things that will happen if people vote for your opponent.
No one can disprove a hypothetical, so this is a great scare tactic. “If you vote for my opponent, crime will skyrocket! Your rights will be taken away! Your job will be sent oversees! Your guns will be taken away! Your taxes will be raised!” This tactic relies on the fact that something scary can set off our emotions and thus reduce our capacity to evaluate what the liar is actually saying.
• If past negative events conflict with the lie you’re telling, claim they never actually happened.
Again, a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as the truth. So, for example, if the Holocaust interferes with your contention that Nazis and white supremacists are actually good guys, just claim it never happened. If a massacre of school children involved the use of an easily obtained battlefield-caliber weapon, but you want such weapons to remain easily obtainable, deny that the massacre happened. Claim it’s all a conspiracy that relatives of the dead and the media are in on.
The latest version of this phenomenon has been made possible by social media: the instant rewrite. This involves denying that something is what it appears to be the moment it happens. So if you tell your peers to go out and shoot people who disagree with you, and someone actually does it, you can immediately insist it was a “false flag” operation—claiming that it was actually done by the people you disagree with to make you look bad. The shameless lack of logic here doesn’t matter because when people have certainty that they’re right—and certainty that they’re the good guys—they’ll accept anything that supports the certainty, no matter how obviously false it may be.
One interesting point is that predicting a scary future can be done by anyone, but rewriting history is something that mainstream politicians generally avoid. Not enough people are willing to buy into it—at least in America. For that reason, claiming that the Holocaust, or a mass shooting, never actually happened is usually left to those who are not running for political office. Their smaller, less-mainstream audience generally shares their certainty and is happy to go along for the ride.
Strategy #8. Fall back on promoting “classic” political lies.
Repeating familiar lies serves to reassure your true believers that the world is still the way they’ve come to see it, and that you’re still a spokesperson for “the team.” There are many classic lies to choose from. Here are just a few:
• Privatization is good.
In the past, it was widely understood that there are a group of things referred to as “the commons:” Resources that everyone benefits from and everyone supports (through taxes, for example). These include roads, the water supply, public schools, and so forth. It turns out that it’s easy to convince people that they’ll benefit from selling these things to a private owner, making some money on the sale. Then we don’t have to pay for them or care for them.
This is called privatization.
In reality, bad things follow when you privatize common resources. When someone buys your roads, they can stop keeping the roads in good condition and start charging you tolls. If someone privatizes the water supply, you’ll find yourself paying for the water you need to stay alive. When people start privatizing schools, buyers with a personal political or religious agenda get to impose their brand of certainty on your children. (Even if you happen to agree with the political agenda of the person or group taking control away from the rest of us, this trend rapidly begins to undermine democracy.)
The folks who want us to believe privatization is a good thing are the people who will benefit from it—at our expense. Those people are thrilled when politicians reinforce the idea that privatization is a good thing.
• Government regulations are bad.
Regulations are small laws that apply to very specific situations. Those who argue that we need fewer government regulations—purportedly because they’re undercutting profits or eliminating jobs—make it sound like regulations are dreamed up by power-hungry bureaucrats who just want to cause trouble. Actually, regulations set standards that keep workers from being exploited, our water from being polluted, and our lands from being destroyed. Regulations are the way we keep those who want to enrich themselves from damaging our world and lives and futures to increase their wealth. The reason government regulations are usually the target of these crusades is that regulations set by the government are the ones affecting big business—and that’s because no other entity is big enough to tell a multinational corporation that it’s not allowed to abuse us.There’s usually a lot of money at stake (which is why a corporation is willing to harm people with its actions in the first place—doing so results in it making more money).
Yes, government regulations sometimes lead to lower profits for someone out there. But regulations are not usually a bad thing. When a politician says they are a bad thing, that person is almost certainly getting paid by someone who stands to make a lot of money if those pesky regulations are removed. Regardless of who gets hurt or killed.
• Poor people are lazy and/or stupid. Rich people deserve to be rich because they’re smart, and they earned that money!
