Deception, Obfuscation & Misdirection

Image: Roy Lichtenstein

Most are familiar with the concept of FUD—short for Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt. It summarizes a strategy often used in marketing and political propaganda. Its effects are perniciousdivisive and lead to exploitation. Examples abound. Fear is a strong motivator! To resist FUD one must understand how it is practiced using the principles of Deception, Obfuscation and Misdirection.

Deception is just a polite way to say “Lie.” We all make statements that aren’t true. This is usually unintended. We are not trying to deceive. We self-correct and accept corrections from others. Lying implies knowledge of the truth and an intention to conceal it.

liar-jon-kylAn infamous example was a statement made on the floor of the US Senate by Jon Kyl during a budget showdown where he stated that, “Abortion is well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” This figure wasn’t just a little bit off, it was the exact opposite of the truth (3%). The next day his office released a terse retraction, “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.” What then was his intention?! There are two possibilities, he was either aware of the truth and lied, or he didn’t care what the true figure was and just pulled it out of his ass! In short he is either a liar or a bullshitter, conduct unbecoming a US senator. (No longer in the Senate, Jon Kyl is—you guessed it—a lobbyist!)

See the slim volume On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt for more on Lies vs BS.

Obfuscation seeks to obscure the truth. I can think of no better definition than that given by George Orwell

George_Orwell“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

[Politics and the English Language, 1946]

His reworked passage from Ecclesiastes could be found in any modern academic paper, government document, or business report!

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Misdirection takes attention away from what is important. It is characteristic of magicians and spin doctors. Magicians entertain us. Spin leads us around by the nose. A common form of misdirection is substituting anecdote for data. The “vaccine controversy” provides many examples of children “damaged” by vaccines therefore “vaccines are dangerous” and should be avoided. Population-based data simply do not support this! In fact, the risk to unvaccinated children is very real! The media amplify this misdirection through laziness and the desire to be “fair and balanced”.  This leads to a perpetual false equivalency between anecdote and proven facts. The legacy of Andrew Wakefield (who helped launch the anti-vaxxer movement with fraudulent research) lives on even though his articles have been expunged from the medical literature and he has lost his license to practice medicine. As a professional he is totally disgraced yet he maintains his expert status in the eyes of true believers.

Update: A few days after I posted the above I read that “The Quack is Back!” with a new “documentary” to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival! Follow the links, they summarize the sad news much better than I can.

Update2: Hours after I posted the update, the film was pulled from the schedule. Better late than never!

Simple Sabotage

In 2008 the CIA declassified their Simple Sabotage Field Manual. The section on Interference with Organizations illustrates obfuscation and misdirection techniques, many of which have become permanent fixtures in our politics and workplaces. How many have you experienced? How many have you used?!



Important Book

See my review of Idiot America by Charles Pierce who enumerates the following Great Premises

  • Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  • Fact is that which enough people believe.
  • Truth is determined by how fervently people believe it.


Where to begin? We have entered a post-fact/post-truth era

“There’s no such thing anymore, as facts.” Says Trump supporter and CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes. Here is a direct quote…

“On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go ‘No it’s true,’” Hughes said. “And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people who say ‘facts are facts,’— they’re not really facts…”

“Everybody has a way—It’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts…

And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth,” Hughes said. “When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they’ll say that those are lies, and there are no facts to back it up.” [Listen]

Facts, lies or bullshit?! See above the second great premise: “Fact” is that which enough people believe.

Not to be outdone here’s a whopper from Paul Ryan

“Surprisingly for Ryan, who is regarded as a federal budget expert, his claim about the law flies in the face of evidence that it actually helps shore up Medicare.” [Politifact]

There is a certain art to deception, obfuscation and misdirection and the master is certainly Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway. Here’s an excellent analysis from Vox…

To paraphrase the host’s conclusion: “Viewing an interview with her is likely to make the public less informed and more confused.” Think this is intentional? I do.

Hannah Arendt on Lies

“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” [Summary of 1974 Interview]

The Many Lies of Donald Trump

The NY Times recently published a Definitive List of Trump’s Lies. This graphic is a nice summary. It’s like the old joke about lawyers, “How can you tell when Donald Trump is lying? … His lips move.”

Source: NY Times

“The Trump Fog Machine”

Pick an important current event and President Trump will tweet about something of little consequence but strong emotional impact. This is classic misdirection and it works quite well, at least some of the time. Social media and the 24 hour news cycle just amplify the dodge and drive the public away from the real issues.

“But while his legislative agenda is in tatters, his master strategy — throwing out distraction bombs on a regular basis, while turning the screws of power toward a backward era — is working. In just the last two weeks, he has allowed a humanitarian crisis affecting more than three million American citizens to fester, reportedly mocked a dying senator, and threatened to annihilate a nation of 25 million people.”
[NY Times Sept 29, 2017]