lies, damn lies, fake news, and the misinformation ecosystem

Es­ti­mated reading time is 8 min­utes.

FAKE NEWS AIN’T NEW NEWS. The term has been in fairly reg­ular if not quite common use for years: it ini­tially re­ferred to the mis/disinformation and pro­pa­ganda cir­cu­lated by the thou­sands of well-connected, rightwing radio talk shows for pro­pa­ganda. It grew to even vaster pro­por­tions with the emer­gence of the mil­lions of ‘con­ser­v­a­tive’ web­sites and blogs known as the Rightwing Blogosphere.

Pres­i­dent Trump has co-opted the term and made it his own, ex­cept he uses it for the an­tithesis of its orig­inal in­tent: in Trum­p­land, any person or media source who calls him on his in­cor­rect state­ments, lies, or passing of mis/disinformation is ac­cused of spreading fake news. Which should be laugh­able, ex­cept tens of mil­lions of Rep*blican voters be­lieve him in­stead of the fact-checkers and truth-tellers:

“By the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, so­cial spam had evolved into po­lit­ical click­bait: fab­ri­cated money-making posts that lured mil­lions of Face­book, Twitter, and YouTube users into sharing provoca­tive lies—among them head­lines claiming that De­mo­c­ratic can­di­date Hillary Clinton once sold weapons to the Is­lamic State, that Pope Francis had en­dorsed Re­pub­lican can­di­date Donald Trump, and (from the same source on the same day) that the Pope had en­dorsed Clinton.


So­cial spam had evolved into fab­ri­cated money-making posts that lured mil­lions of users into sharing provoca­tive lies.


So­cial media users were also being tar­geted by Russian dys­in­for­matyea: phony sto­ries and ad­ver­tise­ments de­signed to un­der­mine faith in Amer­ican in­sti­tu­tions, the elec­tion in par­tic­ular. And all of it was cir­cu­lating through a much larger net­work of out­lets that spread par­tisan at­tacks and pro­pa­ganda with min­imal re­gard for con­ven­tional stan­dards of ev­i­dence or ed­i­to­rial re­view. ‘I call it the mis­in­for­ma­tion ecosystem,’ says Melissa Zim­dars, a media scholar at Mer­ri­mack Col­lege in North An­dover, Mass­a­chu­setts.” (PNAS)

So, while up­dating old posts and pages on this site (some editing and rewriting but mostly ap­plying a new, more read­able type­face and adding photos and other im­ages), I came across a piece I had ti­tled “Lies, Damn Lies, And Lies Of Omission.”

While it was dis­jointed and ram­bling, I chose to save some of it and tack this opening onto it. You can read what’s left of it in­dented below the hor­i­zontal line.

Oh, and I gave it the new title at the top of this page . . .


Misinformation: cartoon by Jim Morin of The Miami Herald.

Car­toon by Jim Morin of The Miami Herald.

Lies, Damn Lies, And Lies Of Omission

Orig­i­nally pub­lished: No­vember 6, 2013

EVERYONE LIES SOMETIMES, al­though it’s likely that most lies are not in­tended to harm someone. It should not come as any kind of sur­prise when I say that everyone lies about some­thing to someone at sometime—whether ac­tively by lying, or pas­sively by omit­ting nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion. But most of our lies are not in­tended to harm anyone so much as they are to avoid an awk­ward or un­pleasant sit­u­a­tion for one­self or for the other person.

For ex­ample, common lies for us guys are wanting to avoid un­pleas­ant­ness with a gal is to say, “I re­ally like your new haircut,” or “Those are re­ally great shoes.” These are harm­less, meant to make someone else feel good about them­selves. Some people call these white lies. 1

But some lies are told for harmful or neg­a­tive ef­fect: when lies of any kind are told by people in a po­si­tion of re­spon­si­bility or power to in­flu­ence someone else, es­pe­cially a sub­or­di­nate, to do some­thing they do not want to do, it’s different.

