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Rights + Justice

Lying Politicians Are Killing Our Democracies

Weak watchdogs and lax social media bred a pandemic of dishonesty. We need new laws.

Michael Harris 28 Nov

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

If anything takes us out before climate change, it will be the triumph of lying in government.

Having spent a lifetime digging out facts to reveal the truth, I have to acknowledge it — the compulsive liars running countries are winning the communications war.

The only issue now is whether the liars can be stopped. If Canada wants to side with truth, it should start by regulating political advertisements. We know Facebook won’t do it. And that the nation to our south has become a laboratory for mad scientists of propaganda.

But if a Canadian finds a straight-up whopper in a political ad from a politician or party, there is nobody to file a complaint with. Politicians here can lie with immunity and impunity.

Which makes us part of a global pandemic. Official government lying from the top has gone viral. It kills democracy as surely as the Spanish flu, which in 1918 claimed 50 million lives and afflicted 10 times that number. False, weaponized and dysfunctional information will wreak even more havoc, literally affecting everyone on the planet.

This week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, freshly indicted on criminal counts of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, accused police and prosecutors of staging a “coup” against him. U.S. President Donald Trump used the same word to describe his confrontation with the constitution and the law. Like Trump, Netanyahu is accusing his accusers — without evidence — and whipping his followers into a frenzy against the justice system. The key prosecutors on the case now have bodyguards.

Though the phenomenon is global, Trump is ground zero for the contagion of official mendacity. He tells booming lies out of the presidential bully pulpit.

Everyone knows Trump’s pants have been on fire since the day he lied about his “landslide” victory in the electoral college after the 2016 election. He boasted on Twitter that it was the “biggest since Reagan.”

Actually, it was the biggest since Barack Obama. Obama won 332 electoral college votes in his last presidential win in 2012 — 28 more than Trump ultimately received in 2016. According to the New York Times, 45 of 57 winners in previous presidential elections got more electoral college votes than Trump.

Since that inauspicious day when the new commander-in-chief ushered in the Bullshit Presidency with a lie, Trump has told thousands of them.

How many thousands depends on which gatekeeper you cite. Daniel Dale, formerly of the Toronto Star and now with CNN, put the number at 5,276 this summer; Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post says the lies and misleading statements stand at 13,435; and the New York Times reports that there are 1,700 tweets using “conspiratorial language” on Trump’s Twitter feed.

Trump has lied about everything — people, countries, events, institutions and issues.

The people have included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Robert Mueller, Adam Schiff, Joe Biden, Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, Scott Pruitt, Justin Trudeau, Meghan Markle, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. (Despite U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Bin Salman had ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump said the prince was doing “a really spectacular job.”)

Trump has lied about Ukraine, Iran, Puerto Rico, Canada, Russia, Singapore, China, Germany, Venezuela, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. He’s lied about events like the Charlottesville racist protests, Hurricane Maria, climate change, the California wildfires, the presidential election and Russian intervention in the 2016 election, and institutions like the Supreme Court, Congress, NAFTA, NATO and the NFL. Not to mention issues like immigration, infrastructure and the size of his own inaugural crowd on day one of his presidency.

Trump claims that the towering concrete wall he promised on the border with Mexico is underway and progressing quickly, a lie he has repeated 146 times. In reality, repairs are being made to existing barriers — it’s definitely not the “big beautiful wall” that Trump has harped on since he first called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers when trolling the shoals of American bigotry for votes.

Taking political lies global

Trump has inspired an international Liars Club of world leaders that has already had a profound effect on humanity. All arrived roughly on the same schedule — Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time in 2014, and then again in 2018; the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016; the Brexit liars, including Boris Johnson, a month after that, and Trump himself in November 2016.

Two years after the first tranche of authoritarians hit the ground slithering, Jair Bolsonaro joined the Liars Club. He promised Brazilians he would arrest or kill “reds” and members of the Worker’s Party. He supported his hate campaign with an illegal digital communications strategy denouncing criticism aimed at him as “fake news.” Bolsonaro won the second round of presidential elections with 55 per cent of the vote.

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Boris Johnson, one of the biggest Brexit liars. Photo via Shutterstock.

