Politicians and the dark art of misinformation
Janet Wilson, Contributing Writer
24 May 2023
“No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues,” the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in a seminal 1967 essay in The New Yorker. “Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade. Why is that so?”
That startling truth seems prescient now in an age where social media and Artificial Intelligence can turbo-charge political lies, sending them around the world in nanoseconds.
And while lying has always been part of a politician’s arsenal, never have they been used so fulsomely. They are hallmarked by disbelief in the face of facts, reinforced with constant denial. Whether it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing his country’s invasion of Ukraine as a ‘special military operation’, or the claim Donald Trump made that he’d won the 2020 Presidency when he had fairly lost, or even the more mundane, when then-Health Minister Andrew Little denied there was a health crisis as workers loudly described it as such, lies create an incomprehensible world.
Such a world Arendt says are where people “at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
How did we get here?
It’s seven years since the Cambridge Analytica scandal where millions of Facebook users had their personal data mined to build psychological profiles for Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaigns, and while Twitter, Google, Facebook and Apple may have tightened their campaign advertising policies that doesn’t stop political consultants using data brokers to micro-target voters.
How you view voter micro-targeting depends on where you live; the European Union has banned it, while a 2022 study out of MIT in the US concluded that “political microtargeting can confer a sizeable persuasive advantage over traditional messaging strategies.”
And while a 2020 Transparency International NZ report into online campaigning in New Zealand found that there was little or no protections here, a Victoria University researcher who measured fake news, misinformation and half-truths in social media during the 2020 election campaign, said it was not a huge issue.
Dr Mona Krewel’s New Zealand Social Media Study (NZSMS) gathered more than 3000 Facebook posts from all political parties, major and minor. And although it didn’t look at microtargeting in depth, Dr Krewel said any that did show up was “fairly standard practice”.
Problems arise though, Dr Krewel says, when people reveal information believing it will be used for a completely different purpose.
Pew Research Centre’s survey of 19 countries, released last December, found that while most citizens felt they had learnt more current affairs from social media, a median 84% found that using it made it easier to manipulate by employing rumours and false information.
There’s no doubt the manipulation behind microtargeting poses a danger, but it underestimates voters growing discernment about where their social media information comes from. When former Labour politician Gaurav Sharma used his Facebook page to give his own account of what he described as bullying and gaslighting by his political masters, Hamilton West voters made up their own minds and voted him last out of four candidates in last year’s byelection.
There’s no doubt that social media spreads the news, but does it necessarily drive it in the same way that morning radio or the 6pm TV news sets the agenda?
With five months to go before we trudge off to the voting booth, how can we tell if a politician is employing the dark arts of misinformation or is simply one who holds strongly held, if slightly deluded beliefs?
A bad politician will adopt the technique of sociopaths everywhere – gaslighting. That’s the art of psychological manipulation which gradually erodes the victims’ sense of self and their sanity. While gaslighting is a term which usually refers to those who are intimately involved, it’s also a handy political tool to create false narratives.
Research shows that repeated exposure to lies makes them more believable, a phenomenon psychologists call the “illusory truth effect”. Several studies have successfully shown that people tend to perceive claims are truer if they’ve been exposed to them before. Which goes some way to explaining why those constant Briscoe’s ads and political propaganda are so effective.
All this lying leads inevitably to a lack of trust. A 2016 study by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies found that New Zealanders have little trust in government. Out of 1000 people surveyed across the country, only 8% had “complete or lots of trust” in MPs and the media. Government Ministers were trusted by 10% of participants while local government was trusted by a meagre 12%.
Rather than resorting to telling porkies, politicians should take a leaf out of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s book and employ the idea of respectful persuasion. Instead of eschewing facts, they should back up their claims with empirical evidence. Instead of answering Opposition questions in the House in a combative and defensive manner they should be open to receiving their reasons, what’s called intellectual humility.
For most of us this would be difficult, for politicians that could be an impossibility. But there’s an upside; intellectual humility makes us better able to evaluate not only the strength of arguments, but it also increases the chance for reciprocity.
Kant’s central principle lay in the simple concept of live and let live. That it’s not anyone’s job to interfere in other people’s lives.
That’s a concept that not only politicians should adopt but all of us need to reflect on.
Janet Wilson is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. To receive pieces like this in your inbox subscribe to our newsletter.