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I just heard a radio interview with Paul Ekman, who has been studying lying for decades. He concludes that there is no biological tell, no Pinocchio’s nose. No matter how sophisticated the polygraph or how astute the listener, there is no magic formula to unmask liars.

dishonest attack ads

I’ve also been reading “I Spy: How to be Your Own Private Investigator” by Daniel Ribacoff. He has also spent years thinking about lying, and lying himself, in pursuit of true information. He outlines the obvious physical and verbal tells. These can be applied by anyone to any case, from what relatives say to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. By those professional standards, Kavanaugh’s testimony is not very believable.

Lies are not any old untruth. Ekman developed a careful definition: “a lie is a deliberate choice to mislead a target without notification”.

We spend a lot of money and time being misled by people we pay to mislead us. Last night I saw “The Devil’s Own” with Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford in their younger days. Pitt was an Irish terrorist, but a good guy. He worked hard to make me and millions believe that. But we had been notified: it’s a movie. Or it’s a play, it’s a sitcom. It’s a novel. We expect a fictional narrative to be a fiction, an attempt to convince us to believe just while we’re reading that these people are alive and real.

The line between fact and fiction has been getting blurrier for decades. But when authors at reputable organizations tried to hide the liberties they took with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they have been exposed and punished. Fact-checking still works.

This election campaign brings us a special seasonal offering of nationwide lying, the attack ad, on behalf of people hiding behind the people in tiny print.

This election campaign brings us a special seasonal offering of nationwide lying, the attack ad, on behalf of people hiding behind the people in tiny print. An attack ad does not have to be untruthful. If “opposition research” meant what it sounds like, it would be useful. We need to know as much as possible about candidates who want to run the country. But the “research” is dishonest at the start: what can we discover about our opponent that can be transformed into an untrue but effective TV ad?

By using character assassination to slip ahead of their opponents, politicians of all stripes debase our political system and tarnish themselves, too. They say, “It’s just my campaign. I must do this to get elected. Other people were trying to help me. I was misquoted.” Lies on top of lies.

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I don’t mean to blur the differences in untruthfulness among attack ads. We must distinguish between stretching the truth and creating a big lie. The Swiftboaters spent millions to create a big scurrilous lie to influence the presidential election. As a “private citizen”, Trump heard about and spent millions to propagate a big lie about Obama’s birth.

But with a dose of naive optimism, we hope the campaign liar will become the honest government official, and that’s especially true about every President. A President is in a unique position to know anything. We get more political news from him than from any other person. Every president lies, and some have told whoppers of great significance. In his farewell speech in January 1961, President Eisenhower gave a remarkable warning about the dangers of our developing political-military-industrial complex. But it was drowned out by John Kennedy’s campaign insistence on a fictional missile gap.

Johnson told lies about Vietnam that resulted in thousands of American deaths and many times more Vietnamese deaths. Nixon was a crook, who got his start by employing dishonest attack ads in the 1950s.

Perhaps we are naive no longer. Trump is different, lying automatically about everything, from inconsequential but easily verifiable things, like the size of his inauguration crowd, to dangerous attacks on our democratic system, when he says that leftists and illegal voters rigged the election he won. The best minds in America, led by Kris Kobach, couldn’t turn up any evidence for that, either.

He lies and calls anyone who catches him a liar. Since he lies so much and so insistently, he ends up calling nearly all major sources of news our enemies.

Conservatives have been calling the most dedicated seekers after truth, scientists, professors, and journalists, who all tend to produce public information conservatives don’t like, liars for many years. On the other side, the most dedicated purveyors of falsehood have become conservative heroes. The media savvy outrager-in-chief Alex Jones and the seemingly academic Heartland Institute have both been peddling one big lie after another to self-selected conservative audiences with great success.

Can I learn anything from attack ads? Yes, but not what their creators intend. We shall know you by what you say about others. Compare what candidate A pays people to say about candidate B with what other sources say. Think about evidence. Candidate A says much about himself by trying to mislead you without notification. It takes more work, but we need to put in more work to know how to vote.

steve hochstadt

If you vote for perpetrators of political assault, eventually they will assault you.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives