Tag Archives: trust in media

Fake News and the Big Lie

A few days ago, Vox reported that

Attacks on the “fake news” media have become a staple of the Trump administration — and nearly half of voters, including the vast majority of Republicans, believe the president when he claims that the media is making up stories about him.

Forty-six percent of voters believe that major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump, while 37 percent do not and 17 percent are undecided, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.

Note that the question was focused on “major” news organizations–journalism outlets with institutional commitments to verification and accuracy. The questions weren’t about dubious websites or partisan outlets.

A study by an organization called Study Soup, with which I am unfamiliar, found that Limbaugh, Breitbart and Fox News–rather than traditional media– were seen as the biggest purveyors of “fake news.” This particular study asked people whether they’d been personally duped; I suppose it is plausible that people who recognize that they’ve been fooled by dubious reporting would subsequently be less trusting of all media.

Americans across the political spectrum, led by Republicans, admit they have been duped by “fake news,” or partisan propaganda and outright fabrications, a new national study has found.

“In a heartening display of humility, many of our participants admitted they feared they’d been duped by fake news before. In fact, nearly 56 percent of Republicans said they had probably or definitely been deceived, and over 46 percent of Democrats said the same,” said the analysis accompanying the survey of 1,000 Americans by the education company StudySoup.com.

The study did find that Trump’s constant calling-out of specific media sources affected public perceptions of the accuracy of those sources. That shouldn’t surprise us. There is a famous Joseph Goebbels quote, describing the propaganda tactic known as “The Big Lie.”

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The Big Lie is an all-purpose propaganda technique. According to Wikipedia,

The expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Use of the technique isn’t limited to politics. Back in 2011, Joseph Nocera demonstrated how politically convenient myths about the collapse of the housing bubble had been promulgated.


So this is how the Big Lie works.

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views…

The success of the Big Lie rests on two characteristics of human nature. First, people have a tendency to believe a big lie more easily than a little one; most of us are familiar with”little white lies,” but we find it hard to believe that someone would invent an enormous (and more easily refuted) fiction. Second, if you repeat even a ridiculous lie frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.

So–accuse respected journalists of “fake” news.

Does media bias exist? Of course–although the bias is usually toward conflict, not ideology. (Conflict, after all, is what makes something newsworthy, or at least interesting.) And reporters are human–they see things through their own “lenses,” no matter how hard they try for total objectivity.

Credible journalists do not, however, simply fabricate stories.

That so many Americans believe mainstream news outlets are manufacturing reports out of whole cloth is disquieting, to put it mildly. It’s one thing to be leery of conspiracy websites and partisan propaganda. When people don’t believe anything, from any source, there is no civic common ground. Without agreed-upon facts, we become uneasy; we can’t communicate.

That distrust creates an environment conducive to authoritarianism. Which is, of course, the point.