All sorts of lies – how to recognize and avoid them
There are things one really, really should avoid when doing marketing or social media. They are obvious, but unfortunately, most people think they are so obvious they need not even think about them. One of them is lying. You know, that old-fashioned thing you were told not to do when you were a child. Lying is basically a bad idea, since it takes a lot of effort to keep it up, and sooner or later someone will find out in any case and then there will be in trouble, or as Cormac McCarthy would have it, blood. People hate liars more than lies, and once a liar is found out they are no longer trusted, despite saying sorry because that means nothing these days – apologies are cheap. This is because their thinking is seen to be unpredictable and because, if they can lie, they have a mindset that can easily lead to worse behaviours, like theft. Also, if someone believed another person’s lies, they are themselves lying by association which, in a way, is coercion and which can end up with someone in a conspiracy of liars and their lies. You might be reading this and saying to yourself, I am an honest person, I do not lie. Check the list below to see if you have ever done any of it. If you haven’t I think you are a computer or a robot or a perfect person without weaknesses or an illogical brain cell in your head.
Businesses doing their own promotion must take extra care not get over-confident about their resources, achievements or skills base, and end up telling all manner of lies. The mark of a professional is that they do not lie in any shape or form.
Lying in the press
Apart from these good, humane reasons not to lie, there is a very thin line between lying and bad reportage in the press. In fact, I think when reporters and journalists do a bad job of reporting, they are, basically, lying in one way or another.
When writing to persuade, or about dramatic subjects, it is difficult to stick to the cold, hard facts, and depending on their agenda, publications often simply do not, on purpose. So-called “advocacy journalism”, when a journalist is lobbying for a cause or pushing an idea, in other words, being subjective on purpose, is definitely on the increase.
“Many factors have contributed to decline of objective journalism over the past decades. Some of them are economic, caused by the self-censorship of journalists who don’t want to offend their corporate employers, but another trend has been the rise of relativism. Truth (capital ‘T’) seems a bit old-fashioned these days. Politicians have always lied – as Joseph Goebbels said, the bigger the better – but generally there has been someone around, whether it’s the intelligentsia, the clergy or the political opposition, to call them on it. Every Nixon has his Woodward & Bernstein, eventually. Now the situation is different, and the reason stems from the current state of our intellectual culture, which shuns anything that sounds absolute. Facts are for the naïve.” (Ali Hossaini, The Nasty Truth About the Noble Lie, Oct. 2003, rtrvd. 2016-05-10)
Readers must consider that the instant they see an adjective (describes a person, thing or idea) or an adverb (describes an action) then the statement is no longer objective and no longer factual. It is qualified. It is someone’s personal perception and has become subjective. Even different words to describe one concept has different emotional connotations: rain vs. downpour; traffic vs. logjam; condo vs. skyscraper. This is demonstrated by the statement below, randomly selected from the glut of reports about the recent wildfires in Fort McMurray, Canada:
Statement 1: CBC news report
“For hundreds of evacuees — thousands by day’s end — Friday’s convoys offered the first chance to see the burned ruins of a city they had fled just 72 hours earlier. After three days stranded in oil sands work camps north of the city, thousands of evacuees in cars and trucks were escorted through their fire-ravaged community, with RCMP cruisers in front and behind. They travelled in groups of 50 vehicles at a time, with helicopters on watch overhead. All intersections along the route were blocked by police to ensure no one tried to slip away and disappear into the haze.”
Statement 2: CBC report I’ve rewritten to be factual (who, how many, from where, when, why, how)
“An estimated 13 thousand people had been evacuated to temporary shelters in Edmonton 72 hours after parts of the city had caught fire. RCMP cruisers and helicopters escorted the evacuees from the oil sands work camps Imperial Oil’s Wapasca Lodge and Suncor’s Fort Hills, in groups of 50 vehicles at a time. The RCMP blocked all intersections along route […] to prevent vehicles leaving the route.”
The first statement is all about dramatizing an already dramatic event. It is not factual reportage, it’s verging on fiction. Shame on the CBC for such emotionalism at a time that calls for calm, clear communications. It’s certainly exaggerated, repetitious, stating the obvious and being vague at the same time. It shows a willingness to feed people’s need for drama and conflict. Emotional words like “stranded”, “ruins”, “fled”, “fire-ravaged”, “on watch”, and “slip away”, could all have been avoided. “Stranded”? It means “without a way to move” – but with the very next words, the writer remarks on the convoys of cars and trucks. The evacuees definitely had the means to leave.
It also shows shoddy investigation. Did the reporter not think to ask someone for details? Why just use the old catch-phrase “oil sands camps”? This story will be read world-wide and not everyone knows which companies have camps there, what they are called and when they were evacuated. That is obfuscation. And no, Twitter feeds (which are regularly included in CBC news reports) do not constitute details. A report is only as good as the identity and credentials of its source.
