Americans are drowning in a sea of political lies. But depending on their politics, they don’t notice or they don’t care, and if they do care there’s little anyone can do about it.
There’s even competition for the worst daily lie. As Time magazine’s recent headline noted, “71 Percent of Alabama Republicans Don’t Believe Claims Against Roy Moore.” Then there’s this headline from a Friday Washington Post commentary, “I study liars. I’ve never seen one like President Trump,” which cites WaPo’s (apparently fruitless) fact-checking department and says Trump is on track to cross the 2,000-lie mark before New Year’s Eve. That’s five lies a day. “President Trump has made 1,628 false or misleading claims over 298 days,” WaPo said.
This race to the bottom only gets more dismal from here. Of the 71 percent of Alabama Republicans who don’t believe Moore’s accusers, that poll from CBS News and YouGov found “92 percent of those who said they do not believe the allegations say it is because Democrats are to blame for them, while 88 percent said the media was,” Time said. So blaming political opponents and messengers augments falling for expedient lies.
If you think this is only an Alabama phenomenon, think again. A Quinnipiac University poll after fellow Democratic senators called on Al Franken to resign following sexual harassment allegations against him, “asked Americans whether a lawmaker facing multiple sexual harassment accusations should resign,” WaPo noted. “While just 51 percent of Republicans agreed, a full 77 percent of Democrats agreed.”
So not only is there a tidal wave of lies swamping the nation’s political shores, there’s more political froth dampening any truth-telling, especially if it stands in the way of politically expedient goals. This slimy dynamic is increasingly dominating the political world under Trump, and it stands in stark contrast to other areas of public life where the law—yes, rules passed by the same people who traffic in lies—has made lying a crime.
Commercial advertising, for example, is not allowed to lie or mislead the public. Those who testify in court are not allowed to lie on the witness stand; that’s a crime. People being questioned by law enforcement are also not allowed to lie—they can assert the right to stay silent. That’s a distinction Trump’s team is learning the hard way, after lying while being questioned by Robert Mueller’s federal probe of campaign collusion with Russia.
There’s nothing new about the hypocrisy of not being allowed to lie before the law, even though lawmakers and those who aspire to elected office can lie their way into those jobs. As Jack Myers complained in the Huffington Post well before Trump won, “The rules for political advertising, in the context of the wave of mistruths spouted across the political spectrum in recent elections, are all too obviously outdated. As reported in the Broadcast Law Blog, ‘It’s very basic—broadcasters can’t censor a candidate ad, so they can’t reject it (or remove it from the air) no matter what its content is.’”
The right to lie in politics has been upheld in the Supreme Court, where the pattern over time has been a great reluctance even to address the phenomenon head-on. In 2014, an anti-choice group sued the state of Ohio because it passed a truth-in-political advertising law and set up a state board to call out political liars. The Supreme Court didn’t make a First Amendment ruling, but instead went after the state regulators as excessive—and sent that suit back down to lower court. That followed a 2012 case concluding that any attempt to parse campaign speech was going to be in trouble, even if it were very specific and narrow.
Government speech police are more dangerous than outbreaks of political lying, the court has said again and again. That’s also true when it comes to candidates successfully suing other candidates who lie about their opponents. Basically, public figures face much higher thresholds of proof to win in court, which is why you don’t see many suits in this vein. This legal landscape defers to another protected First Amendment institution, the press, to be the checks and balances for calling out political lies and liars.
That brings us to the present, and the 2016 election, in which the most influential mainstream media—starting with the New York Times, according to an exhaustive investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review—trafficked far more in political gossip and horserace coverage than in substantive policy analysis and truth-telling. Its headline give you the gist, “Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame the media.”
So where are we slightly less than 11 months after Trump took office? The liar-in-chief is poised to cross the 2,000-lie threshold by New Year’s Eve. There will be no believable resolutions there. Nearly three-fourths of Alabama Republicans don’t believe the women accusing Roy Moore of sexual harassment and assault, and may elect him to the Senate next week.
Meanwhile, mainstream media, including the most popular social media platforms—led by Facebook and Google (which includes Instagram and YouTube)—have launched an anti-fake news crusade. They are fine-tuning their algorithms to grade media content, using brain-imitating artificial intelligence to grade content and act as the censor that the government isn’t allowed to be. Three weeks ago, Facebook added a “trust indicator” feature to its newsfeed, “to give people additional context on the articles they see.”
But, of course, Facebook is a giant capitalist corporation in a capitalist society. So its partnership with the biggest mainstream media organizations, leading advertising groups and Silicon Valley platforms, is an emerging and self-reinforcing bubble and all of the participants have more concealed motives. Silicon Valley wants to ward off government regulation, after its social platforms were open invitations for 2016’s most propagandistic messaging. The mainstream media wants to reassert its dominance in an era where online competition has grown and questions its authority. Advertisers want to keep selling ads.
Meanwhile, political lies and liars in high office are proliferating. The best anyone can do is try to pay attention, look to a range of sources outside official channels—including the newest Silicon Valley content police—and decide for themselves what’s real and what isn’t. And nobody should expect the lying to stop or the liars to go away.
“Most of us use the internet acronym LOL to mean ‘laugh out loud,’” James Cusick, the political correspondent for the UK-based Independent and The Independent on Sunday wrote in 2015. “But in U.S. political circles, where campaign strategists are supposed to have superpowers, it stands for ‘lie or lose’—the public doesn’t like the truth, and those who flirt with telling it don’t stand a chance.”
Sometimes it takes an outsider like Cusick to see American politics for what it is—the last thing those who practice its dark arts will admit.
“There is no such thing as an outright political lie,” he wrote. “Instead there’s distortion, exaggeration, misrepresentation, deception, half-truth and overstatement. The assumption is that the risk is worth it. Hubris and narcissism mean the consequences of a politician getting caught are outweighed—they think—by the benefits of telling voters what they want to hear. They know we seek support for our preconceived notions, and avoid information that challenges established views.”
That was before Donald Trump launched his presidential bid and before most Americans had even heard of fake news. And what does Cusick say about media efforts to filter and censor content?
“The primary role of the Fourth Estate, the media, is to act as a lie detector, and that—more than courts—acts as a deterrent to politicians,” Cusick wrote. “Do papers behave? Not always. Russia had a century of Pravda—that means ‘truth’ in English.”