In fact, most people who are very wealthy did not become wealthy by putting in “a lifetime of hard work.” Most wealth these days is the result of inheritance, speculation in the stock market or real estate, or in some cases, outright scams.
Likewise, studies have shown that once a person is poor—whatever the cause—it’s very difficult for them to get out of poverty. When you don’t have enough to pay the rent, your mind becomes preoccupied with staying afloat. There’s no time or energy to search for a good job, no child care to help manage your family if you do get a decent job, and no “safety net” to fall back on if things don’t go well. It’s a trap that’s extremely hard to break out of. Claiming that poor people are lazy or stupid shows either a total lack of understanding of what people living in poverty have to deal with, or is a way of justifying not sharing resources.
• It’s important for wealthy people to have lots of money, because they use it to create jobs.
If you believe this, you’re not looking carefully at the world. Most wealthy people simply invest in things that will maintain or increase the value of their wealth. Creating jobs is not on that list.
• People who are different from you are a threat.
As explained in Part 1 of Staying Afloat in a Sea of Lies, getting people to believe this is a key part of keeping your audience in an emotional state, disabling their reasoning brain. So, political liars are happy to do everything they can to maintain xenophobia and racism.
Just in case it needs to be stated: Very few people in the world really are a threat to you, and those who seem just like you are every bit as likely to be a threat as anyone else.
• You’re being treated unfairly.
As explained in Part 1, this is a key part of keeping your audience in an emotional state, disabling their reasoning brain. You are a victim! Someone else caused your problems. But lucky for you, I’m here to save you! Become a true believer and you won’t be a victim anymore!
If you buy the story that you’re a victim, you’ll remain in an angry state much of the time, keeping your rational brain offline. And, you’ll give other people (the supposed “victimizers”) power over you that they don’t actually have. In addition, you won’t do things that would make your life better, because you’ve bought into the idea that someone is preventing you from doing those things.
Most important, you’ll play into the hands of the lying politician—at your own expense.
• You can’t trust anyone but me and my friends.
Keep those people who disagree with us far away from you! They might undercut your certainty about my lies!
• Economics is a “zero-sum” game.
This is the idea that the only way poor people can have more money and a better life is for everyone else to lose some money and life quality. This is utterly absurd logic that is not supported by anything real. The number of people living a middle-class existence today is staggering compared to even 100 years ago. Did that cause rich people to get poorer? Not exactly!!
• You have to accept everything I say. Anyone who questions any of my lies is an enemy.
This is a classic strategy for keeping people in line. You don’t get to question one part of what I say while accepting everything else. You have to accept it all. (That’s a particularly useful strategy, because most liars mix some truth in with their lies.) The moment you challenge any part of what I say, you will be treated as an enemy and we’ll do everything in our power to attack you.
• The past was wonderful, and we lost that because of all of these people who don’t agree with our good, old-fashioned morals and ideas.
This idea has been around for centuries. It’s actually two somewhat different ideas: first, that the past was wonderful; and second, that this changed because of the people you don’t agree with. It’s usually espoused by people who dislike change, because it supports the idea that change is bad.
Of course, the past wasn’t actually as good as some people would like to believe. Human beings love to idealize whatever has been lost, focusing on whatever good things they remember—or imagine. (It also helps if the past you remember had you in a position of power over others. Some people mourn the idea of people they see as “inferior” now demanding to be treated with respect.)
There’s also an element of remembered stability, recalling “simpler times” when current times are turbulent. There may be some truth to this, because society cycles through periods of stability and instability. But as the SEICR cycle demonstrates [see my articles on that subject on this website], unstable times happen because a system’s problems are starting to overwhelm it. You can’t go back; you have to make changes to fix the problems, resulting in a new, somewhat different system. However, people like what they’re familiar with, and with our imaginations idealizing the past, it’s easy to go along the idea that the past was wonderful (especially if you don’t like something that’s happening right now). And, this belief about the past is vague, making it very hard to argue with.
From the perspective of a political liar, idealizing the past is a great rallying tool. It helps to create dissatisfaction. It makes people more inclined to vote for the liar, while the dissatisfaction generates anger, which helps to keep reason suppressed.
