How The Big Lie Works

Most of us have heard the famous quote by Hitler henchman Joseph Goebbles, who said  “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

The importance of repetition to this formula has been confirmed by a recent study  conducted by three scholars at Yale–a psychologist, an economist and a professor of management. They were researching the so-called “fake news” phenomenon in the wake of the 2016 election, and a key conclusion was that repeated exposure to inaccurate or false information makes its acceptance far more likely.

Subjects rate familiar fake news (posts they have seen even only one time before) as more accurate than unfamiliar real news headlines. The perceived accuracy of a headline increases linearly as the number of times a participant is exposed to that headline grows, suggesting “a compounding effect of familiarity across time.”

The research findings suggest that “politicians who continuously repeat false statements will be successful, at least to some extent, in convincing people those statements are in fact true,” and that the echo chambers so many voters inhabit create “incubation chambers for blatantly false (but highly salient and politicized) fake news stories.”

The salience of repeated disinformation makes it incredibly difficult for experts and real journalists to debunk widely accepted beliefs, especially beliefs about the success or failure of complex public policies. I’ve previously cited papers written by Peter the Citizen, the nom-de-plume of a former staff member in the Reagan White House, whose area of expertise is welfare policy. Unlike current Republican lawmakers, Peter is interested in making welfare policies actually work for people in need, and for the past several years he has tried to “speak truth to power”–to call out his fellow conservatives when they engage in self-serving “big lies.”

For example, in response to a publicized interview titled “Maine Shows How To Make Welfare Work,” in which Jared Meyer, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, interviewed Mary Mayhew, former Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Peter meticulously countered what he labeled “conservative talking points and misleading data analyses.”

Another paper, “The Failure of Conservative Welfare Reform is what ‘Traps the Poor in Payouts’: A Response to Adam Brandon,”  responds to–and rebuts– one of the often-repeated assertions that reforms instituted by then-Wisconsin-governor Tommy Thompson improved the lives and incomes of poor people in that state.

As Peter’s research has convincingly demonstrated, when sound methodologies and scholarly rigor are applied, the pat defenses of welfare reform, TANF, and various other punitive state policies prove hollow. They have not incentivized work (after all, the majority of welfare recipients are children, the elderly and the disabled) and they’ve done little or nothing to actually help poor people. Worse, the block grant structure turns funding streams purportedly intended to ameliorate poverty into massive “slush funds” for Governors.

But the “big lie” apparently works as well with policy wonks as with the general public. Repeat sunny but discredited analyses often enough, and they become conventional wisdom. Repeat ridiculous conspiracy theories often enough, and they become memes.

Mitch McConnell and the Administration continue to insist that their “healthcare” bill is better than Obamacare. Rightwing media has repeatedly reported Kellyanne Conway’s denial that Medicaid is being cut.

I have proof that Donald Trump is really an alien. (That explains his inability to spell or use the English language properly.) He was sent from Alpha Centuri to test America’s ability to deal with a destabilizing madman…Post it to Facebook and tell all your friends.


  1. Nothing new here but the scale and frequency of the lies. Have you ever listened to an economic development official speak? Like all other ills of society let’s first treat this one locally and call out the liars in our own back yards. For example, I’m still working to dispel the lies being told in defense of “school choice”.

  2. Can the talking heads just say “That is not true” when a Pol lies on camera?

  3. While about 2/3s of Americans don’t believe our President is truthful, he has told so many lies (enough to fill an entire page of the NY Times) that it’s difficult to recall and keep up with them all.

  4. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

    I have made this statement more than once, including on this blog, and have been told that is not true. Maybe coming from Sheila, it will have more meaning. Hope I can restrain myself from commenting further today; I am sick of it all. Tried to watch Chris Matthews’ interviews on “Hardball” last night and became nauseated and heartsick, near tears for our entire country. Tried CNN but found the same crap so turned my TV off. It is no better this morning on local news or “Morning Joe”.

    The importance of Trump’s lies pales when you consider his health care bill – which he will force through this week – every illness we now suffer from will become preexisting and either not covered or will become cost-prohibitive. We are nearing extinction; glad I am 80 years old and won’t have to deal with it much longer.

  5. @Theresa Bowers,
    “What happens when in a life or death crisis they tell the truth and no one believes them?”

    Then, we have a case of the little boy who cried wolf one too many times. No one believes him.

  6. In education we need great teachers to become great principals and administrators. Teachers need opportunity to grow. As Title 2 is cut we programs cut. Grants from corporations that are getting big tax breaks are necessary. Thanks to them we may survive, we will see.

  7. President Trump’s lies are easy to spot simply because of his style of delivery – impulsive and outrageous. On the other hand, the lies from silver-tongued, articulate, smooth-talking politicians are the lies that are more worrisome, sweet lies that we want to believe.

  8. Teresa Kendall – this is off subject, but are you the teacher in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette newspaper this morning? The atmosphere described in the school is horrible. I feel very sorry for those children and now wonder how many other schools are not enabling children to learn.

    I had never heard of Teach for America, but plan to learn about it now.

