How Lies Work

If you’ve ever seen a five-year-old stand over a broken vase and say, “I didn’t do it”, you might think lying is easy. But as Mark Twain observed: “An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.”

Effective lying in a political campaign is very hard work. The soil has to be tilled and the lie planted just so. You have to water it over and over again. And then, at just the right moment, you add that special ingredient that makes it sprout and flower.

Let’s look at the most effective lie currently spreading: President Obama is a threat to your Medicare. I live in a swing state (New Hampshire), so I’ve been seeing it in this ad:

At first glance, this looks like a rubber/glue lie: The guy who wants to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher program and then not fund it properly is Paul Ryan. How can the Romney/Ryan campaign turn that around and make themselves the defenders of Medicare?

They’re doing it, and it seems to be working. I can feel the pull of their ad, even though I know it’s false. How does that work? It’s a master class in propaganda.

Start with a kernel of truth. Whether or not you believe that current deficits are necessary to stimulate the economy, you should worry about the rising cost of health care: It’s not just that in the long run Medicare, Medicaid, and veteran’s medical benefits threaten to swamp the federal budget, it’s that health-care spending in general threatens to swamp the economy.

You can get spending growth down in two ways: Reform the system to deliver care more efficiently or deliver less care. The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) pushes the deliver-more-efficiently approach. Medicare benefits don’t change, but hospitals get reimbursed less for delivering them. (Some of the profit built into hospital payments covers the emergency-room costs of the uninsured. ObamaCare lowers the number of uninsured, so hospitals don’t need to charge the insured as much.) Also, the government curtails Medicare Advantage, a wasteful Republican attempt to build a private option into Medicare. (The private plans cost more, because the private sector is less efficient at things like this. The government has been picking up the difference.)

The result is an estimated $716 billion in savings over ten years.

That’s the kernel of truth: Because of ObamaCare, the government will spend $716 billion less on Medicare.

Till the dirty soil. Bad propaganda boomerangs, because people who recognize your ugly falsehoods resent you for telling them. So you never want to be caught telling a nasty lie.

However … you can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

If you want to convince people that President Obama is sabotaging the Medicare they deserve, you’ve got a lot to work with.

Obama is black. Romney doesn’t say, “You can’t trust Obama because he’s black”, because even whites who don’t trust blacks would be horrified to hear it said out loud. In this post-civil-rights-movement era, it’s rare to meet an open I-hate-niggers racist.

Still, race matters. White America does not give Obama the level of trust or respect a white president of either party would get. (Picture the outrage if a black congressman had interrupted President Bush’s state-of-the-union address by yelling, “You lie!”) And it’s different when blacks do things we accept whites doing. (Picture armed blacks protesting in a Tea-Party-like manner, with signs calling for revolution. Picture a black senate candidate threatening “second amendment solutions” if his side loses the election.)

You till this soil by talking about how “foreign” Obama is, and how someone needs to teach him “how to be an American“. If you just imply “Obama isn’t like you”, many whites will fill in the racist parts for themselves.

Blacks are lazy. They want the government to give them what white people earned. When Newt Gingrich calls Obama “the Food Stamp president”, he’s counting on his audience to fill this in. If they aren’t making the racial connection, Gingrich gives a nudge:

I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.

How did the NAACP get into this? Did they ever say they prefer food stamps to paychecks? No? Then what’s Newt talking about?

Ditto when Rick Santorum said:

I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.

In context, that statement is a complete non sequitur unless the government-gives-white-money-to-blacks idea is sitting your head.

Romney himself has tilled this ground with the Obama-gutted-welfare’s-work-requirement lie, which he dispatched Gingrich to defend.


Liberals favor people who don’t work over people who work. They’ve been tilling this one for years. But the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplaces, and Social Security and Medicare themselves — those are liberal ideas. Conservatives were against them every step of the way.

Nobody knows what’s hidden in the Affordable Care Act’s 2000 pages. Of course, if it had been 10 pages critics could say, “Nobody knows how ObamaCare will be implemented, because they left out all the details.” There’s always an angle.

This ground was tilled with Sarah Palin’s “death panel” lie — Politifact’s 2009 Lie of the Year.

As a result, many of the simple things the ACA does are not understood — like getting rid of the donut hole in Medicare prescription drug coverage. (That’s just one of the benefits seniors get from the bill. It isn’t “not for you”.) The pieces of ObamaCare are actually fairly popular, when people find out what they are.

The middle class is vanishing because all the money is going to poor people. In reality, all the money is going to rich people, but that process is complicated. The story that your hard-earned money is being taxed away and given to layabouts is much easier to understand.

