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

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 14

Garden and Woodland Special

 

Learning from Lilies: Strip Away the Context

I recently attended Painting the Modern Garden, an excellent exhibition examining the garden in art between the 1860s and 1920s. (It runs at the Royal Academy in London until 20 April.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a horticultural revolution. Bourgeois Europeans and middle class Americans had affluence and leisure time, and a yearning to preserve something natural against the march of industrialisation. Gardening became an obsession. They studied, imported, cultivated and collected. One contemporary writer proclaimed, ‘I love compost like one loves a woman.’

Artists seem to have been in the front ranks of this revolution. Gardens provided a subject to express their thoughts about nature, beauty, colour and light. Gardens could suggest interior as well as exterior truths. Pissaro, Renoir and Bonnard; Sargent, Van Gogh and Matisse. The great painters of the day repeatedly set their easels up outside, in the garden.

Painting the Modern Garden is an exhibition of intoxicating colour: radiant, ravishing yellows, pinks and purples; intense sensory explosions. One feels the heat and languor of a long Summer’s afternoon. White linen, lace and crinolines. Let’s play croquet on the lawn, take tea on the terrace, reel around the fountain. Sunflowers, dahlias, peonies and poppies. Come consider the chrysanthemums, tend the rhododendrons with me.

And then, of course, there was Monet and his wondrous water-lilies.

At Giverney Monet painted water-lilies over and over again. He studied them, scrutinized them, isolated them in their stillness, floating in the reflective water and changing light. He removed them from their context. They became abstract contemplations of colour, tone, atmosphere and silence.

One critic observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’

I was struck by this comment and found myself thinking about the role of context in brand marketing and communication.

Context is central to good marketing. If we can understand a brand’s place in the world, we can promote its relevance more effectively. And the broader the cultural context considered, the deeper the understanding. But whilst context is critical to comprehension, effective communication requires compression, distillation and focus. So ultimately we must strip context away.

Too often we fail in this respect. We try to cram our messaging with visual, verbal and conceptual cues. Show the user, signal the occasion, reference the tradition, give the reason-to-believe, bash out the benefit. Communication becomes loud, cluttered, busy and bewildering. Context can be constricting.

Imagine if you could express your brand as an abstract truth, not an observed reality; an intense distillation, not an actual depiction. Imagine if you could strip away the context, narrow the frame, focus on the essence itself.

What would you say? What would we see? How would we feel?


Why We Go on Awaydays: A Reminder from Shakespeare

‘Good servant, tell this youth what ‘tis to love…
It is to be all made of sighs and tears.
It is to be all made of faith and service.
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance.
All humbleness, all patience and impatience.
All purity, all trial, all observance.’

As You Like It, V, ii

Last week I saw a marvellous production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre in London (running until 29 February).

As the programme notes point out, As You Like It is a ‘green world’ comedy. Its characters escape the oppressive regime of the city for the Forest of Arden. They’re leaving behind convention, hierarchies and the pressure of the present. In the forest they can be more contemplative, philosophical, romantic. They can express themselves freely; they can imagine possibilities; they can explore new roles and identities. They undergo transformations, revelations.

In recent years we’ve perhaps become a little sceptical about Awaydays. The heart sinks at the awkwardness of seeing our senior staff in their weekend casuals. We shun the flip-charts and Post-Its, gummy bears and energiser drinks; the bumptious facilitator and the embarrassing ice-breakers. We balk at the expense in time and money. And so generally we end up just taking a couple of hours in a conference room over at the Media Agency. The future can wait…

But I’m inclined to say that genuine Awaydays justify the cost. Increasingly we have our heads down, dealing with today’s pressing challenges; we rarely look up to talk about tomorrow’s. Awaydays provide an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to consider broader themes and more distant horizons, to dream new possibilities and imagine the unthought.

And Awaydays do indeed gain something from being away.

‘There’s no clock in the forest.’

Orlando, As You Like It


‘Let’s Play Crusaders’: The Price of Difference

Martin and I shared a bedroom overlooking the back gardens of Heath Park Road. In the summer you could see all the other kids in the street - the Richards, the Chergwins et al - playing Cowboys and Indians in their own little domains. 

‘Let’s play Crusaders,’ we determined. (The ‘70s were more innocent times, somewhat lacking a proper historical context…)

Mum made us white smocks from old sheets and we imprinted bold crimson crosses on their fronts. We completed the outfits with blue balaclava helmets and woollen tights borrowed from our younger sisters. 

And as we skipped around the garden, taking on Saladin and his scimitared hordes, it struck me that it’s not easy being different.

‘We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden’

Joni Mitchell/ Woodstock

No. 68