Where's Pinocchio When We Need Him?
In 1881, Carlo Collodi wrote a story about Pinocchio, a wooden marionette who dreams of being a human boy. It’s a morality tale underscoring the benefits of being a good person. What we remember best, of course, is Pinocchio’s lengthening nose with each fib. Oh, that it should be so easy to identify liars!
We’ve been trained to expect politicians to stretch the truth, but our forty-fifth president and his spokespeople were unparalleled in creating “fake news.” Deceptions have turned into dogma in the hearts and minds of fellow Americans. It’s extremely hard to change beliefs and the research indicates presenting facts doesn’t make a difference; people just dig in more.
There’s something called the broken record technique where one keeps repeating a short phrase or word to assertively state a stance and end conversation. I remember an airline worker at Heathrow Airport telling me repeatedly (in the face of my tantrum), “You aren’t getting home today.” When the broken record technique is used in politics, it’s designed to persuade listeners that a statement is true.
Disinformation (intentionally misleading information) is synonymous with propaganda. Its aim is to convince an audience of a specific agenda. The rational mind is deliberately short-circuited through the use of emotionally laden words and dramatic delivery. Selective facts may be included but they’re obfuscated.
There is nothing new about propaganda; it’s ubiquitous in the advertising we’re exposed to daily. PSYOP is defined by the US military as “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” This implies that it’s used solely in other countries, but it’s found right here at home, too. Examples of disinformation have ranged from the justification of war (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), labeling an enemy (Soviet Union during the Cold War), social issues (communism during the McCarthy era), to name only a few. Today, propaganda about COVID-19 is wide-spread.
To convince people, it matters who’s speaking and on what platform. A conspiracy theory spun by your neighbor and told across the fence isn’t as compelling as one espoused by a role model on highly visible media platforms. Once fabrications are loosed, they take on a life of their own and are almost impossible to reverse (i.e., conspiracy theories about vaccines).
Guy Bergstrom (writing in the online journal, The Balance) says, “The most damaging rumors are about non-factual things, not lies. There is a distinction. Non-factual things are impossible to substantiate: future events, past mysteries, true personal motivations.” There’s no proof one way or the other so they exist in the realm of the possible. An example of a non-factual future event is the prognostication that the world will end on a specific day. This prediction has been made repeatedly. Then when the sun inevitably rises, undeterred, they recalculate. When these speculations are transmitted by a trusted individual or news outlet, they’re assumed to be true.
When our country was founded, news could travel only as fast as available conveyances. When radio (then television) became common place, information could be relayed much faster. But there were limited channels and they told the same story. Currently, we spread information, misinformation, and disinformation at the speed of the internet. An unlimited menu of “news” has led to what I believe is a propaganda crisis. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to bring us to a common set of facts.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I’m interested in what makes people tick. I’m curious about how disinformation can effectively be challenged and how people who believe lies can be deprogrammed. Over a series of blog posts, I’ll be sharing what I learn. I hope you’ll come back to join me in this exploration.