Like my old professor always said: if a story is important enough it does not need exclamation marks, literal or otherwise. And this big story did not need to be jazzed up – the facts paint a horrible enough picture when just being plainly stated.
Lying 101, from A-Z
- Bad faith lie – lying to yourself, saying something while knowing that is not what you really think or believe. For instance:
“Will you be investing in that scheme?”
“Absolutely, great opportunity.”
Meanwhile thinking, “Not a snowball’s hope in hell…”
- Barefaced lie – an obvious lie, told without shame. Remember this?
“I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false.” (Bill Clinton)
And this one:
“I am not a crook.” (Richard Nixon)
- Big lie – a lie that’s almost too big not to believe but which will take serious research to prove or disprove. Many big lies go undetected because people tend to go with “accepted truths” or “group think”. It takes dedication to challenge a big lie. Read a real-life example here.
- Bluffing – Lies that are meant to deceive someone as to the strength of one’s abilities or intentions, a.k.a. to pretend, sham, fake, feign, pose, posture, or masquerade. Read a real-life example here.
- Bulls**t, a.k.a. bulldust, baloney, hogwash – Making up or fabricating something and not caring to conceal it.
- Butler lie – small/innate lies which are usually sent electronically, to end a conversation. (“Gotta go now, phone is ringing…”)
- Contextual lie – Part of the truth taken out of context, giving a false impression. Read a real-life example here.
- Cover-up lie, resulting in The Streisand Effect – an attempt to deny, defend, blur or remove information about past misdeed from public record, ending up drawing renewed attention to it, referred to as The Streisand Effect, and thereby achieving the opposite of what you had intended. People can also lie about having tried to cover it up.
- Defamation – Defamatory statements are false statements that damage a person’s reputation. If defamation is spoken, then it is called slander. If it is written, it is called libel. In business, defamation is often about statements by others that lead to reduced revenue or the inability to continue doing business.The general idea is that defamation is intentionally harmful to the other party and should not be confused with criticism, fair comment or humour. The definition of defamation is that a harmful claim must generally be false and have been made to someone other than the person mentioned. So the defence to an allegation of defamation is to prove that the statement was true. Read a real-life example here. (This is a case where outright lies and fabricated defamatory statements led the person to be arrested for sedition, which is speech and organization that tends toward insurrection against the established order or government.)
- Defensiveness – Defensiveness is a form of denial and usually leads to protesting too much. Defensiveness means a person feels threatened and retaliates with too many or dishonest arguments. “The lady doth protest too much” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is an example of defensiveness. It may mean compartmentalizing facts into those the person can face and those they cannot and then ending up lying by omission or minimization.
- Deflecting – This means lying by avoiding a subject, or lying by ignoring or denying a previous lie. Here is another one by a President, in this case South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, on the matter of his misuse of public funds. It is also an example of deflecting:
“I wish to emphasise that I never knowingly or deliberately set out to violate the constitution. Any action that has been found not to be in keeping with the constitution happened because of a different approach and different legal advice.”
Since that statement, South Africa’s top court has held that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution by ignoring instructions to pay back some of the $16 million in state funds spent on renovations at his sprawling residence at Nkandla, South Africa.
- Dissembling – If you dissemble you hide your true feelings or opinions to mislead someone by being vague, pretending or waffling.
- Economical with the truth – Volunteering false or unreliable information, and using half-truths. Could be lying by omission or under-emphasizing some facts.
- Equivocation – This is when a person says something that sounds meaningful but is in fact vague or ambiguous, and when this is challenged, the person denies that is what they meant. In other words, being a weasel. Like:
“He made his money in oil way back when.”“Really, I thought he started in textiles.”“Oh, sorry, I meant his father – he started in oil.”
- Exaggeration – Overemphasizing some facts or padding facts with made-up information. Could be called hyperbole. Reporters often do that when they call a storm “a disaster” when it is just rain and wind and no damage done. People often exaggerate when they speak informally: “Everyone does”, or “It happens all the time”. Most people understand that these statements are not meant literally. But strictly speaking, it’s still a lie. Consider that happens if a person exaggerates on their CV.
- Fabrication – Saying something without knowing if it is true or false – basically, making something up. Propaganda and advertising are often fabricated. Advertising Standard Canada is supposed to investigate consumer complaints about fabrications and other forms of lies.
- Fraud – Making someone believe a lie to get something from them, usually money, and deprive them of a right. Think pyramid schemes or Ponzi schemes. Real-life examples abound. Here’s a list, (retrvd. 2016-05-10).
