Detecting Political Deception

Nearly a year ago David posted about Jack Harich’s paper: “The dueling loops of the political powerplace”. Harich suggested political competition could be likened to a race to the bottom versus a race to the top, in which the race to the bottom had an inherent advantage, namely: you can always lie bigger, but truth is constrained. Not a very cheery conclusion, but one that has some resonance when you look at the behaviour of many politicians.

Q: How do you know when a politician is lying?

A: Easy, it’s when their lips are moving.

All is not lost, though – Harich and the people at Thwink .org identified that the competitive advantage of deceitful politicians can be overcome if – a)  if more voters are skilled at detecting political deception, and b) if this knowledge changes their political behaviour (i.e. they at least stop voting for the liars).

If you’re like me, the thoughts that pop into mind at this point are: “Brilliant! Now how do we do that?” Well, Thwink has now released a guide to some of the basics of detecting political deception.

In Truth or Deception the people at Thwink argue that most political deception can be uncovered by applying “The Truth Test”. The Truth Test is as follows:

  1. What is the argument?
  2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
  3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
  4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The main body of the guide then gives further explanation and examples for each of the four parts of the test.

Truth or Deception? focuses on those truth tests which are the easiest for voters to apply and which are likely to detect significant amounts of deception. For example, often the answer to question 4 about policy matters will require specialised knowledge or investment of time to access and sift through information. But in many cases, those attempting political deception will have also used some of the common patterns of deception (Question 2), which are easier to detect, so a voter might choose to be skeptical on that basis alone and not attempt to resolve the more difficult question.

I didn’t find the initial styling (influenced by a famous American pamphlet by Thomas Paine) that helpful, but Thwink are aiming first at a U.S. audience, and are happy for local activists to modify the material to suit local needs. And it’s the content that matters most.

I think the guide as it stands will be most useful as a (self?) educational tool for those who are already quite well educated, literate, and motivated to seek political truth.  If that’s you, then it’s worth a read, but I think real political change is going to require reaching beyond such a select group!

For me, what’s most exciting about Truth or Deception is that it offers a useful basic underlying Beta framework for developing educational methods that might be able to reach more widely into the voting community, such as short videos, and participatory adult education workshops. The last, particularly, could be powerful, because it not only would it give the citizens concerned a chance to learn new ways to detect political deception and engage with political debate, but it would, by bringing people together in this shared learning, reduce their sense of political isolation and increase the likelihood of their new knowledge changing their political behaviour.

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