Lori Turnbull is the director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.
In a 1952 campaign speech, U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson offered his opponents a deal: “If they will stop telling lies about us, I will stop telling the truth about them.”
It’s a good line. But no matter how good Mr. Stevenson felt about that sharp turn of phrase, it didn’t save his campaign from being routed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. And that just confirms a truism of politics around the world: Lies are part and parcel, and politicians are used to being called out for it.
Polling data in Canada and elsewhere often rank politicians and governments among the least-trusted actors and institutions in society. To an extent, suspicion of politicians is healthy in a democracy; too much trust, after all, can lead to complacency. Instead of holding governments to account, voters who assume all is well are asleep at the switch and are not doing their job as citizens.
But the other side of the pendulum has negative consequences too – especially if people have come to expect politicians to lie. In an Angus Reid poll released in June of this year, almost two-thirds of respondents said that politicians can’t be trusted. This attitude leads to complacency, too, but of a different sort: apathy. Once one draws the conclusion that all politicians are cut from the same cloth and none can be trusted to govern in the public interest and to just tell the truth, why would anyone do the work of informing themselves and then turning out to vote?
A number of prominent falsehoods have intentionally or unintentionally circulated through this current election. Last week, the National Post reported that the Green Party doctored a picture of its leader, Elizabeth May, by inserting a reusable coffee mug using Photoshop, and a spokesperson responded that this already strange move was only to replace a reusable mug with a party-branded one. The real photo, however, emerged, showing Ms. May holding a single-use disposable cup – the kind that the Green Party has pledged to ban. And earlier in the campaign, a now-debunked rumour circulated that RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s husband was a cousin of Finance Minister Bill Morneau. The fact that they were found to be unrelated didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from musing that this was why the RCMP isn’t launching an official investigation into the SNC-Lavalin affair.
What these and other falsehoods reveal is the key to an effective deception: that it must be plausible. If it is totally offside with what people think is true, no one will believe it and it will have no effect. So a strategic and gifted liar will embed untruths – the larger the better, but the low-stakes ones have value, too – into believable, resonant narratives. People who are suspicious over the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin issue, for example, might be looking for an explanation as to why the RCMP are not investigating; the false rumour about Mr. Morneau provided a plausible reason that fits in with their broader impression that the government has something to hide.
One has to question the motivations of people who start spreading falsehoods like this as, surely, it is obvious that they will be disproven sooner or later. Are they doing this for some kind of laugh, just because they can? Unfortunately, the nature of falsehoods in our modern digital era makes that question nearly unknowable. Where once they would make the originator look stupid and manipulative, it is impossible, in the case of the Morneau-Lucki untruth, to get truly upset at an anonymous Twitter account.
Lies in politics are nothing new, sure, but the nature and consequences of lying in the digital era are different. Social media have the capacity to spread lies faster and farther than ever before, often with no accountability whatsoever for the person or group who started the lie. With the help of social media, lying has become more and more appealing as a cheap and easy way to disrupt political discourse and poison the flow of communication between the voters and political candidates. And, of course, we should not assume that it’s only politicians who are lying. Anybody with a Twitter account can throw spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks and for how long.
But digital technology cannot be blamed for its misuse; it has no agency of its own. It’s our obligation to use it responsibly, lest we allow cheap and easy lies to replace a much-needed policy debate about the future of the country.
The real danger of lies isn’t just that people will believe them. It’s also that the substance of political competition and debate has become such a messy combination of mean-spiritedness, silliness and deliberate yet uninspired attempts to mislead that any rational person would opt out of politics altogether.
That is very bad news for the health of our democracy. A switched-off citizenry does not vote, nor does it run for office. And apathetic citizens make for bad governments.
We head to the polls in just less than a month. This campaign has been populated with lies, rumours posing as fact, personal insults and vitriolic attacks. None of that’s new to our or any politics. But somewhat ironically, this campaign is supposed to be the first under the new legislation that specifically aims to prohibit political lies with hefty fines. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine anyone checking in on the writ period and finding something worth participating in.
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