  9. The Republican party is no longer (and hasn’t been for quite some time) “Conservative, in a political or social sense. They are instead, politically and socially “Reactionary”, which is more akin to a disease than a philosophy.

  10. As always, you are right on the money. I also agree with Peter the Citizen’s scholarly approach and conclusions. However, I have a problem with his using a nom de plume. If he really wants to accomplish his goal, it seems to me he would have a better chance of convincing those conservaties that buy into the disinformation if they realized he is a conservative like them. Is he trying to hide his identity so he can continue being employed by those whose minds he is supposedly attempting to change?

  11. In addition to people believing lies that are told repeatedly, the people telling those lies eventually believe what they are telling others, even though they know that it was all fake when they started saying it.

    How do I know this? I was married to an expert liar that admitted to me that he ended up believing his own lies after telling them enough times. He said he knew it was wrong, but couldn’t stop himself. What?

  12. @Nancy,

    Actually, your mention of the Journal Gazette article is not off-subject but rather serves as an example of our public schools falling for a ‘sweet lie’ fed to them by smooth-talking politicians who are deep into ‘education reform’. I’m sharing the link to the article.

    The final eight years of my education career were in IPS where I was an ‘Instructional Coach’ at two high schools that had a large number of TFA teachers – very young, very bright, and very much concerned with enhancing their resumes for far bigger and better things than careers as classroom teachers. Of the 8 TFA teachers I worked with daily, only one remains in public school education, and she’s now home in Charlotte, NC. The other 7, all ambitious young women, are long gone and settled into careers as policy wonks employed by education think tanks.

    So much for the sweet lies from the education reformers and their political sponsors.

  13. I have a problem with telling old truths as if they are newly discovered. Smart people have known for centuries about the power of repeating lies. I also have a problem with people who listen to and read old truths as if they have never known they existed. Perhaps the one truth about which none of us have fully realized is that we Americans are much, much, much dumber than we think.

  14. Being saddled with Leader and Teacher is the direct result of years of lying by Roger Ailes and Fox News.
    The very slogan “We report, you decide” was the first step down the path of misinformation because, it is not even logical to question the veracity of truth by people who have no knowledge of the facts. Just as ‘truth is truth, you can’t argue with truth’ is valid, so is “a lie is a lie, you can never believe a lie’.
    Now, Leader and Teacher (satiric nomenclature for Mr. Trump) can say anything he wants and it is believed by many — as long as it’s less than 140 characters in length.

  15. I’m sure the Alpha Centurians have already determined that we’re not worth the effort to make contact. They’ll wait until we can actually spot a destabilizing madman and not make him leader of the free world.

  16. It has become apparent to me that Trump lies not because he is uneducated and dumb, but rather he lies in order to confuse and misdirect attention away from the truth. The daily onslaught of his lying has driven the country into a state of anxiety and fear…. just what Bannon wants in order to push the country into a kind of fascism.

    Sorry I am so paranoid. Someone please tell me I am wrong.

  17. —and now for some words of ‘wisdom’from Ivanka Trump:
    “Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true. This doesn’t mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don’t go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.”
    Her Daddy taught her well, and his name is not Warren Buffet.

  18. Theresa Bowers; even if you/we are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get us.

    Couldn’t stay out of the discussion today after all; will repeat W.C. Fields’ quote which fully supports your statement, Theresa.

    “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

    We can count ourselves among the baffled.

  19. Theresa Bowers,
    “It has become apparent to me that Trump lies not because he is uneducated and dumb, but rather he lies in order to confuse and misdirect attention away from the truth.”

    There’s little doubt that Trump has told lies, but if his lies were intended to confuse, to misdirect attention from the truth, then what exactly IS the truth? Who among all the political characters we’re hearing today holds ‘the truth’?

    I’m not paranoid, but I am confused.

  20. There’s not one word of truth in today’s blog or any of the comments. Fake President Trump told me so.

  21. BSH,

    My dictionary defines truth as the conformity to fact or actuality. If so, the truth is that the Trump Inauguration crowd was NOT the largest ever. The truth is that Russia meddled into our election process to favor Trump. The truth is that Comey’s version of his dinner with Trump was accurate. The truth is that Trump had no tapes of that dinner. The truth is that Trump did not divest himself and his family from their vast empire of businesses. The truth is that the Republican Health Care bill is NOT the best ever, in fact it will take heath care insurance away from people… by the millions.

    Here is some truth for you… Trump and his minions lie and lie and lie.

  22. I work from the base or foundation that Trump will say virtually anything to make himself look good. By definition in his own mind Trump cannot be wrong. Failure is always someone else’s fault. Politicians like actors on stage have their script or talking points.

    In terms of fake news, it has always been around. “Remember the Maine”, was the jingoists, rallying cry to go to war with Spain. The McMega-Media press for the most part bought the talking points – lies- about the WMD’s in Iraq before Gulf War 2.

  23. John, at 7:23 am you wrote, “In education we need great teachers to become great principals and administrators. Teachers need opportunity to grow.”

