The format of falsehood: how plausible untruth spreads

The format of falsehood: how plausible untruth spreads

A Guinness commercial a few years ago pumped out a stream of ‘strange but true’ statistics. It finishes ‘88.2% of statistics are made up the spur of the moment’.

I have to say, I was totally taken in by the bogus statistics the first time I saw it. They were all quirky enough to be true — though implausible if you thought about them — but it was the way that they were presented that made them seem reliable. First, they were spoken in a quiet Scottish voice, of the kind we usually associate with serious public service announcements. The accompanying pictures were all in black and white. Mingled among them were things that seemed like they had to be true, for example ‘98% of Man United fans have never been to Old Trafford’. They included ‘facts’ that sounded like facts you’d heard before. And, crucially, they were all eerily specific — a double digit percentage as often as not with a decimal point thrown in as well.

In case you missed it, here’s the advert.

It was funny at the time, though I still prefer Stella.

However, what began as farce is fast recycling itself as the run-up to tragedy.

Here is how to format a falsehood in such a way that it is not questioned.



This is a format you’ve seen thousands of times on Facebook.

Usually, the images included are entirely ‘false’, in the sense that they have nothing to do with the story and are miscaptioned. However, we’re so programmed for ‘seeing is believing’ that we don’t question the captions.

What’s more, the image on the left — benefit scroungers, MPs, religious extremists — represents a group of people that we may not like, but feel a bit guilty for not liking. We know that we are being judgemental when we think bad things about them, and that makes us feel guilty. However, seeing a picture this group allegedly (because it’s in the caption) doing something terrible makes us feel all right about being cross about them.

The image on the right, on the other hand, will be shot in evocative lighting and show real suffering. Again, it will be falsely captioned. For example, a picture taken from Google of ‘homeless people’ will be captioned as ‘homeless ex-soldier’, while a picture of a nurse will be captioned that she (and it will be a she) is earning less than a family on benefits. Again, this caption will be entirely false, but we are programmed not to question captions.

However the captions work, they will boil down to this: ‘People who deserve bad things are are having a great life because society is over-compassionate, while people who work hard for all of us are suffering — do you think this is right?’

The ‘Do you think this is right’, whether explicit or implied, is the clever bit. By being asked to make an (obvious) moral judgement, you are more prone not to question the ‘facts’ presented through the captions. It’s irrelevant that the two things have nothing to do with each other — the moral sense being engaged isn’t a true moral sense, merely a sense of outrage which you’re likely to go for simply because of the format of ‘Do you think this is right?’

But, it gets cleverer. In case you might be on the point of saying ‘even if nurses are on low pay, it’s not linked to families who are on benefit’, the next part brings things closer to home. ‘Thousands won’t share this, share if you support our nurses/ex-servicemen/firemen, etc’. Suddenly you are being put in the position of one person ready to stand against the tide of indifference. If you share this, you support the nurses etc. If you don’t, then you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

Do you share or not? A bizarrely large number of people do, but, even if you don’t, you may still have fallen into the trap. The meme’s designers want it to be propagated, but only for the purposes of shifting your and others’ perceptions towards believing that society is soft, that benefits should be capped, families of criminals punished, and other such mob-rule responses. In Britain, these things are usually right-wing, but there’s no implicit reason why they have to be.

Those readers who have worked in advertising will have decoded very quickly that this style of meme follows the advertiser’s AIDA format. AIDA is the basis on which most effective ads are constructed. It stands for Attention, Information, Decision (or Desire), Action. The attention element could be a compelling photograph, an illustration, a headline, anything which grabs your attention. As soon as the ad has your attention, it gives you information. Research by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority suggests that provision of information is the first, essential element in an effective advertisement. The more plausible and objective sounding the information, the better — but it must also tickle the intellect, or the moral sense, or the emotions. Once you’ve got the information, it moves straight on to suggesting that you make a decision now. Finally, it gives you an action to undertake immediately. It doesn’t matter how slight that action is — even tweeting or sharing on Facebook is enough to solidify your commitment to the messages of the advertisement, even if the ultimate action that the advertiser wants you to take is much more arduous.

Now, advertisements in the United Kingdom are heavily regulated. Ads which fail to satisfy the ASA’s CAP code are removed immediately. They have to be legal, decent, honest and truthful. If it’s on TV, or on radio, or in the pages of a newspaper or magazine, or on a billboard or the back of a bus, you can count on it being so. A well regulated advertising industry means that you can generally trust the advertisements much more than you can the news, which is altogether less reliable.

However, this only applies to ‘real’ advertisements. Facebook memes and other such things are not regulated at all. By following a reliable format, which is also a powerful format, the Facebook memist gets a double benefit.

