The Lies that can Undermine Democracy

12 January 2021

After a morning with a long call and setting up a couple of technical articles to publish, I was unsure of how to spend the afternoon of Wednesday January 6th. I had some exploratory programming to look forward to, or perhaps I should start my annual traffic analysis of this site. Instead, like many readers, I ended up coup-scrolling on twitter and The Guardian as a mob broke into the Capitol, forcing our elected representatives to flee to secure locations.

The sight of a rioter wearing furs and horns standing at the desk of the presiding office of the Senate makes the event seem rather comical. But a glance at history shows that often farcical events can turn into serious adversity. In 1923 the failed Beer Hall Putsch was looked on with sneers, but was later turned into a sacred event once the Nazi's gained power. I'm sure more than a few people giggled when they first saw the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, but not combating them at the start led to the United States's greatest failure of democratic growth, and a hundred years of tyranny over a significant number of our fellow citizens.

a glance at history shows that often farcical events can turn into serious adversity

While I don't like posting about partisan politics, Trump's contempt for the truth has alarmed me to the point of posting arguments against his election. The Capitol insurrection is another consequence of his lies - in this case his baseless attacks on the election results in 2020. While I understand that many people distrust the mainstream press, the fact that his lawyers have filed a blizzard of lawsuits and got precisely nowhere, proves that there is no evidence for the election failures that he claims. But his denial of the result has created a belief among his supporters that he didn't really lose, a belief that is likely to further poison our society in the coming years.

Lies like this have consequences. Muslim Americans have had to live in fear and have their movement curtailed because of the lies he tells about their disloyalty. Most notably his lies about progress of Covid-19 are at the center of America's pathetic response to the covid crisis, with death rates far greater than other developed countries. By politicizing mask-wearing he could be responsible for killing more Americans than any other person in our history. Just today more Americans died of covid-19 than died on 9/11. The same is true yesterday and tomorrow.

But as much as I despise a demagogue like Trump, I also acknowledge that he's a symptom, not a root cause. I still remember an episode of This American Life from 2016 when reporter Zoe Chace is mocked by a Minnesota state representative because she questions his assertion that cities in the U.S., such as Dearborn Michigan, are under Sharia Law. Stories like this, founded upon lies, are believed by a worrying amount of Americans. For people that believe this, it's understandable that their anger leads to voting for a demagogue, as well as invading and disgracing the Capitol.

This ulceration of lies is why, even if Trump decides to spend the rest of his life playing golf, the problems of the last few years won't go away. When so many people have these beliefs, they elect people who pander to them. 139 Representatives and 8 senators voted to overturn the will of the people after rioters had gone home. Most, I assume, know full well that there's no credible evidence the election was fraudulent, but their fear of a primary challenge outweighs their oath to defend the constitution. Their actions were worse than those of the invading mob. If there is any justice in our country, their political careers should be shattered and they should feel the shame for the rest of their lives.

Let's be clear, these politicians are not innocent victims of populist ignorance. Senator Cruz may justify derailing the transition because polls say 39% of Americans thought it was rigged, but it's his actions, with those of his allies, that generate that belief. The proper course for him and his fellow renegades was laid out by Senator Romney, one of the few Republicans to come out the last year with honor: "the best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth."

While I'm confident that the primary blame for our situation rests on this barrage of lies that's warped the reality for so many people, I don't have much confidence in how to counter it. It feels like a big chunk of our population have got sucked into a cult - how do you deprogram so many people?

