In the days before the Internet, lying was strictly the domain of politicians and playboys. Our nation’s media was dominated by mainstream sources that held themselves to high standards while imparting real, actual news. Walter Cronkite. Edward R. Murrow. Tom Brokaw. These were names that demanded respect and the truth mattered because the people wanted the news.
Our media looks nothing like that today. In the immortal words of Randi Rhodes, “The news has been cancelled.” I didn’t know what that meant the first couple of years I heard her say it on the radio, but I know now. As our media expanded in and to sources such as talk radio, magazines, cable television, and the Web, the massive increase of competition meant competing for eyeballs with content rather than mere facts. An NBC report on a local nail salon simply couldn’t compete against video of a trapped Panda Bear. While we spend a fair amount of time each day keeping up to date on current events, we spend an alarming amount of time biasing towards information that pleases us. As this bias increases, we begin digesting absolute bullshit.
Let’s take politics as an example. Conservatives have certain preferences when it comes to consuming information. Talk radio is very popular with them, and conservative hosts like Rush Limbaugh have historically dominated in the ratings over their liberal counterparts because, well, liberals simply don’t like talk radio much. (Contrast this with documentaries where liberal subjects dominate conservative efforts.) Another favorite of theirs is email forwarding.
You know what I’m talking about, right? Your Uncle Stan has surely sent you an email recently about how Barack Obama refuses to hold his hand to his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. There’s so much of this stuff, Snopes.com make a fortune off verifying these gems. But, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need Snopes to know when you’re being lied to.
Here’s a few simple tip-offs you need to know when determining if someone is trying to pull one over on you. Let’s take a look.
Bullshit Tip-Off #1: Suspicious Wording
On August 29th, 1972, President Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal when he took to the airwaves and told the American people this:
I can say categorically that…no one in the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.
There’s so many things we could analyze in this one statement that, undoubtedly, this single sentence probably came about after hours of careful editing. However, our inner lie detector should sound alarms upon hearing the words, “presently employed.” Why on earth would Nixon include this? Is he protecting himself in case a former employee was involved that he didn’t know about? Maybe, but surely the American people would forgive him if it was obvious he was unaware.
No, the reason why he included these words is because the few folks who attempted to bug the Democratic offices did not, in fact, work in his administration. They were simply consultants. Nixon said these words to make his sentence technically true. It wouldn’t matter, tho, as eventually he was forced to resign.
When listening to accusers and the accused speak, keep your ear out for suspicious expressions that call into question the legitimacy of the statement. Any sentence starting with “I don’t recall…” is a common way to say something true that isn’t true because, hey, I simply didn’t remember at the time!
In the run up to the 2014 election for Colorado Governor, voters had the pleasure of having this ad plastered all over TV:
If you come away with the impression that Governor John Hickenlooper was considering setting Nathan Dunlap, a murderer who killed 4 people at a Chuck E. Cheese in 1994, free then I can’t blame you. While just a simple one-sentence audio clip is at the heart of this ad, additional layers are added on thick in the form of unrelated news segments, scary audio waves, shaky cameras, and eerie music.
Such a nonsensical action should tip you off otherwise. Ask yourself…why would the sitting Governor set a murderer lose on the state? Are they best friends? Probably not. Does he think he didn’t do it? Dunlap bragged to his friends he was going to “get even” so that’s out. Doesn’t Hickenlooper have friends and family in Colorado he’d be worried about? Of course! So, why would he set him free?
The answer is simple: HE WAS NEVER GOING TO SET HIM FREE. The crux of this ad is the word clemency and the bet that most voters don’t know what the word means: to lessen a punishment, not to absolve one of it. The ad does its best to frame the word clemency as releasing from jail. In other words, they want you to believe that John Hickenlooper is so evil that he’ll set a murderer lose on Colorado if voters don’t vote for him.
So what did Hickenlooper mean by clemency? He means for Dunlap to spend life in prison instead of getting the death penalty. Hickenlooper is simply against the death penalty, but what’s a boring old argument over capital punishment when you can make it about releasing a murderer upon the innocent women and children of our beautiful, square state?
While so many were hoodwinked by this, simply questioning the absurdity of the act itself should’ve led these people to realize it made no sense for anyone to be “pro-murderer,” let alone the sitting Governor.
Bullshit Tip-Off #3: Attacking the Messenger
When someone speaks out on an issue that you oppose, common sense says that you create a counter-argument. Sometimes, though, you know your argument doesn’t hold water. Take the matter of Global Warming. Concerns about the climate have steadily risen for a long time, but in 2006 Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth clarified the science behind arctic melting in such a way that the complex science was now accessible by everyone. While few deny the facts, there’s a major political force trying to hide the dangers of climate change to avoid new regulations that would force businesses to cut into their profit in order to stem the problem.
With millions of Americans now empowered to understand how serious Global Warming is, there was no way to convince them otherwise. Now, put on your Political Strategist hat: how do you encourage people to stop believing otherwise convincing information?
Kill the messenger.
The argument Al Gore laid out was simple and clear. There was nothing the other side could do to convince Americans otherwise. So, they attacked Al Gore. They called him a Democrat. (A surefire way to get Republicans to disagree with someone). They asserted Al Gore made money from his movie. (So?) They called him fat. (He had let himself go a bit, sure.) They called his electric bill into question. (Is he not supposed to turn on the lights?) They insisted that he claimed to have “invented the Internet.” (Misquote.) In all, by attacking Gore they hoped people would stop believing what he was saying.
Overall, it didn’t work, but you’ll find plenty of people who will still respond to your pro-environmental positions with, “You’re gonna believe Al Gore? Did you see his electric bill?” You see the same argument against Michael Moore. Apparently, in order to be an authority on a topic you have to live in abject poverty. The irony is that the biggest opponents to climate change science are oil billionaires.
And it hasn’t stopped.
These days, the best example of this kind of attack is Lena Dunham. Her autobiography has been repeatedly attacked with accusations going so far to say that she admitted to raping her sister. Yes, they say Lena Dunham raped her system…and wrote a book about it! This goes right back to Nonsensical Actions. Then, they said she falsely accused a classmate of raping her. This, too, was also baseless.
So, why was Lena Dunham under such assault? Simple. Lena Dunham had been aggressively rallying women to vote for Democrats. She stars in a hit show, is relatable and endearing, and so young women will naturally listen to what she has to say. So, they smeared her.
When you see such personal attacks being used, ask yourself if that person has recently been outspoken on an issue. You’ll be surprised how often it turns out to be the case.