Guest Post: The Shape of Big Lies

Social media bombards us with big lies. The juicier and click-baitier, the better, and the happier are advertisers. Unfortunately, disinformation is often plausible as well as attractive. By promising to right an imaginary or misplaced wrong it can tempt us to engage in bullying, persecution, and—in the extreme—bloodshed and even murder. The good news is that there’s a pattern to big lies, and so a pattern as well to beating them.

We’ll start with an unsavory chapter in American history, the Salem Witch Trials, shown in the diagram above. The righteous cry in Salem in 1692 was “witches are telling the Devil to torment our young girls”, and the call to action was to “execute the witches to save these innocents.”

Yet, under the surface there was a very different story of greed, power, and revenge. Killing witches was for a very different purpose than was widely discussed. You see, Salem seethed with quarrels. People bickered with their neighbors about everything from minister’s salaries to flooded farms. In particular, a vicious feud between the Putnam and Porter families polarized the community. The feud was rooted in both monetary greed and a clash of social values between the austere and agricultural Putnams and the less austere and mercantile Porters. The initial accusers were members of the Putnam household or that of the Putnams’ close ally, Rev. Samuel Parris. The initial accused were Putnam enemies: one in a land dispute with the Putnams, three who voted against collecting taxes for Perris’ salary, and the previous minister. When the Porters tried to stop the proceedings, many of them were accused of witchcraft. In the end 25 people were executed or died in jail.

What if it had been widely known that the reason for the executions wasn’t about the Devil rather, but rather reflected the Putnam/Porter feud? Could lives have been saved?

Our second example comes from a twentieth-century master of the big lie. Adolph Hitler said in Mein Kampf that big lies are easier to perpetuate than small ones:

“…in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses … more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

In his 2018 Washington Post Perspective, historian Zachary Jonathan Jacobson cites fellow historian Tim Grady, saying, “the Nazis built an ideology on a fiction, the notion that Germany’s defeat in World War I could be avenged (and reversed) by purging the German population of those purportedly responsible: the Jews.” [boldface mine]. This big lie cost at least six million lives.

From these two examples we can extract the key pattern of Big Lies:

  1. A statement so preposterous that it must be true because it seems impossible to make up.
  2. A ring of plausibility because above the surface it’s righting a huge wrong: saving innocent lives from The Devil, or restoring German glory. This is the emotional hook that makes such effective clickbait. It is proclaimed loudly and incessantly.
  3. A bloody, often lethal, below-the-surface agenda driven by selfish power, greed, and revenge, not acknowledged nor spoken.
  4. A complex situation, where there’s a “fog” of disinformation.

Decision Intelligence is one tool we can use to shine bright light on big lie patterns; they can’t survive it. In the next post, I’ll talk about how that works.

Nadine Malcolm

Nadine Malcolm has four decades of experience leading cross-functional, multi-national, and geographically distributed teams delivering end-to-end solutions to complex problems to customers in the US, Europe, and Asia. Before coming to Quantellia, Malcolm held management and executive positions in several Silicon Valley startups, including VP of Development at Ascent Logic Corporation which provided systems engineering tools to major aerospace companies and US government projects.

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