One route that might help is to visit consequences on those who lie. In general, I'm a strong defender of free speech - but while we must have free speech we must not be free of the consequences of that speech. The tricky thing is that while I would like some law that would deter people like Trump from emitting the lies he does, it's hard to come up with a mechanism that would do so without muzzling those who need to speak. People who expose corruption are often the targets of those with power, and we need robust powers to preserve their ability to expose wrongdoing. Whenever I hear people talk about free-speech, I expect them to acknowledge that this is a difficult balance to strike. If they don't, I can't take them seriously.

while we must have free speech we must not be free of the consequences of that speech

In this kind of crisis one institution that has proven reliable is the courts. In the 1920s and 30s John Brinkley came up with a quack medical procedure of implanting the testicular glands of goats into men to restore fertility and virility. Laughable as it may seem to readers now, he grew rich on this, and nearly won a race to be Governor of Kansas. He was brought down when he sued Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, for libel. The jury found that Brinkley was indeed a quack, helping spark a flood of lawsuits which shut down Brinkley's practice, leaving him to die in penury. [1] I can but hope Dominion Voting Systems's lawsuits against Rudy Giuliani and co will have a similar effect. But I'm not sure that civil lawsuits will provide the broader cure we need.

I've likened this Trumpist and proto-Trumpist world to a cult, and one of the notable characteristics of a cult is how they seek to monopolize information sources, treating any outside media as false. Trump's attacks on the media, which echo earlier derelict politicians (e.g. Nixon) are a clear tell for this. Make no mistake, one should always be skeptical of media. My limited interactions with tech journalists make it clear that many, if not most, are more interested in a quick shallow story than educating their readers. But there are dedicated media figures who care about their work. You can spot them because they avoid simple answers, and like to dig into complex and difficult stories without simple resolutions. Public figures who demonize the media wholesale are those with something to hide, who hope that they can close their supporters' ears to reporters' investigations of wrong-doing.

The claim that the 2020 Presidential election was fraudulent is a good example of a "Big Lie", a lie that is clearly false, but people end up following it because it's constantly repeated by elites. Those that encourage a big lie like this are perpetrating a fraud on the people they talk to, comparable to people who peddle Ponzi schemes and quack medicine. They should suffer similar consequences. Those that enable them to spread these lies should not escape punishment.

Much of this deluge of disinformation has been blamed on social media, and other actors in the internet age. Certainly powerful tech platforms must take some of the blame. Algorithms that optimize for engagement don't optimize for enlightenment. Brinkley was a media innovator, one that was particularly masterful at using radio; the Nazis were also skillful media manipulators. We learned then that letting media run free can let lies run ahead of reality. The excuse that tech-media companies are merely judgment-free pipes has always been flimsy, but it grows threadbare with each new event. The standard has long been that publishers are responsible for what they publish, and it's long since time that Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and the like are held to that level of responsibility. They may claim commercial necessity, but that hardly holds water than they do markedly worse job with the material on their pages than the non-profit Wikipedia.

In recent years the view is that, since media corporations are private companies, they should have complete freedom to decide what to publish. But in my view the larger and more influential a media organization is, the more it needs to demonstrate that it has procedures to control the dissemination of lies on its platform. These procedures must be more transparent and structured than what currently appears to be the CEO's whim. Failure to do so should increase its civil liability, but there is also a role for government intervention. If a society is being injured by media's fraud, then society should have a means to extract damages from the perpetrators and to deter others. Government acts as the executive for society. That it's difficult to do this while protecting annoying yet beneficial speech should not deter us from taking action.

We have seen how lies can undermine democracy, helping to polarize people into groups defined by simplistic identities. Popular social networks regularly restrict what can be published. Explicit violence, pornography, spam, and copyright violations are routinely taken down. Lies should be treated similarly.


1: The story of Brinkley's career, and the determined efforts of Fishbein to bring him (and other quacks) down, is a fascinating look at America in the early 20th Century. If you like a podcast, Reply-All did an excellent summary of the story. I also enjoyed Pope Brock's biography.


Chad Wathington, Cindy Chabot, Elizabeth Hendrickson, Jez Humble, Mike Roberts, Nicole Forsgren, and Rebecca Parsons commented on drafts of this article before publication. Michael Sewell reminded me that I should remember many less-popular social networks publish more liberally.

Significant Revisions

12 January 2021: Published

07 January 2021: Started drafting