Back to Boris Johnson. Brexit succeeded because of the Leave Campaign’s outrageous lies. Outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who now says he regrets not standing up to all the disinformation, adds that Johnson was one of the biggest of the Brexit liars.

Johnson’s most infamous whopper was that the U.K. would have an extra 350 million pounds a week to spend after leaving the EU, money that would have gone to Brussels. That windfall would have been great news for the U.K.’s beleaguered National Health Service — had it been true. But the real number was at least 100 million pounds a week lower, according to the UK Statistics Authority. Others put the savings at less than half the amount Johnson claimed.

Johnson lied. He left out money the U.K. received back from the European Union, and his claim was grossly deceitful and grossly calculating. It was also effective, just like other lies told by Brexiteers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage that Turkey was about to join the EU and Britain would soon be overrun with Muslims.

Duterte has deconstructed democracy in the Philippines by putting out a steady diet of disinformation and persecuting the media and anyone else who questions his lie-driven policies. No wonder his nickname, according to National Public Radio in the U.S., is “Duterte Harry,” after the iconic Clint Eastwood character. At one point, Duterte even boasted about tossing a Chinese drug dealer out of a helicopter, a claim he later said was a “joke.”

What is not a joke is Duterte’s policy of empowering police to shoot suspected drug dealers without arrest or trial. It has been reported that 7,000 people died under that policy in a six-month period.

Yet Trump still made Duterte one of the first world leaders he invited to the White House, and then said he was in favour of the death penalty for drug dealers.

And who does Trump bring to the White House on the day the impeachment inquiry into his presidency begins? None other than Turkish tyrant Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan is the man who ordered his army into Syria against the Kurds after Trump obligingly withdrew U.S. forces. At home, he jailed political opponents and members of the media; assumed extraordinary powers more suited to a sultan than a secular democratic leader; detained 50,000 people after an attempted coup; and declared that women in his country would be defined by “motherhood” — feminism be damned.

And he’s the same man that Trump said has “a great relationship with the Kurds,” the very people his invading forces have been killing in Syria.

How did we get here?

Public life hasn’t always been a liars’ paradise. In fact, lying used to be a short-cut to political Boot Hill. Now it is a turnpike to power. There are a lot of good reasons the Oxford English Dictionary made “post-truth” 2016’s word of the year.

One reason political leaders lie with impunity is that there is no longer even a reputational penalty for doing it, let alone a real sanction.

There is something bizarre about that. If a witness lies in a courtroom, he is guilty of perjury. If a person like Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn lies to the FBI, that is a crime. If a company runs a false ad, it faces consequences under truth-in-advertising laws. Hell, if kids lie to their parents, they at least get a timeout.

But when a politician lies, and lies big, there is a minor skirmish between his detractors and supporters, the media bloviates about whose tactic will impress voters, the dust settles, and nothing happens until the process repeats itself with the next lie. Post-truthiness, yes?

Fortunately, this didn’t happen in the Nixon era, though Tricky Dick gave it his best shot. “When the president does it,” he famously said, “that means that it is not illegal.” Nixon’s brazen misdeeds were punished in large part because all three television networks and print outlets followed the same code back then: journalists were the gatekeepers, the ones who held politicians accountable when they strayed from the facts or uttered intentional lies.

People like Jennings, Brokaw, Donaldson, Woodward and Bernstein spoke truth to power — and to their audiences. In those days, Walter Cronkite was the Buddha of News. He signed off every newscast by saying “And that’s the way it is” — and America believed him. Now Sean Hannity tells Fox viewers the way it isn’t, and millions tune in for his alternate universe.

A sign at 2010’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity.’ Photo via Shutterstock.

Fox News didn’t exist in Nixon’s time. It repeats Trump’s lies as true, attacks his critics as partisan assassins and even offers Trump conspiracy theories which he uses to distract his critics. It operates as the de facto press office of the White House.

But Fox News isn’t alone in creating the fog of lies that is slowly choking democracy. Study after study shows that readers and viewers have been abandoning mainstream news and shedding their respect for the journalists who produce it. Consumers have become their own fact-checkers, getting more and more of their information from social media and internet websites.