Strategy #9. If you’re caught lying, use defensive strategies to keep the lie going.
Of course, all liars eventually get caught. In an ideal world, they’d respond by being ashamed or embarrassed. But not today! Instead, political liars use one or more of these strategies to keep the lie going:
• Double down.
Keep insisting that your lie is the truth. Remember that once people have certainty about something, they’ll be inclined to keep believing it. The one thing that might shake their faith would be you admitting that you lied. So no matter what, double down and keep insisting that your lie is the truth.
• Claim that the lie didn’t originate with you.
In this day and age of social media, it’s often possible to claim that something that was sent in a text or email with your name on it didn’t actually come from you, but from “someone on your team.”
• Claim that you don’t remember saying or doing that. Or that the evidence was faked. Or, in a pinch, that your intent was not to say what you said.
It’s very hard to get a legal remedy to something bad when any of these excuses are used. (Most liars know that.)
• Push even harder on the idea that the other guys are the liars, and you are the victim.
If overwhelming evidence says you did something bad (something you’ve been lying about), sue for defamation. True believers will take this as a sign that it can’t really be true that you lied.
• Portray the accusation as an attack on all of your true believers, not just you. You (and your followers) are the real victims!
How dare they keep attacking us! You true believers know you haven’t done anything wrong—just like me! So they (the people pointing out your lie) are the monsters who must be stopped!
Strategy #10. Always imply, but never explicitly state, the two great falsehoods: The end justifies the means; and all lies are equally bad.
These lies could be thought of as foundational; they help to keep the entire “house of lies” afloat. However, they generally are not discussed at face value, because that would risk people questioning them. From the liar’s perspective, you want people tosimply assumethese two things are true. Let’s look at them more closely.
Great Lie #1: The end justifies the means.
This lie has quietly been responsible for much of the death and destruction human beings have wrought throughout history. Believing that the end justifies the means gives you license to do anything, not matter how horrifying or destructive, so long as your goal appears to be noble.
This rationale is always used by fanatics to justify extreme choices of action, and it’s an important reason that certainty can be so deadly; certainty makes us think that we’re inarguably right. If we know that what we believe is right, then our goal, based on that belief, must also be right, and anything we do to move toward that goal is justifiable—no matter how much death and suffering our actions cause. Let’s kill lots of people to achieve peace! Let’s steal from others, because we’ve been treated unfairly and we’re just standing up for a more just world! Let’s tell lies that lead to worldwide disaster, because the world we’re going to create will be so much better than this one!
We’ve all heard the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The reason that’s true is that those “good intentions” can end up being used to justify horrible choices.
From the liar’s perspective, if you want your followers to do bad things that will benefit you, this is a key tenet to promote.
Just for the record, the way to make sure you never fall into this trap is to follow one basic rule: Never take any action that isn’t up to the standards of your goal. Don’t use violence to bring peace. Don’t steal to make the world fairer. And don’t tell destructive lies because you’re sure the lies will eventually make the world a better place.
Great Lie #2: All lies are equally bad.
The reason that getting people to believe this is so important to a liar is that it allows the liar to promote the idea that everybody lies as a way to justify or excuse his own lies. Of course, it’s true that everybody lies, because there are many types of lies and reasons for lying, ranging from trying to avoid causing someone pain to undermining the world order for personal gain. If people buy the idea that all lies are equally bad, then they throw up their hands and stop worrying about it. It becomes a case of, “Let the best liar win! And my guy is the best liar, so more power to him!”
Actually, not all lies are the same. Not even close. This may seem obvious once you give it some thought, but it’s really important to be conscious of it. I like to divide lies into five categories, much like the categories used to define the intensity of a hurricane. Just like the hurricane scale, the potential damage caused by the lie increases as the number increases. Here’s how I categorize lies:
The Deliberate Lie Severity Scale
Category 1: Well-intentioned lies. This category would include claiming you’re younger than you really are, or trying to avoid hurting the feelings of someone you’re breaking up with by saying that he or she isn’t the problem, you are. This level of lie could backfire—after all, any lie can backfire—but the consequences are usually limited. And sometimes, there are no consequences at all.
