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Why Is It So Easy?
Learning How Lies are Turned Into “Truth” in the Public Square
Some Good News- Oh Yeah, Really…?
Recently the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announced what one would think many, if not most, Americans would view as positive information about the U.S. economy. The BEA issued their Third Quarter 2023 estimate of our economy’s gross domestic product (GDP) finding that it increased at an annual rate of 4.9 percent for that quarter.
That is good news, right? According to Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post, the economy is adding jobs at a record rate. Inflation is close to the Federal Reserve’s preferred target of 2 percent annually (it was 2.4 percent). In the third quarter the U.S. economy even outperformed the most pessimistic economists who had been predicting “imminent downturn”. But, as Rampell also points out, this raises two questions:
“…why are the numbers so much stronger than professional forecasters expected? And second, why don’t Americans seem to believe them?...” (emphasis mine)
Historian Heather Cox Richardson expanded on Rampell’s questions in the wake of the BEA’s announced economic performance statistics, saying:
“…The U.S. is outperforming forecasts made even before the pandemic began for where the economy would be now, even as other countries are worse off. And yet Rampell notes, Americans are about as negative about the economy today as they were during the Great Recession after 2008…”
As Richardson puts it, there is a “…crucial divorce here between image and reality. Americans think our economy, currently the strongest in the world, is in poor shape. They mistakenly believe it was better under Trump. That profound and measurable disjunction ought to make us sit up and take notice,…”
That is an important observation, one that impacts all Americans. It begs the question; how do such clearly incorrect perceptions get formed in the first place, and why do so many believe them?
Part of the Answer- We Suffer from Information Bombardment
Lying by public officials in the public square in the “good ‘ol U.S. of A.” is nothing new. But, as we have been discussing in previous issues of Democraticus, it certainly has ramped up in the last 5-10 years. Social media has made public officials’ lies easier than ever to convey and spread to Americans on a never before imagined scale. Also, do not forget the news media’s role in this as well, both mainstream and extremist outlets.
However, it is not just lying that we are bombarded with. It is misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. Misinformation is information shared with no harm meant. Disinformation is false information knowingly shared to cause harm. And there is malinformation- genuine information shared to cause genuine harm. Domestic use of this “problematic information”, along with the rise of state sponsored use of “problematic information” in the United States by Russia and other international rivals, it is little wonder that the public’s trust in the news media has fallen?
The Answer to the Question: “Why?”
But, think about it, why is lying and spreading of all this bad information done in the first place? The answer to that question is simple- because it works! The next question is even more deceptively simple- how does it work? What is it that is a part of each of our human psyches that makes this so easy to accomplish, and to do so often?
The answer? It is how we are “wired” in terms of how we receive and process messages and information in the world around us. It is called the “illusory truth effect”. It is also known as the illusion of truth effect, validity effect, truth effect, or the reiteration effect. The illusory truth effect is the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.
This phenomenon was identified in a 1977 Villanova University and Temple University study. Numerous professional journal articles regarding research results on the illusory truth effect and its various aspects can easily be found. As we say today- “it’s a thing”. It is real. Because it is real, the illusory truth effect plays a “…significant role in fields such as advertising, news media, and political propaganda.” It is used often. Despite its reality, evidence is strong that we Americans fall victim to it all the time. How does this happen?
Illusory Truth Effect- How it Works on Us
When people are trying to determine if information that is being conveyed to them as truth is in fact true, they rely on “…whether the information is in line with their understanding or if it feels familiar.” The determination that the information is congruent with their understanding is a logical reaction whereby people compare new information to what they already know, or at least believe, to be true.
However, there is a “kicker”.
“…Repetition makes statements easier to process relative to new, unrepeated statements, leading people to believe that the repeated conclusion is more truthful..”. (emphasis mine)
In other words, as has been validated in a 2015 study:
“…researchers discovered that familiarity can overpower rationality and that repetitively hearing that a certain statement is wrong can paradoxically cause it to feel right. Researchers attributed the illusory truth effect’s impact even on participants who knew the correct answer to begin with, but were persuaded to believe otherwise through the repetition of a falsehood...” (emphasis mine)
This is called processing fluency. Researchers explain processing fluency this way- by repeating things constantly, it makes it easier for us to process it (i.e., fluent) “…relative to the new statements, leading people to the (sometimes) false conclusion that they are more truthful.” Said another way, studies show that processing fluency within the context of the illusory truth effect can influence participants who actually knew the correct answer to begin with to be swayed to believe otherwise “…through the repetition of a falsehood.” (emphasis mine)
Research shows that when we humans hear something the second or third time, our brains respond to it faster. In turn, we “misattribute” our information fluency as a “signal for truth”. The power of a repeated falsehood to sway beliefs was famously validated in a 2015 study where participants became swayed to believe through repetition that a Scottish kilt was actually called a “sairi”. They did this even though earlier these same participants had correctly answered the question “What is the name of the short, pleated skirt worn by Scots.”
Becoming Wiser Citizens
Oh, the power of constantly repeated misinformation, disinf
ormation, and malinformation! It is everywhere. So, is it a surprise when positive news such as that about the U.S. economy in the third quarter of 2023 is announced, that many Americans do not believe it? After all, Americans have been saturated through repetition by some politicians that the economy since the 2020 election has been horrible.
It should also not be a shock, based on all the research available on the illusory truth phenomenon, as to why repetition of bad information is used so much, especially in today’s American politics. It is amazingly simple, yet effective. Authoritarians, elected officials, and public figures from ancient times to the present have used this technique. Roman statesman Cato closed his speeches with the call to destroy Rome’s enemy Carthage with the intent that his repetition would foster agreement to do just that (and Rome did). Napoleon reportedly used it for the same reason. Moving closer to today, there is “weapons of mass destruction” regarding the second Iraq War involving Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. And of course, Donald Trump uses the illusory truth effect all the time.
Changing how we Americans process information in the public arena is a tall order, that is for certain. While we cannot change how we are “wired”, we can become more aware of our tendencies to inaccurately process information vis a vis the illusory truth effect. If we know that repetition of information can be used to our detriment to create false understandings of our civic reality, we become far less prone to being victimized by our elected officials that choose to use this tactic to manipulate us.
Most importantly, recognizing how dangerous this voter manipulation is for democracy, we can take a bit of initiative and validate whether or not these constantly repeated messages (like those associated with our economy’s condition) have truth associated with them.
It is said in Latin”, caveat emptor”, let the buyer beware. With the illusory truth effect in mind, perhaps when watching events in the public square we should modify that to “caveat voter”. If we are told that something that appears to be good is bad, watch out. And vice versa. The illusory truth phenomenon may be in play.
Democracy is so important. But it’s hard to keep, and it’s easy to lose. It’s up to us, and only us, to protect it.
Stay tuned as we continue exploring topics that are not given near enough time and emphasis in our civic education efforts, if they are even taught at all.
 “When Will Americans Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the U.S. Economy?”, by Catherine Rampell, The Washington Post, October 26, 2023.
 “When Will Americans Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the U.S. Economy?”, by Catherine Rampell, Ibid.
 Letters From An American, by Heather Cox Richardson, October 27, 2023, Copyright 2023.
 Letters From An American, by Heather Cox Richardson, October 27, 2023, Ibid.
 The Report of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy, from Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America, Copyright 2019, The Aspen Institute, https://cspreports.aspeninstitute.org/Knight-Commission-TMD/2019/report/details/0287/Knight-Commission