Why politicians, media and advertisers can get away with untruths

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump & Scott Morrison

Politicians have a poor reputation for truthfulness. Some say former US President Donald Trump made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during his 4 years in office.

In Australia, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was widely believed to be devious and untruthful. Britain’s former PM, Boris Johnson, was accused of lying as a journalist and as a politician.

Yet they were all highly successful, at least for a while, and their supporters never seemd to care about their mendacity. Why is this?

Our brains make us believers

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, and re-published in the Sydney Morning Herald, we can find it hard to recognise a lie because of how our brains work.

Our senses bombard our brains with sights, sounds and smells, and the external world requires our brains to make all sorts of decisions in rapid time. We simply don’t have time to pay attention to everything, and most decisions have to be made too quickly to allow careful assessment.

So our brains have developed heuristics, which are basically “rules of thumb”, shortcuts that help us arrive at decisions quickly and reliably, using intuitive thinking. This allows our brains to be freer to address those matters which require more thought.

These heuristics can be very effective. For example, studies show that in emergencies, more experienced doctors intuitively came to better decisions more quickly than younger doctors who followed an analytical process.

And so our brains tend to believe what we hear if it is plausible, because it is less work for our brains and most of what we hear is likely to be true.

Making it easier to believe

We are especially likely to believe what we are told if:

  • It fits our own worldview. It is much easier for our brains to assimilate new information if it fits our existing mental models, and much more comfortable for us. Those with strong religious or political (or other) beliefs may be especially prone to this confirmation bias.
  • If the information is repeated. Repetition can make even false information more familiar and thus more believable.
  • If the information comes in an emotional story. Stories which appeal to our emotions are much more attractive than cold facts. Stories can support the good but can also be dangerous and misleading. Demonising opponents can promote the strong emotion of fear.
  • Whatever we hear first. Once we hear something, it is hard to replace that idea with an alternative idea, even if the first idea is shown to be false. The false idea remains in the brain and can be more enduring than the truth.

We can see this working out

Unfortunately, politicians and the media can take advantage of our trust and willingness to believe what we are told, and feed us misinformation that colours our choices.

US politics shows how these things can work out in practice. On the night of the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump claimed that the election had been “stolen”. He offered no evidence. There wasn’t even reasonable time for him to have seen any evidence if it existed. And he continued to repeat the claim, as did some of the media.

More than 50 court cases claiming election fraud were dismissed due to lack of evidence. Trump lawyer Sidney Powell said no reasonable person would conclude that the claims were factual statements.

Yet still the claims are believed by many. They were repeated and are still being repeated. The claims fit some people’s worldview. They have been reinforced by demonising opponents with scare words like “socialist” and “woke”.

In the end, many people who didn’t believe the claims at first eventually found themselves giving in.

Both sides of politics can use these methods, but it seems to me that the progressive side isn’t as blatant or deceptive.

It’s not just politics

Advertising can use some of the same techniques. Years ago advertising tended to give facts about the product. But now it is more likely to sell an emotion (good times or a loving family), play on our anxieties (offering simple choices in a confusing time), reinforce attitudes or worldview (materialism or patriotism) or simply repeat the name ( sponsor’s names on sport uniforms).

Unfortunately, religion too can use fear of hell, punishment or ostracism to keep people in the fold. And western religion has tended to soften and even oppose the strong teachings of Jesus on materialism, caring for the poor and serving others, making it easier for affluent christians to stay comfortable. So christians can be guilty of manipulation and misinformation too.

How can truth win over falsehood?

Emotions and intuitive thinking are good things, not bad. But it is a little scary to think that they can be used to promote wrong and deceptive ideas.

However there are ways to combat manipulative methods bombarding us, and in our own thinking too.

Want to know the truth

Sad to say, many christians are among those most prone to conspiracy theories and political misinformation, probably because we have been taught to respect authority and to believe things on faith, and because right wing politicians know how to press christian buttons on issues like sexuality, gender and abortion.

But Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) whereas the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). So we christians should be especially wanting to know the truth and hold to it.

Pre-bunking is better than de-bunking

It is much harder to combat false information after it has been received by the brain. Warning people and preparing ourselves beforehand to be wary of unsubstantiated claims is the best way to combat misinformation.