When a speaker lies to per­suade his lis­teners to do wrongful deeds or even do things that are not in their best in­terest, it’s different.


Misinformation: photo of Charlton Heston as Moses from the 1956 movie THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

They didn’t have smart­phones at the time Moses ac­cepted the tablets, but they did have ex­cel­lent black and white po­laroid cameras.

Bearing false witness

Lying is en­grained in most of us as it is a tenet of our cul­ture ab­sorbed from the most promi­nent and in­flu­en­tial re­li­gion in our orig­inal cul­ture, Chris­tianity. “Thou shalt not bear false wit­ness against thy neighbor” is one of the Ten Com­mand­ments given Moses by God in the Old Testament.

This state­ment has a va­riety of spe­cific mean­ings based on He­braic, Catholic, and Ref­or­ma­tion interpretations—not telling lies is usu­ally a part of each interpretation.

As the Old Tes­ta­ment is Jewish in origin, lying is also gen­er­ally pro­hib­ited in that re­li­gion. Jewish law based on the Torah lists 613 Mitzvot, or com­mand­ments, in­cluding eight (570-577) re­lated to honest tes­ti­mony in ju­di­cial pro­ce­dure. (Wikipedia)


So­cial media users were tar­geted by phony sto­ries and ad­ver­tise­ments de­signed to un­der­mine faith in Amer­ican in­sti­tu­tions, the elec­tion in particular.


Chris­tians read that “Ac­cording to the New Tes­ta­ment, Jesus ex­plains that obe­di­ence to the pro­hi­bi­tion against false tes­ti­mony from the ten com­mand­ments is a re­quire­ment for eternal life. Ac­cording to Jesus, false tes­ti­mony comes from the sinful de­sires of the heart and makes people un­clean.” (Wikipedia)

So, for Jews and Chris­tians, lying is usu­ally but not al­ways frowned upon if not a sin of some sort. In fact, in some cases not telling the truth is con­sid­ered a sin.

In the Muslim re­li­gion, the act of lying is more com­pli­cated, as lying to a non-believer to ad­vance the cause of Islam is not only per­mitted but encouraged.


Misinformation: gatefold cover of the August 1972 issue of NATIONAL LAMPOON with Nixon and Kissinger as Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket.

Robert Gross­man’s gate­fold il­lus­tra­tion of Nixon and Kissinger for the Au­gust 1972 issue of Na­tional lampoon.

There’s lying an then there’s lying

The pri­mary de­f­i­n­i­tions for the word lie (to lie and lying) is “to make an un­true state­ment with in­tent to de­ceive” and “to create a false or mis­leading im­pres­sion.” (Merriam-Webster) I don’t think those de­f­i­n­i­tions sur­prise anyone.

As stated, lying is often con­sid­ered a sin.

Lying by omis­sion is de­fined as “when an im­por­tant fact is left out in order to foster a mis­con­cep­tion.” It is also known as a “con­tin­uing mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” (Wikipedia).

Lying by omis­sion is nonethe­less an act of lying and is there­fore often con­sid­ered a sin.

Not telling the truth can mean lying, or it can be a trun­cated ver­sion of “not telling the truth when you know the truth”—which is a form of lying by omission.

Of course, when you be­lieve what you are saying is true, de­spite it’s being er­ro­neous or fal­la­cious, is not lying. It is merely speaking in error. In this case, not telling the truth would not be con­sid­ered a sin, al­though ex­cep­tions exist in stricter bib­lical and canon­ical interpretations.


Misinformation: caricature of Mark Twain by Thierry Coquelet.

Car­i­ca­ture of Mark Twain by Thierry Co­quelet.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The state­ment Lies, damned lies, and sta­tis­tics was pop­u­lar­ized in the US by Mark Twain, who at­trib­uted it to Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, de­spite there being no written ev­i­dence of the former British Prime Min­ister ever having written or said such a thing.