A bunch of related misconceptions help out, like “Illegal immigrants steal our jobs.” The common element is that if you’re looking for someone to resent, look down, not up. The rich are heroes, “job creators” — not vultures who made a killing outsourcing everything to China.

Plant. Now look at what the Romney ad says: You (an aging white man) paid into Medicare “every paycheck” (because you worked for a living). But now Obama has siphoned $716 billion of those dollars into ObamaCare, a “massive new government program” which is “not for you”.

So who is it for? People not like you — the young, the non-white, the people who didn’t work.

Years of effort have pushed the idea that ObamaCare is a suspicious program put forward by an illegitimate president in order to give healthcare away to people who don’t work. If you’ve been buying the Republican message so far, you’ve been expecting something like what this ad is telling you.

Supply “independent” verification. Most people are too smart to believe something just because a TV ad says so. Instead, they look for independent verification. So they shrug off the claim that something is “the #1 movie in America” until they find out whether anybody at work has seen it.

But Americans have a lot less direct human contact than they used to. The difference is taken up by voices on the radio or emails from strangers who sound real. Many of them are not real, and conservatives have learned to exploit this avenue of false verification.

Last November, a “brain surgeon” called in to the Mark Levin show to say that ObamaCare would deny brain surgery to anyone over 70. He had the inside scoop, because he’d just come from a American Association of Neuro-Surgeons meeting where the new HHS guidelines document had circulated.

A viral email picked that up, amplified it, and kept people accessing the clip online. A hospital employee heard a doctor repeat it.

It was all fake. There was no meeting; there was no document; the guy who called in wasn’t a brain surgeon. He was just a voice in the ether, telling you something that somebody wanted you to believe.

Now this is going around:

Your Medicare premiums are going to double because of ObamaCare! There it is — the exact numbers! — independently verified by somebody who leaked the information out of BlueCross. But it hasn’t appeared publicly because of Obama’s 2012 campaign!

Except … it’s all fake. BlueCross has nothing to do with it. The numbers are made up.

It’s just something somebody wants you to believe. And it rockets around the country from cousin to co-worker to classmate. Inside information! Conveniently verifying the false thing that Mitt Romney is telling you.

No one knows how many of these fakes are out there, and by the time they get noticed and debunked the deed is done.

Nobody has succeeded in tracing such hoaxes back their sources, other than to note that they are overwhelmingly conservative. But they can’t just happen. No one can accidentally create such well-designed lies.

Don’t underestimate the power of lies. You may see some ad like Romney’s and say, “Nobody’s going to buy that.” But the ad is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the visible piece of a complete propaganda campaign, much of which happens in places you don’t see.

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  • Brian Thompson (@kichigaisan)  On August 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Superb work! Keep it coming!

  • Stephanie  On August 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    I’m going to post a link to this on Facebook if I can cause I think everyone should read it. I just disagree with one point. I have seen American citizens fired to create jobs for (cheaper) Illegals. The Illegals presumably had counterfeit professional certification cause they didn’t know how to care for the patients and some of them couldn’t read which meant they sometimes put the patients lives in danger.

    • weeklysift  On August 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      I don’t doubt that what you say is true. I was intending to refer to “illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs” as a bogus explanation for why the middle class is vanishing. It undoubtedly happens, but the predations from the upper class are far more significant.

      • Kim Cooper  On September 1, 2012 at 11:44 pm

        And if it does happen, why would we blame the immigrant? Does he have the power to force some innocent job provider to hire him? does an employer have to hire him? Shouldn’t we be blaming the employer, or the system?

  • Dan B.  On August 21, 2012 at 12:26 am

    I know I’m shouting into the wind here, but I don’t believe that Santorum said, or was about to say, “black people”. If you listen carefully, it sounds more like “pli” — as if he combined the sounds of “people’s” and “lives” into a single syllable. (I’ve done that sort of thing myself.)

    What’s more, immediately before that sentence, he said: “They’re [the government] just pushing harder and harder to get more of you [Iowans] dependent on them…”. With that as the context, “black people” really does not fit. Listen from 0:16 here:

    • weeklysift  On August 21, 2012 at 6:44 am

      There is some kind of garble there. You might convince me he meant to say “blank” people, as in fill-in-the-blank. But I’m hearing bl-k pretty clearly. It also seems possible he started to say “black” and then realized midway what a mistake it was.

  • Kim Cooper  On August 23, 2012 at 1:03 am

    I’d like to see a constitutional amendment saying you can’t lie is public discourse. Call it the ninth commandment amendment. Could the “Christians” vote against it?
    I know it’s unworkable, I just find all this lying really frustrating and unethical.

  • Shannon  On June 19, 2013 at 7:04 am

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
    now each time a comment is added I get several e-mails with the same
    comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service?


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