Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden-variety lie?

Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.
Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.

The traditional definition of a lie is intentional delivery of false information to mislead someone else into believing that it’s true. Juan Samuel Santos, Andrea Catalina Zárate and Gustavo Gómez, philosophers at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, suggest that political lies are different from other kinds of lies. The university held a symposium on the subject last August.

An article in the latest issue of the university’s Spanish-language magazine describes their positions.

Santos notes that politicians often speak to motivate their audience to feel something or take some action, but not necessarily with the intent that the audience will believe the statements. Sometimes politicians claim certain accomplishments when the audience already knows those claims aren’t quite true. These political lies nevertheless (regardless of the politician’s intent) do perpetuate false beliefs and are dangerous.

Zárate focuses on why some lies are more believable and popular than others. She examines the relationship between specific speakers and listeners, especially in light of modern mass communication and social media that allow lies to be easily replicated.

Gómez, beginning with Plato’s dialogues and citing Derrida’s notion of a “truth effect,” discusses how a publication or a repetition can create the semblance of truth even if that is not the speaker’s intent. Authors and readers alike, he says, have the responsibility to evaluate the truth of what is communicated.

To sum up: In political contexts, speakers and listeners may not care primarily about factual information. Political speech may instead serve another purpose, and people may replicate those messages because of their existing relationships and platforms, not because of the quality of the information. When they pass on the message, others may begin to perceive it as true, even if it was never intended as a factual communication.


The article in the magazine of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
The article in Pesquisa Javeriana.

“¿La mentira política es diferente a las otras mentiras?” Alejandro Tamayo Montoya. Pesquisa Javeriana. Sept-Nov. 2019 (available free online as PDF). pp. 10-11.

At the end of the article, these sources were recommended as further reading:

Letter from South America

Up for Grabs...Live

Up for Grabs…Live (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Bob,
Not long ago events here in Colombia made me think of Episyllogism and a topic discussed in this blog many times: the power of bullshit or spin.  As you might have heard the Colombian government negotiated a peace agreement with the guerrilla group FARC – a negotiation that took four years after several failed attempts during previous governments. In order to make it law, the president had two options: have a referendum or have it approved by the congress. He chose to take this to the polls, so we had a referendum in October. The country divided over the matter; which seems like a surprise, as the choice of peace would appear to be a no-brainer. The social networks helped the NO campaign big time (ah! and many church leaders too!). They were inundated with bullshit. The messages either distorted what was included in the agreement or simply made up outrageous facts. After hearing some of these claims from my students, I decided it was time to read the real agreement; a difficult task, given the length and the complexity of the text, but undoubtedly, a necessary thing.  And then I found myself almost getting mad at a one my students about all of this. One day she told me she was going to vote against. Why?, I asked. She pulled out her cellphone and was ready to show me a message forwarded to her on WhatsApp. I tried to stop her: No, no, no. Don’t even show me that. Do you know the source? –Yes…my brother in law…  No, no, no!. The real source! Those messages are propaganda! I don’t want to read that. 
And I mentioned some of the things I had read which completely debunked the lies in the message. Later I pondered about my reaction. The bullshit made me mad and I almost had a fight with my student! Then I heard in the news that indeed many friends and families were fighting over this. But I had a good reason to be mad: the exaggeration was so ridiculous and it was so easy and convenient to read these “summaries” of the long text: Read the damn text carefully! – I don’t have time…. In the end my effort was fruitless: my student voted against the agreement despite my attempt to rectify the bullshit. The campaign to vote NO was rampant in the net (and in some pulpits too). After it succeeded, the campaign leader of one of the biggest groups against the agreement acknowledged that he had used well-known spin tactics, clearly distorting and confusing. But this confession didn’t have much effect.
No one wanted to say they had been deceived and therefore wrong about their vote. I wonder if the country learned anything about bullshit or we are too proud to admit we can be victims of spin-doctors if we don’t watch it. Fortunately, the congress approved a new agreement and it is in the process of implementation. And by the way, Canada is sending some troops to help with peace keeping.
Well, that is all for now. Peace for all. Until next time,