Strategic lying: the new game in town

Accusations of lying against politicians, particularly those involved in an election campaign, are far from new. Back in 1974 Hannah Arendt reminded us that ‘”…..the deliberate falsehood and the outright lie used as legitimate means to achieve political ends, have been with us since the beginning of recorded history”. But in covering and researching more election campaigns than I care to remember, this is the first one that the notion of liars and lying has been so prominent. Nor can it simply be attributed to the particular character of Boris Johnson, whose relationship to the truth has been, to say the very least, casual. The lying in the 2019 election has been more systematic than in past campaigns where the problem was more one of voters trying to navigate a stream of spin rather than trying to swim through a torrent of lies.

In fact the lies of 2019, particularly from the Conservative side had a particular character which I am describing as ‘strategic lying’ can be traced back to a the evolution of an environment in which politicians, who in the past if caught lying were obliged to resign, now appear to have gained a ‘permission to lie’.

Strategic lying involves, first, the telling a blatant untruth in the full knowledge that within minutes of its dissemination it will be called out as a lie, but for a number of reasons this doesn’t appear to matter.

First, because the main function of the lie is not to communicate a message per se but to have impact. Writing after the EU referendum Tory strategist Dominic Cummings said about that slogan – “We send £350 million to the EU. Let’s spend it on the NHS instead” – it was intended to make an impact, not to inform the electorate. And because of its impact the strategic lie gets shared, tweeted and re-posted hundreds of thousands of times on publication and then again as it is rebutted. When ITV News covered the launch of the ‘Boris Bus’ during the Brexit campaign they devoted seven minutes to Mr Johnson refusing to accept the interviewer’s assertions that the figure was misleading. It didn’t matter if the audience doubted Johnson’s words – the subject of ‘our money’ going to Brussels when it could be better spent on the NHS, dominated the airwaves and remained in public consciousness.

But there is more to it than merely getting a message across. The strategic lie’s second function is to ensure that the subject matter of the lie stays at the top of the news agenda. And its third function is more generalised, it’s to sew confusion making audiences immune to messages from opponents that might cut through the misleading narrative – the post-truth environment incarnate.

The strategic lie first manifest itself in the 2019 campaign with the release of the video doctored by the Conservative Press Office falsely showing Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, apparently unable to answer a question about his Party’s stance on Brexit. The clip went viral on social media and then viral again when it was replayed for the purposes of rebuttal. The ruse had achieved its purpose. It was widely disseminated and, in the process, reinforced the narrative that Labour’s Brexit policy was so confused that even their own Brexit lead appeared to not know what it was.

There were numerous other examples of this strategy in action – Mr. Johnson denying there would be any border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, despite the Treasury and his own Brexit Secretary saying there would be. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid claiming that Labour’s spending commitments amounted to an astronomical £1.3 trillion – a gross exaggeration, made to sound seemingly credible by the figure £1.3 trillion rather than a more general £1 trillion. The figure was demonstrably bogus but as the Chancellor toured the TV studios rebutting the rebuttals Labour’s claimed, over-spending stayed in the headlines.

The media research literature demonstrates why strategic lying is such an effective tactic.

First, because correcting inaccurate statements, by either journalists or fact checkers, might persuade the uncommitted, but those sympathetic to the original message will reject the correction. Indeed it can actually increase the intensity of their belief in the original lie as a means of avoiding cognitive dissonance.

Second, for those sympathetic to, or neutral about, the original message, the memory of the correction fades rapidly but the memory of the original lie remains.

Third, because of the tried and tested power of repetition, if a lie is repeated often enough its content becomes easier to process and subsequently regarded as more truthful than any new statements rebutting it.

So, in an age of ‘permission to lie’, it appears that the benefits of strategic lying far outweigh any costs which could well mean that soon enough all politicians will be doing it and the quality of our democracy will further decline.