Several years ago, when my last name was different and my politics were less entrenched, I worked for a nonpartisan fact-checking site. We analyzed falsehoods in political speeches and ads and email forwards: No, there won’t be death panels. No, Sarah Palin didn’t cut funding for special education. Yes, Obama was born in America. No, he wasn’t in the video for “(Whoomp!) There It Is.” We called many of these “zombie rumors”—we would try to smack them down, but a few months later, there they would be again. Over the three years I worked there, more and more zombie rumors massed at our door. We just kept plugging away, calmly stating the facts, because that was our job, but inside our well-insulated office we were screaming. What was the point of working so tirelessly to uncover the truth when the falsehoods never died?
In fact, by trying to stem the tide of untruths, we were probably making everything worse. Repeating a falsehood, even as part of a meticulously researched article that debunks it, actually reinforces the falsehood; the human brain seems to experience fact-checking as a statement followed by a bunch of Charlie Brown teacher noises. We knew this even then: I can probably designate a Washington Post article about the lie-repetition phenomenon as my first “lol nothing matters” moment, six years before the phrase became a meme. My most memorable illustration of this concept was the time that someone emailed to ask about a rumor on Snopes.com, forwarding along the page. It said “FALSE” boldly at the top. The person had forgotten that part but remembered the claim.
In the years since that Post article, which discussed research stretching back to 1945, psychologists, linguists, and philosophers have continued to explore why and how our brains cling to lies. And all the while, those lie-loving brains have kept at it, allowing the stream of email rumors I dealt with a decade ago to metastasize into an entire fake news industry and eventually a White House that traffics in “alternative facts.” Now all of us, not just the fact-checkers, are faced with the challenge of trying to reckon with a dubious alternate reality filled with fraudulent voters, pizza-joint sex rings, and massacres in Bowling Green. As linguist George Lakoff was still trying to tell us even as of last month, the more we correct them, the more ingrained they get. And yet we’re still trying to fact-check our way out. It’s an impulse we just can’t seem to kick.
But it’s never going to work. Facts are not the opposite of lies. Indeed, to defeat lies, we may have to—temporarily, in a targeted way—give up on facts.
The thing is that trying to counter a lie with a fact is like trying to get a catchy tune out of your head by reading out loud from the dictionary. It doesn’t matter which edition you use, or how many definitions you read, or how loudly you say them; when you stop, you’ll still be thinking about Rick Astley. In fact, it’s entirely possible you’ll find yourself singing “now I’m gonna LOOK it UP, ‘infrastructure’ IS a NOUN, this is what it means: a ba-a-asic framework.” The fact does not unseat the lie, and the lie often just ends up deforming the facts.
You have that song stuck in your head now, and I’m sorry. But we can fix it. There are two surefire ways to get a tune out of your head, besides death: Replace it with a stickier tune, or replace it with a tune that is just catchy enough to knock it out but not catchy enough to stay with you for all time. (The song that works best for the latter is “Everybody to the Limit” by Strong Bad, just so you know.) By the same token, even though you can’t dislodge a lie with a correction, might it be possible to dislodge a lie by replacing it with another lie (not ideal) or something similar enough to a lie that it occupies the same brain space (perhaps better)?
So am I calling on the left to be more mendacious, in order to replace lies with lies? Certainly not; I would never suggest we adopt the ethically suspect tactics of exaggeration and wholesale invention, no matter how effective they might be, and I’m definitely not glancing furtively at Michael Moore and mouthing “Help us” while I say that.
But it is time for us to look for the “Everybody to the Limit” of political discourse: something that is able to crowd out the lie, something that can leave a blank slate. In other words, we need a lie reuptake inhibitor: a way to foil the operation of the lie by mimicking its effects.
Figuring out how, exactly, to do that will be an ongoing process. And no matter what, you’ll probably hate doing it.
You’ll hate it because we liberals tend to pride ourselves on caring about evidence, science, and accuracy. Being factually right, or at least grounded in reality, is something we value, something meaningful to our self-concept. But if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of this administration’s parade of whoppers—which is more important than defeating the whoppers themselves—then some of us, sometimes, are going to have to engage with voters and representatives who are mired in pernicious misinformation.
In the aftermath of the election there was a lot of talk about “empathizing” with the other side, but forget that. The project right now isn’t one-sided, undeserved empathy; it’s understanding people enough to talk to them strategically. And the nature of lies means that to be most effective in this effort, we’re going to have to face an even greater challenge: We must let go of the impulse to tell them that they’ve got their facts wrong—even when they do.
Engaging on the plane of belief, where lies live, means taking a break from trying to prove what’s factually accurate and talking instead about what feels meaningful in the heart. (Who could have predicted that Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness”—the truth you know not with your head, but with your gut—would be the defining characteristic of political discourse in 2017? Well, all of us, really, I guess.) This doesn’t always need to mean letting egregious errors stand—it’s worth holding on to the fact that reality exists beyond opinions. But it might well mean breezing past the correction into whatever’s keeping the lie alive.
Figuring out how to counter falsehoods is going to mean assessing how lies benefit the people telling them. Do the things they believe without evidence make them feel safe? Do they make them feel moral? Do these beliefs contribute to a sense of being superior and unassailable? At the one-on-one level, figuring that out is going to help you more than issuing a verbal correction. Writer Alexandra Erin recommends focusing on feelings—not just any feelings, of course, since in our current climate, any grief or anger that’s not wearing a Make America Great Again hat is liable to garner hostility, ridicule, and a “snowflake” accusation—but specifically the feeling of safety. Olga Khazan, writing in the Atlantic, suggests reinforcing shared values.
If someone says that the Muslim ban is OK because all terrorists are Muslim, it might be more worth it to ask about his or her fear of terrorism than to rail against the falsehood about terrorists. That can yield a more useful conversation. What’s really going to make them safer? How much safety is really possible, and what are we willing to trade for it? We should probably all practice saying, “There’s no evidence for that, but the important thing is … ” and “Well, I disagree, but let’s say you’re right. What about … ” without choking.
This doesn’t mean we need to give up on facts entirely—and the news media, in particular, should not stop correcting lies. There is still a place for fact-checking in our alt-facts world. Human brains are not fundamentally incapable of revising closely held beliefs; even Mitch McConnell could probably learn something new if he really had to. And maintaining a correct record of truth, still one of the tasks given to the media, is critical regardless of how much the White House tries to undermine its importance.
But we know enough to know that fact-checks are not going to quell the zombie lies. Coming out of the gate with facts is like bringing a Wikipedia page to a gun fight; people have to be primed and ready if they’re going to question the appealing information that’s fed to them and helps reconfirm their worldview. Truth is not enough. It never has been.
So let the journalists continue to fact-check, harder than ever before. Let them pledge never to repeat the administration’s fabrications without the newspaper equivalent of an Arrested Development voice-over. But don’t carry those corrections wholesale to your GOP representative or your racist family members and think you’re going to win. What we need, first, is a way to unseat the lies—and whatever that winds up looking like, it’s going to mean swallowing your pride, asking the right questions, and listening to the answers. Look the zombie in the face, and then offer it your heart.