Category 2: Defensive lies. These are lies that someone tells to keep people from finding out that he or she did something wrong—something not catastrophic, but wrong enough to affect the reputation of the liar if the truth comes out. If the lie doesn’t try to falsely incriminate someone else (which would make it a Category 3 lie), the consequences are usually limited.
Category 3: Malicious lies. These are lies deliberately told with the intention of harming someone else, often by destroying their credibility and/or reputation, as a way to enhance your own status or undercut their ability to attack you.
Category 4: Damned lies. These are lies told with the intention of not only deceiving large numbers of people, but making them angry, fearful and hateful. These negative emotions are useful because they motivate people to action, and in a democracy that’s the name of the game.
The consequences of this kind of lie can be catastrophic, but the worst consequences can take a long time to show up. Simmering anger, fear and hate have to build up before they explode. When they do, the liar or liars who benefited from the negative emotions may end up wishing they hadn’t gone down this road. (By the time it dawns on them that they’ve created a monster, it’s probably too late to do much about it.)
Category 5: Catastrophic lies. These are lies deliberately told that directly cause suffering and death on a grand scale, either to maintain a company’s profits or to increase someone’s wealth and power. Lying to get a country to go to war (perhaps to get control of another country’s natural resources) falls in this category. So does lying about the safety of a product that actually causes suffering and death, in order to keep the profits rolling in.
One of the big differences between these categories is that lies that fall in the first two categories are mostly told to prevent something bad from happening (to the liar or the person being lied to). In contrast, the last three categories involve deliberate manipulation of people’s beliefs to cause harm in a way that benefits the liar. Not surprisingly, it’s usually the people who are telling category 3, 4 or 5 lies who would like us to believe that all lies are equally bad.
Getting people to assume that all lies are equally bad is an important tool for political liars partly because accusing the other person of lying is a classic tool liars use. However, accusing the other person of telling a huge, mean-spirited lie—one they can prove they never told—is a risky thing to do. On the other hand, if you can demonstrate that the other person ever told any lie, ever, you can use this claim—all lies are equally bad—to imply that the other person is just as bad as you. Or, as noted earlier, you can use it to support the idea that everybody lies, so lying is no big deal.
Ultimately, this strategy can lead to everyone losing trust in everything anyone says, destroying the idea of truth and accountability and making democracy difficult or impossible to maintain. People can become cynical and ever more dependent on their existing certainty, and an entire society can begin to fall apart.
This is why it’s so important to recognize that not all lies are the same. If both parties are telling malicious lies, well, then maybe you should throw up your hands and become cynical. But it’s entirely possible that the return accusation is about a much less destructive lie—what you might call a non-malicious lie. That fact will escape most people’s notice, leading them to believe that both parties are equally guilty of bad intent.
The Big Picture
Of course, not all political liars use all of the strategies described above. The type and extent of lies a politician tells (and which of the above strategies they use) depends on their reason for lying. Reasons politicians lie commonly include one or more of the following:
- Trying to get elected (to gain or maintain power and wealth);
- Trying to get a law passed that will hurt society but help one or more of their backers;
- Covering up the damage a product is doing in order to preserve a company’s profits. (For example: cigarettes aren’t really dangerous; these pain pills aren’t addictive; the thing making people sick isn’t sugar, it’s fat; burning fossil fuels hasn’t really been proven to cause climate change; and so on);
- Trying to create and lead a mass political movement designed to take over the government of a country (for example, the Nazis in 1930s Germany).
Which techniques and lying strategies liars use will depend to a large extent on the goals they have.
In any case, if you become familiar with the different manipulative tricks political liars are using, you’ll see them everywhere around you—but you’ll be a lot less likely to fall for them. And, you’ll be in a better position to be part of the solution when it finally unfolds in the coming years.
Coming soon: Part 3: The Lie-spreading Machine.
Copyright 2022 by Christopher Kent. All rights reserved.