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

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:

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

“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 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 . . .

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Misinformation: cartoon by Jim Morin of The Miami Herald.

Cartoon by Jim Morin of The Miami Herald.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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 . . .”

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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.

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FOOTNOTES:

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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