Why would anyone spread falsehood?

For the heck of it, to sell a product, to sell attention, to spread a political viewpoint, other ideas will come to mind.

Have you heard the story that Microsoft is doing an experiment and the 1,000,000th person to share the Facebook meme (previously an email) will win a huge reward? This has been debunked many times, and yet it continues to persist. Who would have created such a thing? A hoaxer of some kind, but there seems to be little benefit. Nonetheless, these hoaxes have an enormous currency.

“Something ordinary and perhaps slightly annoying started to happen, what happens next will blow your mind”. You’ve certainly seen this kind of thing. Generally it takes you on to a mildly diverting YouTube or other video, as like as not one which takes you to a product advertisement at the end. Many of these are commercially produced videos designed to seem as though they are user generated content. Often they will be ‘sown’ a hundred thousand times, because research shows that the spread of such a commercial meme depends on the number of times it is sown more than on any other factor.

“Maggie lost 2.5 stone using this weird old trick. Click here to find out more.” This, alongside the one about dentists hating someone, life insurance people hating someone, and so on, if you do bother to click on it, will take you somewhere deeply dull. The weird old trick will be using different kinds of diet pills (why not the weird old trick of eating less?), or using baking powder instead of tooth-paste, or some such. Despite your misgivings, when you’ve clicked on it, you feel that you haven’t really been tricked — after all, they aren’t selling you anything. Actually, what has happened is you’ve been taken to a website which is earning income by the number of page views, in the expectation that you may well click on one of the other, commercial advertisements on the page. Of course, you wouldn’t would you…? Well, since you clicked on the ‘weird old trick’ ad, you’re a prime target for the others.

The most famous examples of the Facebook dodgy memes are from Britain First. Britain First is run by an ex-BNP member, and they are all about getting ordinary voters riled up against ‘liberal’ and ‘left-wing’ ideas. As a card carrying Liberal Democrat (no, seriously, I carry my membership card in my wallet), I find these tedious and annoying Many people who really ought to know better, though, do share them — and they can get very cross if you point out where they’re from.

Is this all important? After all, why shouldn’t people be allowed to have a little fun?

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, points out what Rousseau was to point out later in Le Contrat Social: that society operates on a social contract where, even though humankind is by nature egotistical, people work together out of enlightened self-interest. It can be shown logically, rationally and even statistically that even criminals working together will get better results than working alone: that is why we have such strict laws on conspiracy.

Generally speaking, society has prospered on this basis, aside from the occasions where people have got together to fight wars or where a majority has decided to perpetrate an injustice on the minority. This has produced some appalling atrocities, but, everything taken together, we are wealthier, healthier, better educated and safer than we used to be.

There is an exception to the enlightened egoist. It is the amoral agent who has calculated that, although society as a whole prospers most when people behave out of enlightened self-interest, and would collapse if people behaved with selfish egoism, this collapse will not happen in their life-time.

The problem here is that there are far too many occasions, especially recently, where the successful selfish egoist really can bring society crashing down around them. We remember Nick Leeson the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank, in 1995. He had calculated that the bank was big enough not to miss the money he was losing. He was wrong. The 2007 banking crisis was not quite as simple, but there were elements of ‘it won’t happen in my time’ to it. Ponzi schemes, and the pyramid schemes that almost brought down the entire Albanian economy between 1991 and 1997 are stronger examples.

Deliberate misinformation on the internet is dangerous for the same reason that rogue financial dealings are dangerous to a bank. A thief who steals tools from vans or shops is not going to bring down the whole tool-making business. In fact, to some extent, the trade will benefit as insurance pays out and tradesmen are forced to buy new tools. However, a tool-making company that starts to skimp on the metals used to make tools is much more likely to destroy its industry. When the tool makers make bad tools and when the banks cannot be relied upon with money, society begins to lose its foundations.

If this seems somewhat obtuse (or over-obvious — it’s always difficult to know which), the point is that the internet exists solely for the purposes of spreading information. Misinformation rots the internet in the same way that spam rots email and viruses rot computer systems. More and more time and money is spent filtering out the misinformation and spam and blocking the viruses.

What happens when the time required to determine if what we find online is true is more than the time it would have taken to get things by other means? Progressively, those who need information move off the ‘free’ internet to pay-wall protected sites and purchased content. The more they do so, the less information is given away for free, since giving it away for free makes it valueless when the user cannot distinguish it from bogus information.

At what point will this happen? Impossible to measure or predict. In some sectors it has already happened. On the other hand, there is always a human vitality pumping free, valuable information in, notwithstanding the rubbish that it has to compete with.

Nonetheless, maybe think twice before sharing something on the web again, without checking if it’s really true?

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