The Measurement of Lies

Since becoming US President in January 2017 Donald Trump has achieved considerable notoriety because of his propensity for lying. Trump, of course, is hardly the first public official in the United States or elsewhere to achieve this type of unflattering reputation. Making statements those uttering them know to be false is a common feature of political life in general. Trump appears to have drawn special attention to the discourse of lies because of his prominence as the ‘leader of the free world’.

Journalists, opposition politicians, and other investigators have sought typically to measure the president’s fabrications by their frequency. How often over the course of a speech or any public statement does Trump lie to his listeners? “Fact-checkers” appear to monitor Trump’s remarks since his inauguration or on a daily or weekly basis, or often for each separate public statement. In any case, the common practice among observers is to use frequency as the exclusive basis for measuring his lies. For instance, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported a staggering total of 6,420 lies or ‘misleading statements’ over the 649 days between his inauguration and the 2018 congressional elections.

It occurs to this observer that frequency is simply one way of measuring lying. There are other variables that should be taken into consideration in evaluating the performance. Magnitude and Timing are other elements of lying that should be taken into consideration. Let me elaborate.

Lies are not all alike. Some concern minor matters, prevarications that seem so trivial that observers find it difficult to comprehend why Trump or any other liar bothers. For example, in the days following his inauguration Trump asserted that the size of the crowd attending the ceremony set a record and, to say the least, far exceeded the one appearing at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. When the local authorities and journalists denied the accuracy of Trump’s claim, the new president refused to back down. He persisted in asserting the spurious crowd estimate, photographic evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Other lies are often breathtaking in their magnitude. So that President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw American forces from Syria was based on the claim that ISIS had been defeated and that, consequently, there was no further need for their presence. Defense department estimates that the terrorist organization retained some 30,000 to 40,000 fighters in the vicinity were simply ignored. Bogus claims that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had agreed to give up his country’s nuclear weapons offer another example of Trump’s high magnitude lying. High magnitude lying has hardly been limited to Trump. The Bush Administration’s justification for its 2003 decision to invade Iraq was based on two lies: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; and that his regime had formed a secret alliance with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

Sometimes Trump’s lying or the lies of other political figures more generally occur infrequently, applied only as the need arises. On other occasions, as in the case of President Nixon after the Watergate scandal began to unfold, there is a cascade effect. In order to support one lie, the liar (in this case Nixon) has to rapid fire others in order to sustain the original one. In effect, the initial lie requires a bodyguard of more lies to sustain itself.

In general, there appear to be special times or special occasions for high intensity lying. Two come to mind, both are situations when the political figure involved seeks the consent of the governed; for example, when public support appears necessary to take the country to war. Selling atrocity stories about the would-be enemy’s conduct are frequently helpful in persuading skeptical publics to risk blood and treasure.

Election campaigns in democratic settings are other occasions for high intensity (or clustered) lying. In order to win election or re-election candidates often seek to depict their opponents as embodiments of evil or completely alien to the body politic whose election would produce apocalyptic consequences. Sometimes the invention of non-existing threats proves helpful. Candidate Trump’s invention of a largely fictitious threat posed by Mexican immigrants offers a case in point. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s successful re-election bid in 2018 was based, at least in part, on persuading voters the country was threatened by an imaginary influx of Syrian refugees.

To be systematic, it seems possible to develop an overall measure of political lying by Trump or other political figures. Such a measure would assign independent weights to all three indicators – frequency, magnitude, and timing or rapidity. The scores for each indicator could then be combined to a single overall measure.

Other than fact-checking are there any other ways for members of the public to tell when a political leader is lying? Fact-checking has its benefits, but it doesn’t evaluate whether or not the politician is knowingly telling a lie or is simply misinformed or bewildered by the events he/she is seeking to describe. For instance, during the 1976 presidential debates between President Gerald Ford and his challenger Jimmy Carter, Ford claimed that Poland was not under communist domination, when it clearly was. A quick fact-check would show Ford to be not telling the truth. But this was not a case of the President lying. He was simply confused by the question.

Some unobtrusive measures may prove helpful. Many years ago an MIT social scientist sought to identify when President Lyndon Johnson was telling the public lies about developments in Vietnam during his television appearances. His method was also after the fact, in that he first determined when Johnson had told a lie and then used taped recordings of the speech to see how Johnson appeared when lying. Chadwick Alger, the social scientist in question, decided Johnson was most likely to be telling a lie when he looked the television camera straight in the eye and sought to convey a feeling of perfect sincerity!

Some enhanced version of this method, now 50 years after the Vietnam War, might prove useful in identifying political lying as it occurs rather than having to rely on after-the-fact measurements.

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. His profile can be found here:

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