How to Protect yourself from the “Firehose of Lies” at the Presidential Debate
Adapted from Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics, by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky and Tim Ward.
The president’s oratory style has been referred to as a “firehose of lying,” and that’s what we got in the first debate, delivered as a constant gush of heckling, interrupting and badgering. It was exhausting, even punishing to watch. I persisted. I told friends who texted me: “Tie yourself to the mast and force yourself to watch. Bear witness to this.”
For me it is important to listen closely to the kinds of lies Trump tells. I’ve just published a book, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back in Politics. My co-author, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a cognitive neuroscientist and an expert on our mental blindspots, and how liars can exploit them. The premise of the book is to push back against the tactics of post-truth politicians like Trump who appeal to emotions at the expense of truth. The problem is, post-event fact checking comes too late to prevent the corrosive damage of lies when we first hear them.
Chapter One of our book provides a typology of political lies. It explains that by identifying the type of a lie, you can better protect yourself from its effect. Here’s our list of the top ten lies politicians tell:
1. Vagueness: a vague statement that can’t be pinned down as a lie, but gives an overall misleading sense.
2. Glittering Generality: an emotional appeal to valued concepts (such as love of country) that distracts from a lack of relevant supporting information.
3. Willful Ignorance: sharing incorrect information by purposefully choosing not to learn or understand the relevant facts.
4. Lie by Omission: deceiving by deliberately omitting relevant information.
5. Confabulation: making up an imagined event as if it happened in reality (often due to faulty memories).
6. Deceptive Hyperbole: distorting reality by deliberately exaggerating or minimizing some aspect of it.
7. Obfuscation: deliberately making information unclear and confusing without actually lying.
8. Blatant Lie: knowingly spreading false information.
9. Paltering: covering a big lie with a small truth.
10. Gaslighting: when confronted by evidence you lied, attacking the veracity of the truthful source.
While Trump literally ran the table on the various types of lies during the debate, here are four types he used repeatedly. Together with each lie, I’ll outline a strategy you can use to protect yourself from falling for potential lies of each type in the future. I relied on the Washington Post’s fact-checkers for truth behind each of these lies.
Vagueness: On the economy: “The greatest before covid came in, the greatest economy in history, lowest unemployment numbers. Everything was good. Everything was going. And by the way there was unity going to happen. People were calling me. For the first time in years they were calling, and they were saying it’s time maybe. And then what happened? We got hit, but now we’re building it back up again.”
This was part of Trump’s response to the moderator’s softball question “Why should voters elect you president over your opponent?” Vagueness can be slippery because it is so amorphous. It’s designed to leave an overall impression — in this case, one of impressive accomplishment — without offering any specifics. But the complicated story of how the pandemic and economic crisis are interacting that could have given us very different outcomes, the manipulating our mood this way is deceptive. The best tactic when his with vagueness is to ask yourself: in the absence of evidence, could the opposite be true? “There was unity going to happen.” Could it just as well be that “divisiveness going to happen?” Then you can search for supporting facts for either assertion. This can help you shake off a general impression that might be false.
Confabulation: “Seattle, they heard we were coming in the following day and they put up their hands and we got back Seattle, Minneapolis. We got it back, Joe, because we believe in law and order.”
According to Post fact-checkers, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said “We had no conversations whatsoever with the White House about anything related to the protests…I don’t know what world he’s living in.”
Trump just made this story up. To con-fabulate is to tell someone a fable. Trump often takes a fact, and spins his own narrative around it. In the debate he claimed he “brought back” football, and that Hunter Biden was paid $3.5 million by the wife of the mayor of Moscow. The power of confabulation comes from the story, which we image in in our heads as we hear it — especially if it sounds dramatic or alarming. If we take it in as possibly true, it’s hard to fully unbelieve it later. This is also known as the narrative fallacy. The way to resist the power of a known confabulator’s stories is with a different fable — the boy who cried wolf. When a known liar like Trump starts to spin a story, mentally tell yourself: “He’s probably crying ‘wolf!’” — and hear everything that follows as most likely a lie — unless further evidence proves it to be true.
Blatant Lie: “There aren’t 100 million people with preexisting [medical] conditions”
Post fact-checkers cite a 2018 report that concluded the number was 102 million. Blatant lies are easy to catch if you can fact check them on the spot. But if you can’t, as in a debate, it too easy to believe the falsehood. In this case, since neither Biden — who brought this number up in the context of Obamacare — nor Trump cited sources in the debate, how would we know? In fact, when I first heard Biden utter it, I thought it was probably false. The only way to protect yourself from a blatant lie is to check the record of the speaker. Unfortunately, someone in a position of power, like the presidency, has the authority of the office when they speak. It takes effort to mentally overcome this bias. If the person has a track record for lying, as does the current president, then you can use a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous advice for dealing with the USSR: Verify, then trust. Put the fact in a mental neutral zone until you have first fact checked that its true.
I would add, this is much easier to do with a politician whose views you disagree with. To be a genuine advocate for Truth, you have to be vigilant for lies told by those you favor. This is essential if we are to hold our leaders to account, and return to an era in which truth matters. Biden also told a few blatant lies during the debate. (“We have a higher deficit with China now than we did before”). A truthful politician, on realizing they spoke an untruth, would later correct it and be sure not to repeat. Trump, more often than not, doubles down on blatant lies, insisting they are true. A politician who never corrects their errors deserves to have every claim doubted. So, let’s watch and see if Biden corrects his lies or not.
Paltering: “If you look at what we’ve done, I closed it,”
Trump and his supporters make a big deal of his Jan. 31 “China ban” that curtailed travel from China to the US by non-US citizens. Fox’s Sean Hannity repeatedly called it “the single most consequential decision in history.” But by late January the virus was already in the US, and flights from Italy continued, even as the epidemic was raging there. Trump has admitted — on tape — that he “underplayed” the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. His paltering is a thin disguise for the responsibility he bares for many thousands of deaths that could have prevented by earlier action inside the country. Using a truth to cover a lie is perhaps one of the most pernicious forms of deception. Even a child may tell a lie — but it takes intelligence and cunning to palter. It’s hard to spot. But once you do, beware everything someone who palters tells you, because they know how to use the truth to tell a lie.
In conclusion, it’s important to pay attention in debates, and avoid the careless conclusion that “all politicians lie.” Not all lies, and not all liars, are equal. Most important, only by paying attention to the lies, and speaking out about them, can we begin to hold our politicians to account. Otherwise, elections devolve into a battle in which the best lair wins. That approach was on display in the first debate. We have a chance now to speak out about it. This is why my co-author and I wrote Pro Truth, and why he created the Pro Truth Pledge (www.protruthpledge.org). If you have had enough of lies being normalized, and want to help put truth back into politics, please check it out, and join us.
Tim Ward is a communications expert based in Washington DC. His co-author Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is the founder of the Pro-Truth Pledge (www.protruthpledge.org) and a well-known scholar on fighting fake news, misinformation, and post-truth politics. They wrote Pro Truth together to help citizens learn to protect themselves from lies and empower them to put truth back into politics.