Nothing blows smoke like the internet. And as Republican political guru Arthur Finkelstein once observed, it is very difficult to tell what is true and what is false in social media.

Pushing back against the lies

The spread of misinformation and lies has inspired some resistance. The Pro-Truth Pledge movement is gaining traction in the U.S. This group of behavioural scientists and ordinary citizens is trying to fight political lying in two ways.

It asks participants to fact-check any article before sharing it with their social networks. The hope is that when someone receives a verified post, they’ll be encouraged to take the same steps.

And it encourages people who sign the pledge to challenge others who share false news, urging them publicly to take it down.

But their task is daunting.

Thanks to social media platforms with billions of users, lies travel as far and wide as truths. In the final months of the 2016 presidential election campaign, the top 20 false stories snagged more Facebook shares, reactions and comments than the top 20 factual articles, according to Scientific American. Facebook is the new Trojan Horse that 2.5 billion people have dragged into their lives at their peril.

It’s hard to tell if a political ad on Facebook is true or false, because the corporation has confused lying with free speech.

Mark Zuckerberg decided to run all political ads from candidates without determining the accuracy of their content, making him the patron saint of political unicorn hucksters around the world. By comparison, Twitter has banned all political advertising to avoid enabling the mass deception of voters.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, ‘the patron saint of political unicorn hucksters around the world.’ Photo via Wikimedia.

Attacks on the media and sleeping watchdogs

The Liars Club gets help from another direction — the steady, increasingly vicious attack on traditional reporters.

Thanks to leaders like Trump, these fact-checkers of record have been demonized as dirtbags of dishonesty, even enemies of the people.

And David Mitchell added another factor that helps the Liars Club, writing in the Guardian about “the financial degradation of the old-media investigative institutions that used to provide the truth... and the incalculable long-term effects of social media, bristling with virtue-signalling, selfies and revenge porn, on all our brains.”

To be fair to Zuckerberg and Facebook, they are not the only ones who have used an appeal to free speech to hand a digital megaphone to the Liars Club. There is an equally powerful offender — the courts.

Twenty-seven U.S. states have run into problems when they tried to mandate truthfulness in political advertising. The bottom line? A dissenting judge put it best after his colleagues ruled that one such state law was unconstitutional. He noted that the First Amendment now offers protection for “calculated lies.”

A case from Ohio makes the point.

Stephen Dinah reported in the Washington Times that the state passed legislation making it illegal to publish or broadcast a false statement about the voting record of a candidate. In a dispute, it was up to the state’s Election Commission to decide the facts.

But the law was struck down by federal district court Judge Timothy S. Black, who ruled that he didn’t want to have the government decide what was politically true and what was false. That, he concluded, was up to the voters.

There is a gigantic flaw in Black’s reasoning. How can voters determine whether a politician is telling the truth or lying if all they receive is a steady diet of lies from their leaders, endlessly repeated on social media, and backed up by false advertising?

Lest anyone imagine things are better on this side of the border, they are not. Canada’s Ad Standards has a code for truth in advertising, but it exempts political ads. The Competition Act also prohibits false advertising, but it too exempts political ads. As for the Canada Elections Act, it registers political ads online, but does not regulate their content.

Here is what that means. As I noted at the top, if a Canadian finds an outright lie in a political ad from a politician or party, there is no authority to file a complaint with. Politicians can get away with just about any bullshit.

The threat to democracy

These deceptions matter. If people cast votes based on lies, the basic integrity of the democratic system, based on informed voters making choices about who will run their countries, is destroyed. Could that be why the hull of our democracy is dragging bottom at the moment?

You can’t lie in court without being charged with perjury. You can’t say a product will melt away fat if it doesn’t, as four U.S. companies peddling weight-loss products learned after the Federal Trade Commission fined them US$26.5 million.

So why should we expect to have a democracy, which needs truth to function, when unbridled lying from political leaders is viewed as less harmful than dubious claims about a diet product?

It is past time to regulate truth in political advertising and what comes out of leaders’ mouths. Assuming, of course, that we actually care about democracy.  [Tyee]

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