Anatomy of a Rumour: How Do We Protect Truth in an Environment that Favours Falsehood?

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‘A lie can be halfway round the world while truth is putting on its shoes.’
Attributed to Mark Twain and Winston Churchill among others…

In the splendid 1959 courtroom drama ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ James Stewart plays a lawyer defending an army lieutenant charged with murder. When cross-examining a medical expert, Stewart asks a question that impugns the integrity of the prosecuting officers. He knows this is improper, admits it and withdraws the remark.

The lieutenant is confused, and asks Stewart: ‘How can a jury disregard what it's already heard?’

Stewart shakes his head and replies: ‘They can't, lieutenant. They can’t.’

This is a relatively benign use of a tactic that is not uncommon in the fields of law, journalism and politics: alluding to something that may not be relevant, provable or even true, and trusting that people will remember.

In his 1972 magazine series, ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’, Hunter S Thompson related a sinister tale of Lyndon Johnson canvassing in Texas:

'The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.

‘Christ, we can’t get away with calling him a pig-f****r,’ the campaign manager protested. ‘Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.’

‘I know,’ Johnson replied. ‘But let’s make the sonofab****h deny it.’'

We can all recall stories, gossip and rumours that attach themselves to modern politicians and celebrities. Hearsay and innuendo, suggestions of scandal, tend to endure, despite their being unsubstantiated and unproven. We can’t un-hear what we have heard; un-see what we have seen; un-think what we have thought.

Of course, this is nothing new. We’re familiar with the cancerous effect of Iago’s lies in Shakespeare’s Othello.

‘I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear.’

In 1710 the essayist Jonathan Swift wrote:

‘If a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.’

The problem is that the more scurrilous, extraordinary and unlikely a story is, the more it lends itself to re-telling; the more we want to share it, regardless of whether we know it to be true. A lie is generally more compelling than the truth. It disperses by chain reaction, with incredible velocity. Indeed, as Vladimir Lenin said:
‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth.'

Sadly the social media age seems to have amplified and accelerated this phenomenon. The dice are increasingly loaded in favour of half-truths and misrepresentation. Lies are faster, more nimble, more addictive than ever before. And we are all complicit. We like to gossip, to spread the news, to pass on a story. We freely re-tweet, share and endorse. We may occasionally pause to question sources, or reflect on impacts. But we often unwittingly participate in the distribution of falsehood.

‘I can prove it’s rumour. I can’t prove it’s fact.’
Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and now President Donald Trump’s lawyer

And so inevitably we arrive at the era of fake news, alternative facts and ‘would’ meaning ‘wouldn’t’. And our heads are endlessly spinning because, as Rudy Giuliani recently observed, ‘Truth isn’t truth.’

The Ancient Cretan philosopher Epimenides once stated that all Cretans are liars. Was he lying or telling the truth? This is the Liar’s Paradox, and it feels sometimes that we all now inhabit one gigantic, all-consuming Liar’s Paradox. We’re trying to navigate a maze of untruth. Fiction and fabrication tie us in knots, confuse and confound us. They sow doubt and erode trust. They gnaw away at the ties that bind us. We become suspicious, paranoid. We don’t know who to believe.

'I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.'
Friedrich Nietzsche

So what can we do?

'Trust, but verify’
President Ronald Reagan

Of course, we need Governments and the digital titans to play their part and embrace this challenge of our times. We need a New Deal for Publishing, something that recognizes the realities of contemporary platforms and behaviours.

Brands too have a part to play. They need to rekindle their age-old association with trust and reliability; become once again a source of credible claims and dependable commitments.

But perhaps more broadly we need a new ethical code more suited to the modern age. We need to adapt our behaviour at work and in life: to place a greater premium on facts; to demand verification and substantiation; to support institutions and publications that stand up for truth. We should be subscribing to reputable news platforms. (Maybe we could even buy a newspaper!)

We should also consider moderating our natural propensity to spread rumours; curtailing our inclination to share and pass on. We can no longer excuse slander and defamation as idle chat or locker room banter. We can no longer defend falsehood in the name free speech. Gossip must become less socially acceptable.

Ultimately we may need to take a stand. As George Orwell is reputed to have said:

'In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’

No. 194