Be prepared

Studies show that when people are prepared by learning about logical fallacies, misinformation and manipulation techniques , they are more sceptical about falsehoods. It would be good to help our children, and ourselves, be more prepared in this way by discussing examples of misinformation.

Choose information sources wisely

It is obvious that social media and mass media all have their viewpoints and biases, and some, whether it be Fox News or the Socialist Worker, are likely to allow their biases to determine what they report and how they report it – views more than news. We need to really work at finding reliable sources.

It is easy to embrace the familiar and the like-minded, and Facebook algorithms help us have a blinkered vision of issues. We need to find ways to filter out the extreme views yet read enough reasoned views on different sides of any question we are considering to feel confident we have a fair grasp of the issues.

Pay attention to accuracy.

We can be on guard when reading social media (which typically offers brief opinions with little supporting information), and not just accept what we read. We can consider information offered and ask ourselves is it really information or just misinformation; does it offer credible evidence for its claims?

Strive for accuracy.

Check sources when communicating our ideas, and choose information that is reliably evidenced. A lot of the preparation for posts on this website is spent in reading sources, asking Google questions to test the evidence I have read, and trying to find good representatives from either side of the question.

The truth will set us free

Jesus said that the truth would set us free (John 8:32). I’m sure there are many ways to apply this saying, but we surely must conclude that we don’t have to be afraid of the truth. Jesus is on the side of truth.

We don’t have to allow our religious views to prevent us considering whether politicians and media are really telling us the truth, or are deliberately seeking to misinform and manipulate us into serving their purposes.

We can learn to test what we hear and read, and what we say, and, as Pete Townsend wrote so many years ago, we “won’t get fooled again.”

Photos by by Ben Shread / Cabinet Office (Boris Johnson), Gage Skidmore (Donald Trump) and The White House (Scott Morrison), all Public Domain on Wikipedia.

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11 Comments

  1. The article begins by explaining the dangers of bias that “we” face but then concludes, perhaps inevitably, that the progressive side is less deceptive. And, of course, the politicians singled out for their dishonesty all on the Right.

    Still, there is some worthwhile advice on avoiding bias. However, one must ask how willing the author is to follow his own advice. How open is he to acknowledging challenges to his views? And there is one crucial question that the author needs to address. Is he a Christian or is he an admirer of Jesus? It is, of course, quite possible to be the latter but not the former. Many people value the ethical teachings of Jesus but would prefer to leave the rest of the package to one side. They tend to be either indifferent to or sceptical of the miraculous. Generally, they don’t have much time for Paul. Some of these people are open about not being Christians, in spite of their admiration for Jesus, but others prefer to call themselves Christians when it would probably be better if they didn’t. This is where open discussion is essential.

  2. Self interest is a powerful force. (Always back the horse called self interest said one politician).

    To some people it doesn’t matter if Trump, Morrison or Johnson lie, as long as their own situation is improved.

    That’s not neccessarily gullibility it’s just greed in a lot of cases.

  3. Hi David, thanks for your comments and questions. I’m sorry I didn’t see them until now.

    “concludes, perhaps inevitably, that the progressive side is less deceptive. And, of course, the politicians singled out for their dishonesty all on the Right.”

    Yes, that is true. I think these days in western countries, each side has its characteristic errors. The right, I think, is more likely to be strategically dishonest, to ignore factual information and to pretend to be doing the best for the country when really they are doing everything to widen the gap between rich powerful white men and everyone else. The left, I think, is more likely to get excited about things that don’t really matter, be impractical and inefficient, and their dishonesty is more likely to be based on exaggeration rather than be deceitful. Those are broad generalisations, but I think give you a picture of how I see things.

    “How open is he to acknowledging challenges to his views?”

    Quite willing. If I wasn’t, I would allow comments on my blog. Please feel free to challenge further if you wish. (The only restrictions are outlined in the blog’s comment policy.)

    “Is he a Christian or is he an admirer of Jesus?”

    It is an interesting distinction. Some people admire Jesus’ teachings without committing to believing in him and following him. But it is equally true that some identify as christians without following his teachings, or even attempting to. Jesus said by their fruits we can know them.