The common in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the state­ment is to be cau­tious of the use of sta­tis­tics s they can be used to prove an oth­er­wise weak ar­gu­ment. In other words, it is a caveat against trusting sta­tis­tics one does not understand. 

The in­ability to un­der­stand sta­tis­tics takes on greater meaning when in­nu­meracy is taken into ac­count. To be in­nu­merate is to be “marked by an ig­no­rance of math­e­matics and the sci­en­tific ap­proach.” (Merriam-Webster)

In­nu­meracy is akin to func­tional il­lit­eracy, which is de­fined by “reading and writing skills that are in­ad­e­quate to manage daily living and em­ploy­ment tasks that re­quire reading skills be­yond a basic level.” (Wikipedia) 2

The in­ability to do everyday math has be­come, to some ob­servers, of epi­demic pro­por­tions in America. Fig­uring the most basic di­vi­sion prob­lems like a 6% sales tax or a 15% tip can be daunting and em­bar­rassing. 3

Misinformation: photo of a bull dropping a load.

Lying is part of the human condition

All of the forms of lying are used in gov­ern­ment, in busi­ness, in pol­i­tics, in love, and just about any area where human be­ings in­teract. Since we all lie, and there are more than 7 bil­lion of us, lying is going on around every one of us every day of our lives.

It is up to the listener/reader to learn to dis­cern the dif­fer­ence be­tween that which sounds prob­able (likely to be the case or to happen) and that which sounds im­prob­able (not likely to be true or to happen) if not nigh on im­pos­sible (not able to exist or happen). 

Hence we have here in America the only large, or­ga­nized group of people who don’t be­lieve in man-caused global cli­mate change. We have the only large, or­ga­nized group of people who don’t be­lieve in evo­lu­tion, but who do be­lieve in creationism.

We have the only large, or­ga­nized group of people who con­sis­tently vote against their own eco­nomic in­ter­ests by falling for such wedge is­sues as abor­tion, gay mar­riage, il­legal im­mi­grants, etc., in­stead of using their own God-given common sense.

It is up to each and every Amer­ican to work on ex­er­cising and de­vel­oping and honing his bull­shit detector.

Oh well, as someone once fa­mous once said, “So it goes . . .”


Illustration by Dave Cutler of man dumping a bag of misinformation into a machine out of which comes newspapers and magazines.

FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is art­work by Dave Cutler. It was used to ac­com­pany the ar­ticle “The gen­uine problem of fake news” on the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences of the United States of America (PNAS) web­site. Written by M. Mitchell Wal­drop (No­vember 16, 2017), it con­cludes, “Even if today’s ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence al­go­rithms were good enough to filter out bla­tant lies with 100% ac­cu­racy, false­hoods are often in the eye of the beholder.”

Fi­nally, David Brock’s book The Re­pub­lican Noise Ma­chine: Right-Wing Media and How It Cor­rupts Democ­racy is a his­tory of the rightwing mis­in­for­ma­tion ma­chine, in­cluding the men with the money be­hind it, the think tanks that gen­erate much of it, and the pun­dits and talking heads that spread it.



1   A white lie is “a lie about a small or unim­por­tant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting an­other person” (Merriam-Webster)

2   The most fre­quently ref­er­enced de­f­i­n­i­tion of func­tional lit­eracy is from UNESCO’s con­fer­ence in 1978: “A person is func­tion­ally lit­erate who can en­gage in all those ac­tiv­i­ties in which lit­eracy is re­quired for ef­fec­tive func­tioning of his group and com­mu­nity and also for en­abling him to con­tinue to use reading, writing and cal­cu­la­tion for his own and the community’s development.”

3   Ap­prox­i­mately 32,000,000 adults in the US.are func­tion­ally il­lit­erate. This figure is based on the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Adult Lit­eracy from 2003. Ac­cording to the find­ings of the survey, one in seven (14%) of adults pos­sess “no more than the most simple and con­crete lit­eracy skills.”


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