    I’m convinced your sentiments are sincere and are coming from a mindset that believes classroom teaching is a temporary, short-term bothersome necessity before obtaining the job of your dreams in an office out of the classroom.

  24. When Drumpf’s reign of terror is through, America will really need re-education camps for the nitwit Drumpf voters so they can again lead productive lives.

  25. Theresa Bowers,

    I should confine my ire to the readily accepted ‘big lie’ that now surrounds public education, my career spanning 30 years.

    As with many lies, it began harmlessly enough in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”, a report from our first ever Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, and which was primarily authored by James J. Harvey who left us with these ominously frightening opening words, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” and “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

    Thus began the war on educators, specifically on classroom teachers. Nevermind that the majority of our nation’s public school districts are excellent and that the excellent public school districts are now treated in the same manner as the few dysfunctional schools. Surrounding this false emphasis on dysfunctional schools we’ve witnessed the growth of a cottage industry designed to remediate the supposed causes of dysfunctional school districts, we’ve witnessed Charter Schools, we’ve witnessed School Choice, and we’ve witnessed the outgrowth of school choice in School Vouchers.

    By the way, it is no surprise that James J. Harvey who was a primary author of “A Nation at Risk” is now the Senior Fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington.

    This is how one report can grow into a big lie, a big lie that is accepted on both sides of the political aisle.

  26. BSH: “There’s little doubt that Trump has told lies, but if his lies were intended to confuse, to misdirect attention from the truth, then what exactly IS the truth? ”

    The truth that Trump works so hard to deflect from is the simple truth that Donald Trump is a complete fraud. All of his “business success” is built on lying and cheating (and probably criminal money-laundering). He has no capability to understand serious policy, and no desire to do so. His entire public persona is as fake as his reality-TV persona. All of his lies, all of his exaggerations, all of his boasts, all of his “promises” are intended to keep people from seeing who he really is.

    The second part of your question “Who among all the political characters we’re hearing today holds ‘the truth’? ” asks about the larger idea of truth. Of course, no single person alive today (or ever) has mastery of “truth” as a standalone concept. This might be an interesting philosophical question, but it is entirely irrelevant in the context of Donald Trump and his lies, because Donald Trump has no conception that there actually is such a thing as “the truth” as you and I understand the word.

  27. The way to handle Trump’s lies is easy – just don’t believe a word he says about anything. Problem solved. It will be harder to distinguish truth from lies with others, but it is more than possible how ever often told, and I for one will never believe that two and two are five irrespective of how many times such a claim is made. We can evaluate propaganda with a test of reason and knowledge of current and historical fact. If mere perception becomes fact in the minds of the majority, then we got trouble, Houston, as policies themselves can become mere perceptions and not facts and we live in the world of both Alice and Trump in Wonderland with an other-worldly view of massaging facts to fit what one wants them to be and, with repetition, new facts, Fortunately, there is an overview these exercises in delusion with what we call reality, and reality ultimately involves true facts and not propaganda, as Doctor Goebbels and other Nazis found in the spring of 1945 and later in Nuremburg.

  28. 2 typos in my piece – a period rather than a comma aftrer my “new facts” in the penultimate sentence and “of” should be added overview in the last sentence. Grammar has succumbed to zeal. Mea culpa.

  29. Gerald, had you not mentioned your errors, not one among us would have noticed unless of course there’s a Grammar Nazi lurking somewhere in the background.

  30. One reason that lying is so effective today is that screen media is image rather than word centric. What’s said isn’t as remembered as what’s shown. Oligarchs were one of the early adopters of that that. Slimy politicians are an old story but now that investing in fake news and science and buying politicians pays so well to those who can afford the table stakes, they realize it’s a no brainer.

    Ask the average regressive extremist what a poor family looks like you’ll get an image of welfare queens, gang members and absentee fathers recalled, all easy stock footage for fake news sources to obtain and use to reinforce that image. Is it true? Yes. Is it representative? No.

    Who shows images of hard working, struggling families? Boooorrreeeeing!
    So welfare becomes the explanation of welfare queens, gang members and absentee fathers. Those images symbolize that problem not that of struggling families working hard.

    The image of a polar bear in an ice floe has become iconic for anthropogenic global warming. True? Yes. Representative? No. But regressive extremist media uses it not to symbolize AGW but lying left wing news.

    The sad bottom line is that we are being continuously duped for profit whether it’s selling Lincoln cars, P&G soap, fossil fuels or Republicans.

  31. Another problem of the oft-told lie is that it creeps into your psyche even though you know it is wrong and counter it with truth every time you hear it. It’s relentless brainwashing that requires constant vigilance.

  32. I just read this on a fb post by Periods for Pence/Politicians and I am making the call right now:

    Feel like calling your own Senators is getting you nowhere? Have Senators who are smart enough to oppose the AHCA, but you want to call SOMEONE?
    Thanks to our friend, Megan, for sharing this info and solution with us!
    “The Finance Office (202-224-4515) is keeping count of Americans requesting public hearings on the Senate ‘Healthcare’ bill. Call & request that public hearings be held. 8:30am – 6:30pm EST”

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