Weaponized Lies

“Everybody lies.” – Dr. Gregory House 

            In Pencils 2019-20, “Land of the Free”, I discussed the unavoidable lies that politicians, and the rest of us, find themselves involved in. Lying commonly happens also under stress. This is what Dr. House in the TV series, House, M.D., relied on as infallible. His cynicism guided him to answers he needed in order to save lives. It was a fun series. 

            There is another kind of lying and another kind of liar: the dedicated, calculated lie intended purposely as a weapon, and those who use them, commonly nations or wealthy high-level criminals such as kleptocrats. An effective weaponized lie requires power. You need friendly, possibly controlled, media. You also need a lot of money and some skill. 

            The first principle of any effective lie is to use as much of the truth as is possible. Provable or accepted truths cloak the lie and make it easier to believe. So, in order to develop this lie you have to know a lot about what is true and, often more importantly, what is “common knowledge” in your target audience, whether or not it is actually true. 

            One of the current master users of weaponized lies is Russia. There are others. You can research the details and early examples of it, but the technique is this. They have a target person, organization, or government they want discredited in some specific way. First, they determine what kind of lie or series of lies about that target would do the most damage and in what parts of the world society this lie should be spread to be most effective. 

           This will take knowledge of the cultural and political environment of the target and the delivery audience. Usually these details are quickly obvious to experts on the region. Most powerful people or institutions have a weakness—I’ll call it a sin, some part of their life that is less than perfect—and every society has some set of behaviors of which as a group it is highly intolerant. I’ll call that a super-sin. Pedophilia or stealing money from the poor, as examples, fit that bill for most societies, but there are always several. 

           The goal is to associate some real sin of the target with one of these super-sins, even though there is actually no connection. It’s important that the super-sin chosen fall within the range of plausible actions of the target as perceived by the target audience for the lie. This takes some subtle decision making. Maybe their target is a person of whom pedophilia would not be generally believed, however skillfully they make the charge, but stealing from the poor would be. Maybe they decide the inverse is true. 

           The play is run so that the public is led to the conclusion that if the real sin is true then the super-sin must be true also. Since the real sin is provable, and the free media will know that, or be led to discover it, the super-sin lie gains widespread support tagging along with the true sin. Even if the free media recognizes there is no connection, the friendly-to-the-cause media can ignore that and just point out that the free media agrees that the sin happened and move on to make a connection to the super-sin and complete the lie. 

           One way that Russia has run this play in the past on governments and officials in central Europe is to hack or buy hacks of emails of the target. These can be vastly large in number, hundreds of thousands of emails, wires, and other electronic communications. Among those emails, etc., most of which are internal and never intended to be seen outside of the parties involved, there will be evidence of one or more of the real sins of the target. They may do a little pruning in case there is any strong counterevidence of the lie they want to plant, but not much. It’s important that the email dump appear completely intact, and the super-sin is not a part of the target’s life, so reference to it is unlikely. 

           They carefully place a few phony pieces of evidence among the remaining hundreds of thousands of emails and wires of the super-sin. This is the warhead lie they are delivering. This takes more skill and more knowledge of their target and their audience. Remember these are governments or obscenely wealthy criminals. They can do this or hire those who can. 

           Then they use Wikileaks or some other independent internet or social media site to dump the whole thing. It’s now all public. If no one notices at first, their friendly media sounds the alarm and points to it. Everybody dives into it. 

           Just like a fish taking the bait, the sin and the super-sin are unveiled. It’s extremely confusing to the target. The target will almost always deny everything. That’s not just taking the bait, it’s swallowing the hook. When the truth of the sin is proven, the denial of it immediately devalues the denial of the super-sin, and game over. The warhead lie is landed. 

           This will all happen very publicly. Subtleties such as “this sin is true but that one isn’t” will never make any headway. 

           I write this not to make any particular accusations other than the widely accepted one that Russia has done this. It’s to make sure you are informed that this is becoming a widespread tactic in our world. Critical thinking about news stories, particularly ones that fit your own predispositions, is more important than it ever has been. 

           Make an informed decision about what news outlets to trust and use more than one, always remembering that even with honest media mistakes will be made, and there are editorial factors at work that can’t be avoided. Not because they are dishonest but because they are human. As former TV news personality, Jon Stewart, recently pointed out, the first goal of any newscaster is to keep you watching. With dishonest or amoral newscasters, that’s the only goal. 

           So, keep a few grains of salt next to you while watching. Good luck and keep the faith. We are still a mostly honest and caring species. We just have to act like it a little more. 

Hugh Moffatt 
Watertown, Massachusetts 
November 11, 2020