The Power of True Lies: How True Stories Lead to False Narratives and Dangerous Agendas

With an election not even behind us and a firestorm of controversies in the last year–from impeachment to coronavirus conspiracies to #pizzagate to election fraud–everyone seems up in arms about the rise of “fake news” and the dangers it poses to our democracy. Twitter and Facebook have taken to censorship, Google changed is algorithm to allow only certain news articles on its font page, and high profile newspapers have created a daily fact check of the things the President says. We are now in what might reasonably be called the Misinformation age; a time where the the possibilities of the internet and the unparalleled public platforms of social media have made discerning the truth more complicated. Of course, one might argue that misinformation has always been the fashion of the day–sensationalism, partisan journalism, and libel are nothing new. But it’s legitimate to wonder what has given these controversies and questionable claims so much power, and is there a way that we can sift through the muck to find the truth?

While some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories haven’t caused too much damage, 2020 has seen an eyebrow raising amount of protests, riots, and law-breaking–all due to the circulation of questionable news. And the problems cut through both sides of the political isle. Liberal journalists make it seem like racially charged killings run rampant and unchecked across the states (inciting riots that have led to destruction and death) while Conservative journalists and politicians claim that we are witnessing what would turn out to be the largest election conspiracy in American history–unparalleled collusion across half a dozen states, thousands of poll workers and ballot counters, and tens of thousands of fraudulent votes (stoking the flames of mistrust in the very foundations of our political system). All the while, the beliefs of many that Covid is far overblown by people trying to get Trump out of office may have led to needless sickness and death.

What is so dangerous about these claims is that their power comes from their truth value, a truth value created by one simple thing: anecdotes. Personal stories have great power to move the hearts of people. We’re told stories of election anomalies and even fraudulent occasions as if these represent just a handful of the myriad cases of fraud that must be going on from Pennsylvania, to the Midwest, to Nevada. We hear from nurses and doctors about strange Covid diagnoses, people fudging the numbers, and top down mandates–and we think that this means that the threat of the virus is more manufactured than real. We know the names and stories of black men shot and killed by police officers, and it seems like it’s happening everywhere, all the time.

In all these scenarios, the anecdotes are probably true–or, at least, they have just as much credibility as most of the things we hear on a daily basis from friends and family members about their own lives and experiences. But the fact that these anecdotes may be true is precisely what makes them so prone to become error. Once we hear a few personal stories, it is much harder to be swayed by impersonal data, statistics, scholarly studies, and expert opinions, even if these are more legitimate sources of truth in the context of broad claims. These hard facts just don’t have as much persuasive power. And that’s dangerous.

It’s dangerous because anecdotes are generally not falsifiable. And analytical data by its very nature is designed to be falsifiable. If there’s no way to critique or question a study, then it isn’t a good study. But a personal story describes someone’s experiences, experiences that are probably true but can’t be falsified when it’s used to make claims about larger trends. Studies and statistics and hard data on the hand are an imperfect, albeit incredibly helpful, attempt to find patterns and problems on a societal level. Data can never falsify someone’s personal experience, but anecdotes are often used to discredit data. And that’s a problem.

At the heart of it, this is a problem of oversimplifying our notions of truth. Not all truth is relevant in every context or from every point of view. In fact, put in some contexts, something that’s true is paramount to a lie. Different contexts call for different kinds of truth.

Personal anecdotes are powerful and necessary in the context of personal relationship. If a friend of mine told me she thinks she’s being followed by a creepy stalker, I should be inclined to believe her. And it would be inappropriate for me to cite the statistical unlikelihood of that happening. Her anecdote holds more truth value in this context than statistical data about national trends. But it would be equally inappropriate to take that personal anecdote and project it onto national trends and start claiming that there’s an epidemic of stalkers in this country.

When we’re discussing national trends or large-scale policy, personal anecdotes should hold very little truth value in our minds. It’s not the proper context, and these stories do far more to serve falsehood than truth. For every three anecdotes for one side of an issue, there will be three more for the other. And as these stories continue to pile on, a false impression digs deep into people’s minds and hearts, leading to entrenched thinking, foolish beliefs, division, and despair.

What we’re seeing now (perhaps more than ever) is the proliferation of personal anecdotes driving national conversations. And the big loser is all of us; for we are falling prey to the power games of powerful people, wielding these (often true) stories to push false narratives at the expense of the people.

Context matters when it comes to truth. But in an age where everything is decontextualized, deconstructed, and projected for the sake of getting and maintaining power and position, we must hold ourselves accountable to not be swayed by personal anecdotes co-opted for sweeping narratives. And if we find ourselves struggling to know what’s true anymore, then maybe the solution is to get small. Build personal relationships. Get to know our communities. Sympathetically listen to the local stories as indicative of local issues. And resist the temptation to decontextualize the truth. If there’s not enough information to come to a conclusion about a larger social issue, then perhaps we shouldn’t come to a conclusion. And we should resist the temptation to weaponize people’s stories to prove our ideas and fight for our agendas.

If we don’t, I fear we may continue to be drawn into division, danger, and despair.

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