- Half-truth – Almost the same as being “economical with the truth”, namely a statement with some truth in it, nevertheless still intended to deceive. That’s why in court you promise to tell the truth, the WHOLE truth (no half-truths or lying by omission) and NOTHING BUT the truth (no exaggeration).
- Honest lie – Just getting the facts wrong without intending to deceive or misinform. A person might not be aware of the facts or history can change what we know for a fact. This lie is not intentionally malicious but even so ends up being damaging.
- Jocose lie – Just joking, or being ironic, or pulling someone’s leg. The tale is so obviously made up that no-one is deceived, so this one isn’t harmful. But it’s still a lie.
- Lie-to-children – This means a simplified – and false – explanation of a complicated thing – like babies come from storks. But a lie-to-children can also be told to a naïve or gullible public.
- Lying by omission – Leaving out or omitting one important fact, including not admitting to having left out the fact. Like a car salesman not telling you the car you are buying had been involved in a serious crash, and then lying by saying he had told you about it, when he had not.
- Lying in trade – Untruths in advertising, including bad science, exaggeration and all the kinds of lies mentioned before, especially lie-to-children. (Refer”fabrication”, above.)
- Minimization – The opposite of exaggeration, also called underplaying or denial, or “making light of” something.
- Misleading – A misleading statement is a statement demonstrating a failure to correct an obviously untrue statement. For instance, someone says: “I did not have my kids immunized because immunization is harmful”. That is followed by a misleading statement such as “Sure, you’re just being a good parent.” Misleading is a form of deception, beguilement, deceit, bluff, mystification and subterfuge and is an act of propagating beliefs in things that are not true, or not the whole truth (as in half-truths or omission). Since misleading statements are deceptions, they often lead to feelings of betrayal, distrust and disappointment.
- Noble lie – A lie to keep the peace. Governments tell noble lies quite often. I think “noble” is a misnomer. There is nothing noble about a lie, whatever its purpose. The equivalent in religion is a pious fiction, a story that is presented as true by the author, but is considered by others to be fictional although altruistic.
“Noble lies run headlong into journalistic ethics, which are based on the opposite principle: that society works best when based on truth.”(Ali Hossaini)
Read a real-life example from American politics here. (Rtrvd. 2016-05-11)
- Obfuscation – Obfuscation is the obscuring of intended meaning in communication, making the message confusing, willfully ambiguous, or harder to understand. It may be intentional or unintentional – though it’s usually intentional – and may result from circumlocution (writing around a subject and not coming to the point, or being wordy) or from the use of jargon or company-speak which people may not understand. You only have to read legal documents or company press releases filled with complicated and long-winded text full of abbreviations to recognize obfuscation – and to know that you are expected not to understand which means someone is intending to pull the wool over your eyes.
- Pathological lie – Compulsive lying which is actually a symptom of a psychological condition.
- Perjury – lying under oath. So you can commit perjury when you are in court for defamation.
- Polite lie or a white lie – a lie to spare someone’s feelings or to not be considered impolite. Usually both parties know it’s a lie. Like: “I can’t make your party because I have to work late.” It is usually told when the truth is unpleasant and may make either party “lose face”.
- Puffery – An exaggerated claim typically found in advertising and publicity announcements, and could include lying in trade. The difference is between puffery and lying in trade is that statements are unlikely to be true but would take investigation to disprove. And since most consumers would not go to the trouble, these proliferate. This is where the term “snake-oil salesman” comes from; travelling salesmen that made the claim that snake oil – whatever that was – could cure anything.
- Speaking with a forked tongue –Being duplicitous by giving different versions of a story to opposing parties, the forked tongue referring to the tongue of a snake. Same as being “a two-faced liar”.
How to detect lies
It is very hard to have an automatic lie detector running in your head like a metal detector. Most of us tend to sense rather than know when we are being lied to, and picking that up from someone speaking to you is much harder than reading it in print or seeing it on someone’s face or in their manner.
People tend to believe what they read in print and on the screen. With half-truths, over-simplifications, and minimization rampant on Twitter (because of the limitation in number of characters), advertising full of puffery and lying in trade, and obfuscation and white lies everywhere in politics, what is an honest citizen to do?
- Well, you use your brain. Consider the intention behind the words.
- Does someone want something from me?
- Does someone want to harm me?
- Does someone want to persuade or entertain me?
- Does someone want to influence me?
If so, there may be lying involved.
- Does someone want to give me information or educate me?
- Do they really, actually want nothing from me?
Then, perhaps, the info is on the level.
Last words on the truth:
“In searching out the truth be ready for the unexpected, for it is difficult to find and puzzling when you find it.” (Heraclitus of Ephesus c. 535 – c. 475 BCE, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher)