State-Sponsored Bullshit, and Why Truth Matters

Propaganda, the manipulation of American minds and the illusion of freedom

Posted Oct 04, 2020

This important guest post had to be reviewed by the United States government before I could share it with you. That’s ironic, because the authors are challenging the government’s sweeping pre-publication review process in this article. That challenge is part of their broader examination of the normalization of bullshit—in the sense of the word used by scholars, described below—in contemporary American politics and government, and how very dangerous that is.

Professor Maria Hartwig is one of the world’s leading researchers of the psychology of deception. Former Special Agent Mark Fallon has led some of the most important counterterrorism operations and he wrote a book critiquing the U. S. government’s torture program. I thank them both for this guest post. The article is too lengthy to post here in its entirety, so you can read the first section here, then click the link at the end to read the rest of it at my personal website.

By Maria Hartwig and Mark Fallon

If one has to capture contemporary political culture in one phrase, fake news certainly seems timely. Talking heads from all across the political spectrum hurl the term at each other, seemingly without reaching each other in any meaningful way.

So, what does it mean for news, or any piece of information for that matter, to be "fake"? For sure, the term indicates some sort of deviation from the truth. But what is truth, what is deception, what does fake really mean, and why does it matter?

In some ways, the distinction between truths and non-truths is simple, and also intuitively appealing. It is true that humans are mammals; it is true that the Earth orbits around the sun, it is true that the sun appears to rise in the morning even though we know such a thing is a function of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Furthermore, it is false that the Earth is flat, and that 1 + 1 = 3. Few people disagree with arithmetic, yet many people these days seem to question what truth means (and/or whether such a thing even exists). Worse, many people seem to neglect the price that society must pay for forgetting what is actually true.

The good news is that we are actually in familiar territory. History tells us that the state of political turbulence in the United States, which we face as we write this, is likely to pass. In some ways, we don’t have to be confused at all, nor do we have to be apocalyptic about our future. George Orwell, who is most well-known for his concise allegorical novels about derailed regimes, was at the core of his profession an investigative journalist. He reported from the front lines on the rise and fall of the three most salient fascist regimes in our times (all of which failed). Orwell’s keen eye always emphasizes the blurring of the distinction between truth and lies as an emblematic feature of an authoritarian system. Orwell’s respect for the actual truth echoes Kant’s classic argument against lies, which he defines as deprivation of a full understanding of the truth. In Kant’s view, this is tantamount to coercion, because it involves the deprivation of free choice.  

Let us return to the issue of truth. What seems to confuse people, in these so-called fake-news times, is the distinction between what is factually true and what is stated. A closely related confusion is between truth and truthfulness; and conversely, between false and falsehood. Let us explain these terms further: It is entirely possible for a person to state, due to ignorance or delusion, that the world is flat. The fact that this statement is false does not make it a falsehood. If a person happens to believe that the Earth is flat, and they state so, this is a truthful statement. Yes, the statement in itself is false, because all the facts point to the Earth being round. Truth corresponds to the facts.

In contrast, falsehoods and the closely related concepts of lies and deception come into the picture when a person has the intention of distorting the belief system of another person. Let us pause here to consider that the key component in these domains are intentionality. A person who truly believes that the Earth is round and intends to delude someone else into believing that it is flat engages in falsehood, and would be lying if they tried to convince someone else that the world is not round. Deception is by definition a deliberate attempt to create in another a belief which the communicator believes to be untrue. In other words, the deceiver thinks that the statement is untrue but spews it anyway. Lies are instruments of mind manipulation, ways of implanting beliefs in a way that fits the communicator’s agenda. In ordinary life, we lie to each other all the time; we also manipulate others in subtler ways; we comb our hair, look in the mirror before we leave our house; we consider the impressions others form of us, and we attempt to shape them, because the impressions of others constitute a powerful force that we benefit from controlling.

Deception then means deliberate, volitional deviation from the truth. If I do not know the fact of a given matter, I can tell neither lies nor truths. However, I could bullshit about it, pretending that I know the facts when I actually do not; pretending to be something that I am not—all the while making an impression on the listener. I could then engage in a fake act; pretending that I am transmitting a message, while in fact all I deliver is hot air.

The meaning of bullshit

Bullshit is a central concept in contemporary political culture. This loaded term of course has multiple meanings. Here, we take it to mean the particular form of falsehood articulated in the now-classic essay by the prominent moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Frankfurt offers a definition of bullshit that has gained substantial traction, and that explains both the nature and danger of bullshit. He writes:

“Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essential someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing, too, is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony” (p. 46-47).

Frankfurt’s point regarding bullshit as not necessarily false but phony is useful to understand the difference between forms of deception. But, perhaps the most startling conclusion of his essay is that bullshit is a worse form of moral misconduct than lying. How can this be? In simple terms, Frankfurt argues that the liar knows what the truth is, and subsequently makes an intentional move at manipulating another to believe something different. In sharp contrast, the bullshitter does not care or might not even know what the facts are, as long as the bluff is successful. It is this fundamental disregard for the truth that leads Frankfurt to conclude that bullshit is a worse assault on truth than lies, which in turn connects him to the Orwellian theme of truth-muddling as an autocratic tactic.

If we accept Orwell’s respect for truth as a key feature of a democratic society, or buy into Kant’s seminal arguments against lies as a deprivation of volition, how is it that society can accept the onslaught of bullshit and lies that we face in the current American political climate? How can it be that this era of our history has been labeled "post-truth"? Shouldn’t there be any consideration of the notion that the howling about fake news is in fact itself fake or phony—to reinvoke Frankfurt, that the notion of fake news is actually bullshit? A piece of information, whether framed as news or not, is either factually true or false. Claiming news is "fake" can be a blatant act of bullshittery, designed to obfuscate reality and promote the bullshitter’s agenda.

We write this only months before the election of 2020, after a long summer of discontent in the United States, where discord, disaffection and the deconstruction of societal unity are upon us. Lives, and we would argue democracy, hang in the balance. Why is it then that segments of the population accept the bullshit and embrace the bullshitter(s)? How palatable is your mind—anyone’s mind—to manipulation and the management of your own perception? Do we live in a free society if the information surrounding us is so corrupted that we have stopped believing that truth even exists? After all, only the most absurd reasoning would have it that truth is not a legitimate thing—truth is indeed legitimate, and our core argument is that truth matters.

In Part II of our piece, we will continue to discuss the corrosive effect of lies and bullshit on society and its members, and its role in contemporary political life.

The government has mandated that co-author Mark Fallon’s written products be submitted to the mandatory Pre-publication Review Process by the United States Government (the very process we believe to constitute unlawful censorship). Further, as mandated by the United States Government, the reader is hereby notified that “The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s), and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government." The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the United States Department of Department (DoD) of the linked websites, or the information, product, or services therein. The DoD does not exercise any editorial, security, or other control over the information you may find at these locations.

About the Authors

Maria Hartwig, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her research focuses on the psychology of deception and truth, in particular in the criminal justice and national security space. Along with Mark Fallon, she is the Co-Founder of Project Aletheia, a not-for-profit platform aimed at bridging the gap between science and practice.

Mark Fallon is a former NCIS Special Agent, with expertise in criminal investigations, counterintelligence and counterterrorism spanning more than three decades. He has led some of the most significant counterterrorism operations in modern history, and is known as one of the most prolific advocates for human-rights based interrogation, opposing torture and proposing alternative methods that do not only comply with the law and common morality, but that also yield tangible information in the pursuit of justice.