By Brian T. Lynch, MSW
“… in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie… Even though the facts which prove [the lie] to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”
— Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
“Propaganda is communication that is primarily used to influence an audience and further an agenda, which may not be objective and may be selectively presenting facts to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is being presented.” — Wikipedia
Before the 20th Century, the terms propaganda and persuasion were nearly synonymous. Propaganda had no negative connotation. That changed in the 1900s. “Propaganda” has a negative meaning today and is often associated with authoritarian governments. But in practice, the persuasive arts and propaganda employ many of the same techniques and it can be difficult to discern one from the other. Propaganda now also applies equally to powerful private corporations as well as government agencies. The bright line between these concepts, to the extent they can be found, is in the intent of the speakers or authors who broadcast the messages. At the heart of persuasion is a belief in the underlying facts and good public intentions. At the heart of propaganda is intentional deception motivated by self-interest and a desire for wealth or social power. At the root of propaganda, there is always a pernicious lie.
As Hitler called it in the above quote, the art of lying has evolved since his day into a sophisticated field of science today. Mass media, especially electronic communication, is the medium to which the science of lying is being applied. This powerful new science has spawned whole new commercial perception management and “disinformational” enterprises. Discerning what is factual, accurately perceiving the unvarnished truth, is increasingly more difficult. The veracity and integrity of traditional sources of information are under attack by powerful, unscrupulous special interest groups. At the same time, a steady media stream of maliciously fake information is divergent sets of facts in segments of the population, making normal persuasion methods nearly impossible. It may soon become impossible to distinguish truth from fiction at all. For example, there is rapid progress in the development of deep-fake technologies, powered by artificial intelligence, to create synthetic video content indistinguishable from photographically generated video.
Separating fact from intentional deception has always been a major social challenge, but the recent scale and scope of this difficulty are on a whole new level. Our normal critical thinking skills are no longer up to the task. We must improve our minds' ability to expect and recognize propaganda directed at us. We must fortify ourselves from the mental manipulations constantly assaulting our senses. We need better detection skills and trustworthy methods to quickly identify falsehoods and the liars behind them. But, we also need to develop greater awareness of how human vulnerabilities lead to mental manipulation by others.
On this latter point, the post-election uprising of January 6, 2021, presents a teaching moment in how we can be subconsciously misled by intentional deception. A well-coordinated and emotionally charged campaign to promote the big lie, that the election was stolen, spawned insurrection at the Capitol. For the first time in recent memory, our national media found the temerity to call out the “Big Lie.” This is remarkable because members of the media, like all of us, have shown much susceptibility to the impacts of big, audacious lies.
While there are new and high-tech ways to propagate and amplify big lies, the phenomenon itself is not new. History is replete with examples. Big lies are often successful because really brash and forceful lies trigger a vulnerability in how our brains respond to information even when we reject the lie on a cognitive level. Lies create emotional gaps in our thinking that leave room for doubt that didn’t previously exist. Even small lies can create unreasonable doubts.
The theme and wording of big public lies are always chosen to evoke strong emotional reactions within an intended audience. Natural social fault lines or existing controversies are often the subjects of the lie. The vocabulary that is chosen always contains emotive, high-inference wording that generates interpretations or reactions well beyond the literal meaning of the words. It is this feature of the big lie that best identifies it early on.
A famous example of evocative word choice occurred during the Bush administration in the Gulf War lead-up. There was a media blitz by the White House to drum up support for the war. The relentless blitz alone should have aroused skepticism and careful listening for verifiable facts, but it did not. In a television interview, Dr. Condoleezza Rice said:
"The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he [Saddam Hussain] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
The word choice is clearly designed to evoke fear. And it did. The comment was picked up by the media and echoed everywhere for weeks. But fear can be easily evoked by facts as well. Why was the administration using loaded word choices rather than documents, photographs, or testimonial evidence to convince us that “weapons of mass destruction” existed?[i]
A counterexample of this would be the presentation of facts, with aerial reconnaissance photos, at the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That presentation surely evoked a well-informed fear in this country with none of the over-heated rhetoric that accompanies the big lie. In fact, the rhetoric was toned down to minimize the panic and reassure us that the planned military interventions would work. And they did work by the thinnest margin.
