Political spin is a familiar and punctual adversary when it comes to the realm of political debate. Often, it takes less than ten minutes before the first yarn has been spun in a press conference, briefing, interview, or Prime Minister’s question time. Spin has been around for many years and has aided and abetted many misleading statements over its lifetime, but we are now living in a time where even spin has taken a backseat to a far worse theatrical nightmare: lying.
In what has been eloquently dubbed the “post-truth” era, we now live in a world where opinion matters more than factual evidence and “alternative facts” have skilfully avoided being defined as “nonsense” by donning the clothes of well-sourced information and passing the lips of would-be trustworthy sources. In truth, the spread of misinformation is fast developing into a real-world problem for health, security, education, and democracy. This phenomenon has helped spread blatantly false rumours like the ideas that Coronavirus is a hoax, that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration, and that disinfectant can be used as an appropriate treatment for COVID-19.
So, how can you tell the difference between spin and nonsense? And how should you know who to trust when it comes to political affairs? The easiest way to demonstrate each of these phenomena is by example. Spin is what happens when somebody disseminates information from a perspective that is beneficial to their cause, i.e., in a biased way. This tactic is often used when re-framing issues with different language, such as transforming the ‘estate tax’ which imposed a charge on transferring the inheritance of a deceased person, into the ‘death tax.’ Nowadays, even the term ‘climate change’ is a result of the spin machine turning its hand to the phrase ‘global warming’. As it happens, both of these rejuvenated phrases come from the mind of Frank Luntz, a ‘public opinion guru’ who ‘runs the focus groups on Fox News after presidential debates.’ You may wonder, why the language change? Simple – it plays better with voters.
The relatively new phenomenon of “alternative facts” is as disparaging as it is paradoxical. How, after all, can a fact be alternative to anything but a falsehood? Surely, an alternative fact should be considered no differently than a regular fact? Sadly, no. Nowadays, the notion of possessing an “alternative fact” simply means that somebody has presented factual information and you disagree with it. This is not to say that facts should not be challenged – it is the greatest attribute of knowledge that it is forever progressing – but forming disagreement based in opinion is to possess no defendable argument whatsoever. One of the most infamous examples of this taking place occurred in the White House briefing room when Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s first press secretary, took to the podium. Spicer proceeded to claim that the crowd on the national mall during Trump’s inauguration was the ‘largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period’. Undoubtedly, the President’s opinion was to the contrary of blatant truth and hence the first “alternative fact” was born.
A key element of deploying this strategy is to use follow-up strategies and frame the response of those who may cry foul. This can be done in simplistic ways such as “and anyone who says otherwise is lying”, or it can be buried deeper beneath the surface in statements such as “photos were taken from an angle which made the crowd look smaller”. In the latter case, it seemed as though Spicer believed his own “alternative fact” as he consistently called press photographers attempting to find more flattering photographs of inauguration day. These devices make the job of would-be fact-checkers exceedingly difficult, as any contradiction which may be forthcoming has already been framed as slander.
Examples like this show that the world of political spin and “alternative truths” is an extremely dangerous place to travel should reliable information be your destination. The reality of this new landscape is that people do not know who to trust when it comes to information gathering. Moreover, displays of ignorance, over-zealous emphasis and outright lying on the part of those who ought to know better have weakened the resolve of citizens to remain politically informed. Some may note that the days are gone when you could wholeheartedly rely on the information handed down to you from above. I would ask, did those days ever really exist? For the last century, the decisions of citizens to believe what they are told has rarely come from an enduring belief that the media has been right. In most cases, it comes from seeing reality or a simple case of trial and error. In the former case, television has aided the cause significantly. In the latter case, this trust could be formed on an extensive and demonstrable history that the truth has been told before, and which lends credence to the idea that it will be again in future.
All in all, nobody has ever believed anything simply because they were told. People the world over have made the decision to believe something time and time again, and this decision has been made based on a million-and-one different pieces of information. The problem with the propaganda of today is not that people stopped believing facts, it is that the facts stopped being true.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.