    I am both, although of course we each may have our own views of what it means to be a christian. But I believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection, and I believe miracles can happen today. If you check out other pages on this website, you may satisfy yourself about this – may I suggest you start at My story.

    What about you, David? I guess you identify as a christian? Do you have a view about political right and left?

    Thanks for your feedback and interest.

  4. Hi West, nice to hear from you again. I hope you have dry feet where you are – many others who are west of the mountaisn don’t at present! We old hydrologists watch it all with interest as well as alarm and sympathy!

    Yes, I’m sure you are right about greed. But the strange thing to me is that many of those who voted for Trump thinking he was going to make America great again are actaully better off under Biden. But Trump and others like him have perfected the art of demonising those who want to do good for the poorer people and getting them to vote tribally against their own interests.

    Bob Dylan wrote an interesting song about racial injustice many years ago, called Only a Pawn in Their Game. One verse says this:

    A South politician preaches to the poor white man
    “You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
    You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
    And the Negro’s name
    Is used, it is plain
    For the politician’s gain
    As he rises to fame
    And the poor white remains
    On the caboose of the train
    But it ain’t him to blame
    He’s only a pawn in their game.

    (I understand the word “negro is no longer acceptable, but it was OK back then.) So I think it isn’t only greed, but being manipulated.

  5. Hi unkleE,

    Thank you for your thoughts, it’s wet underfoot hear but not flooding, but sympathy definitely goes to those further west with hopes it will be over soon.

    I think Labor’s victory in Australia and the Republican’s less than expected performance in the US shows that people are waking up to the manipulations of the extremists and becoming more choosy about who they listen too. That must be a good sign.

    Bad news is that Trump has decided to run again, with all his fakery and deception and guarantees he will be all over our tv screens again even in Australia. The media seems attracted to him like a moth to a flame. It’s like a freak show for them I’m afraid.

    [PS I ceased receiving emails from this site a while ago so I thought something may be wrong, it’s good to see you are still on air. I have re-subscribed so I will see how that goes. Feel free to delete this part of the message if you like]

  6. Hi David M, hope you are well

    I have found this blog, along with it’s writer to have helped me back to faith and focusing more on Jesus, through the Grace of God. Along the journey I’m thankful I met this writer and visited his blog.

    Have a great week

    Kind regards, Ryan

  7. unkleE

    I think we have different ideas about how open you are to views opposing your own. I believe that I raised an important point concerning your last article but it was not published.

    Ryan

    Thanks for your comment. I am glad to hear that you have come back to faith. However, there is a question I would like to ask. Are you focusing more on the teachings of Jesus than on him as the Risen Lord?

  8. Hi David, there were actually three of your comments in the WordPress Trash folder. I don’t recall putting them there, but I suppose I may have accidentally. But WordPress doesn’t always advise me as it should of new comments, so it may have gone there automatically and unknown to me. Anyway, I’m sorry about that and I have approved them so that they now appear. I will reply to them when I have time. Thanks for you persistence.

  9. Hi David, thanks for your response

    I believe Jesus is our Risen Lord. I believe this because of what Jesus teaches, and the accounts in The Bible that teach that He raised from death physically to life, now I believe He lives as having risen. Which is why I trust Him, and pray to God in His name. But I think His teachings are important. Especially the Sermon on the Mount, and the first and second greatest Commandments that He reminds us of
    in the accounts of the Gospels.

    Kind regards, Ryan

  10. “Bad news is that Trump has decided to run again, with all his fakery and deception”

    Yes, but it may have it’s good side. A lot of people are wise to him now, and he may struggle to win the nomination. But even if he does, he will quite likely hand the presidency to the Dems again. That is assuming he isn’t in gaol in a year, which seems quite likely.

    “PS I ceased receiving emails from this site a while ago so I thought something may be wrong”

    I don’t know what is going on. I sometimes get notified of new comments, as I should, but sometimes I don’t. Some of David’s comments ended up in trash, and others didn’t. So there’s some instability here in relation to comments. I have tried to check the relevant settings, but I’m not sure if it’s all fixed. Sorry about that.

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