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You might not have known it but, should you be foolish enough to vote for a Labour government at the next election, then you won’t be allowed to travel more than 15 minutes from your home, you’ll have to sort your rubbish out into seven different recycling bins, and you’ll have to pay a special tax on meat.
Well actually you won’t – none of these are true but they are examples of a form of spin, dubbed ‘strategic lies’, a technique which is being increasingly mobilised by mainly right-wing spin doctors and politicians.
Accusations that politicians lie are far from new, but the intensity of such accusations has increased in recent years – and strategic lies are one reason why.
An early incarnation came in 2011 when Donald Trump, at the time theoretically supporting the Democrats, claimed to have “proof” that President Barack Obama had not been born in the United States (making him ineligible to occupy the White House). It was the start of the so-called “birther” controversy.
Trump went as far as to say that he was sending a team of private investigators to Hawaii to learn the truth and promised to donate $5 million to charity if anyone could convince him that Obama was born on US soil. There is no record of any such team arriving in Hawaii, nor of Trump donating $5 million to charity following the publication of Obama’s birth certiﬁcate.
Over the next three years, Trump continued to raise the issue despite the lie being comprehensively rebutted. He kept repeating it not because he expected people to believe it but, as a strategic lie, it kept the issue of Obama’s ‘otherness’ near the top of the mainstream news agenda. It’s no coincidence that a similar controversy was mounted against Vice President Kamala Harris shortly after she was nominated as Joe Biden’s running mate in 2020.
The inauguration of the British version came with the EU Referendum. “We send Brussels £350 million a week. Let’s spend it on the NHS instead” was painted on the side of several campaign buses; the backdrop to almost every Brexiter interview.
At the start of the campaign, ITV News’ Tom Bradby interviewed Boris Johnson for eight minutes, largely about the £350 million claim. Bradby did a thorough job at exposing just how misleading that figure was. But the Brexitees were far from disappointed for, in those eight minutes, they had established that the cost of our membership of the EU was the central issue, forcing the remain campaign to come up with its own figures and ensuring that the issue of the cost of membership stayed centre-stage.
After it was all over – in a lengthy blog post – Vote Leave ‘mastermind’ Dominic Cummings described the lie as “a brilliant communications ploy”, saying that it “worked much better than I thought it would”.
He also highlighted another of the Brexiters’ successful strategic lies: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”. It’s true that many years ago – in 1987 – Turkey applied for membership, but since then much has changed – including a commitment by key EU members to veto any such application.
But there was sufficient ‘truth’ in the claim for it to frighten the Brexit-inclined horses or, to put it less politely, to reinforce xenophobic feelings as a further reason to vote leave – a classic ‘dog whistle’: saying one thing out loud but sending a different message to those more attuned to the whistle.
What is a Strategic Lie?
As the examples illustrate, communicating accurate information is not the strategic lie’s major concern – its prime purpose is to either seize or hold the news agenda.
A sub-set of this technique, aimed at blocking an unhelpful story from dominating the news agenda, is the ‘dead cat’ strategy which entails using a sensational policy proposal or statement to capture the attention of journalists and publics – a dead cat suddenly dropping down from nowhere is a pretty good conversation stopper.
The lie must contain a scintilla of truth in order to keep the debate going which the Brexit lies did. By contrast, the latest set of lies peddled at the Conference Party Conference – the meat tax etc. – were spectacularly unsuccessful because they were so obviously nonsensical, as the failed attempts of Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho to defend them in a succession of TV interviews vividly demonstrated.
Another defining characteristic of the strategic lie is that the issue it highlights has salience – it must be about an issue of current concern and be sufficiently sensational to catch public attention.
The Conservative announcement during the 2019 election campaign that it would build 40 new hospitals, for example, appeared to work because health was one of the main campaign issues and the scintilla of truth was that the figure included unapproved plans, plans in the pipework and even new hospital wings. In contrast, concerns about, for example, being banned from driving more than 15 minutes from home just did not cut it with the public for obvious reasons.
The lie is not formulated to convince opponents, its main function is to strengthen the resolve of supporters and maybe win over a few doubters. To do this, it has to be consistent with supporters’ ‘common sense’ understanding of the way the world works.
A voter who sees the world subsumed in ‘woke’ – or at least fears it might be – would not be surprised to learn that they are being expected to sort their rubbish into seven bins; and it also just might confirm the doubts of those who only suspected it.
Once the message has been embedded, the power of social media kicks in with the lie being repeated and embellished, as it weaves it way through the labyrinths of social and some mainstream media (GB News or the Mail, for example) and any hints of it being part of a ‘bigger global conspiracy’ also helps the amplification process.
Once the strategic lie has become established, it becomes difficult to successfully rebut as research by behavioural and political psychologists has demonstrated.
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How the Lies Spread
A large-scale study of Twitter in 2018 showed how lies spread on social media “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth” and that this particularly applied to political news. Using social media also enabled the sender to target messages at specific groups.
Another advantage of social media for the strategic lie campaigner is that statements of dubious factual accuracy are subject to less scrutiny, or at least a different type of scrutiny, than was the case when traditional media alone performed this role. Because of the sheer flow of information, it becomes virtually impossible for either experts or specialist journalists to check and challenge every contentious tweet or post.
Studies have also found that correcting inaccurate statements online in real-time, by either journalists or a fact-checking organisation, has little impact on people’s views – as the continuing support for Trump’s “stolen” election claim demonstrates.
Those sympathetic to the original message reject the correction, discounting it as coming from a partisan source, or they barely notice the correction in the first place. And people’s memories of corrections fade rapidly, although they do retain a memory of the original lie. This tends to occur because the remembered lie is in tune with, and reinforces, their own political understanding.
By accepting the lie, the believer avoids cognitive dissonance – the emotion we feel when forced to confront information that contradicts our existing political understanding. And cognitive dissonance in turn leads to ‘confirmation bias’ – the bias that arises due to our only noticing, and retaining, information that reinforces our own worldview.
The other key finding in the behavioural science literature is the tried and tested power of repetition. This partly arises as a result of simple reinforcement but partly because we tend to be cognitive misers – in other words, we find it easier to accept information that we have previously processed rather than having to make the effort of processing something that is entirely new.
All of this contributes to a climate wherein political leaders are effectively granted a ‘permission to lie’. In the past, politicians caught lying either chose to, or were forced to, resign. But this is no longer the case.
It’s worth remembering that, despite all his obvious lies, Boris Johnson’s resignation came about not because of any lie he told but because of his attempt to defend Chris Pincher following allegations about his sexual misconduct.
What Can be Done?
The answer resides in three key words – speed, repetition, and transparency.
The speed is ensuring that the lie is instantly rebutted before it has taken root in the public mind; repetition entails slapping down that lie every time it surfaces; and transparency involves finding verifiable rebuttals and ensuring, or at least trying to ensure, that they receive as much as exposure as does the strategic lie.
Whether it works in practice (at least in the UK and the US) is something that will be learned in the next 12 months – let’s hope it does.