There are many other examples of the big lie in recent history from the falsely claimed Tonkin Gulf incident of April 4, 1964, which lead to greater military involvement in the Vietnam war, to the false WMD claims that lead to the Iraq war. But governments are not the only perpetrators of the big lie. Big corporations and their industry associations are practitioners in the art of the art well. The tobacco industry created a whole body of pseudo-scientific evidence in the 1970s to contradict research that proved cigarette smoking cause cancer. They created a huge public disinformation campaign to protect their industry profits. That big lie worked for years. Doubt was cast in the public mind for what was settled science. Even years after the lie was dramatically exposed in Congressional hearings, doubt remains in segments of the population. As Hitler wrote, “… grossly impudent [lies] always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down.”
ANATOMY OF THE BIG LIE
Climate change is another example where a big lie campaign created a factitious controversy. It is an instructive example because climate science started out completely devoid of politics and unaffected by public opinion. It began with a small sphere of several thousand climate researchers around the world. Discussions and vigorous debate among them were a natural part of understanding the meaning of data as it was collected. Their collective deliberations can serve as a model for how all collective opinions form in the absence of malicious intent.
The initial chaos of ideas and theories slowly gave rise to areas of consensus and then converging theories. Gradually, as the accretion of data created coherent patterns, a consensus formed among scientists that planet Earth is quickly warming and that carbon dioxide from ancient deposits of fossil fuels is a major contributor. There was a growing awareness that the impact of these changes could be catastrophic for life on the planet.
At no point, even now, was there ever a single, monolithic understanding of the climate data. There is a range of interpretations and different emphasis placed on aspects of data in the empirical sciences. There are degrees of uncertainty and controversial claims, but before the big lie is introduced, all the participants are acting in good faith. Their data may be faulty, their interpretation of facts may be inaccurate, but no one willfully inserts wildly false information to subvert the scientific process.
This model of collective opinion-formation is normal in all of society. It isn’t confined to scientists. In fact, this opinion-formation model is naturally occurring and literally “normal” in the statistical sense. In the case of our pioneering climate scientists, if we were to plot the granular subtleties of their beliefs and concerns, and plot it on a graph, a natural continuum of their alarm and opinion would form with a bell-shaped curve centered on the mean where the consensus of their opinions would cluster. The x-axis on this continuum (and in the figures to the right) would be the level of alarm raised by the data. This is how all collective public opinions are generated. No two people have exactly the same viewpoint. There are always people who have radically different views. The frequency distribution of different viewpoints naturally falls within a normal pattern. This is why ancient wisdom tells us “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” Time and again, when society forms opinions, our minds seek the centrality of multiple viewpoints. It is an inherent bias that is usually correct, but not always.
The creation of a big lie takes place in stages. It starts with some seed of truth and the recruitment of researchers and scientific opinion influences who see little cause for alarm in the data, or who have contrary opinions. These are the outliers on one fringe of the climate science continuum. Their actual numbers will be few by definition, so the goal is to disproportionately elevate their voices in the public eye.
change. Normally, an attack on the scientific community would raise the strongest reaction in them. This would cancel out some of the noise generated by the big lie. Anticipating these scientists' reactions and muting them with a preemptive suppression campaign is part of the plan by the architects of the big lie. For the propagandist, it is important that the factitious continuum only extends in a single direction, away from opinions that threaten their plans.
This example of a big lie, as it applies to climate change, serves as a template for understanding normal public opinion formation and how it can be manipulated by bad-faith actors. It fits a generalized pattern that helps us identify many other deception-based controversies such as anti-vaccinators, QAnon followers, and pandemic hoax believers. It also illuminates why our bias, that the truth must fall somewhere in the middle, prevents us from seeing the facts more clearly and why, “… the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down.” Big lie propaganda causes lasting damage. This discussion doesn’t explain the many ways new media disinformation technologies are making it easier to create and sustain public deceptions. The art of lying has truly become a science of deception that alters our perceptions.
[i] I was personally driven by this comment to carefully review all the actual public evidence I could find on the internet about Iraqi WMDs. I concluded, with some certainty, that there was no evidence that Iraq had WMDs other than some old chemical weapons which we gave them during the Iran-Iraq war. I felt that if I was able to determine that Iraq had no WMD, our politicians should be able to see that as well. I petitioned members of Congress with letters to press for a debate on a declaration of war. I was confident the evidence I found would come out. The debate happened but turned out to be perfunctory. The evidence against the need for military intervention barely surfaced. My disappointment with those who voted to authorize the war was deep and long-lasting. And among my peers, my position on the issue of war when it was being debated seemed wildly radical, as did the position of those in Congress who voted against authorizing the use of force. If you have read up to this note and still think my claim is radical, even after the war is long over and no WMDs were found, then your own opinions remain altered by that big lie.