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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

The manipulative game of lying by telling small truths

Contexts are often altered to exploit human perceptual weaknesses but there’s a way to resist this

There are various types of lies that are used for manipulation. But telling a big lie by telling only the truth is the ultimate manipulation strategy. This strategy has clearly been at play in recent discussions on the covid vaccine, India’s farm laws, and the controversy in Europe over the religious monument of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. In all these instances, the main problem is not of fake news, but of major players manipulating the broader narrative by telling only the truth—the truth that is convenient to them.

Many of the issues being debated today in society are very complex. Even an expert virologist will take a long time to explain the various technologies used to develop covid vaccines. Depending on each state and what crops are grown there, our recently-passed farm laws might have different implications. Hagia Sophia is an issue that is closely linked to a political and religious context, spanning a 1,500-year time period, in a region. Issues of such high complexity often represent a combination of rights, wrongs and uncertainties. So one can conveniently focus on a particular point in a complex issue and unearth ‘truths’ that support one’s own point of view. For example, even for the best of covid vaccines, there will be people who will suffer allergic reactions, or for whom it will simply not work. If someone talks about how the vaccine has let down these few, it would not be fake news. But this strategy does far more harm to the larger truth than even fake news. This use of truths to spawn big lies amounts to manipulation of information, and it is on an uptrend, unfortunately.

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This manipulation strategy involving the use of the truth for lying is facilitated by the basic construct of the human brain. The brain is not a sponge that dispassionately absorbs all the information that comes its way. It is not an input-output system where each stimuli impinging on the sensory system is analysed in detail before a final decision is taken. The human brain is an anticipation machine. It approaches every situation with a certain set of expectations. What the brain anticipates of a situation is greatly influenced by the ‘truths’ that are already entrenched in our mind. Information that supports one’s existing beliefs is taken as true, even actively sought. Information that is seen as contrary to one’s existing views is often looked upon with suspicion, even avoided. The tendency to overlook contradictory information is especially high if one has invested lot of effort in forming one’s existing beliefs, or if one’s very identity and existence depend on it. And so, what is considered true and the information sought are usually related to one’s existing beliefs. Knowledge of this behavioural pattern is critical to the world’s information manipulators who ‘manufacture’ truths.

Joseph Jastrow’s ‘duck-rabbit illusion’ offers a visual illustration of another characteristic of the brain’s information-processing function. In this visual illusion, there are images of a duck and a rabbit in the same picture. But unless told, most of us do not look for two different images in it. Our brains settle on the first image we pick up. Even if we are prodded to look for the other image in the picture, it does not come easy. Even if we manage to shift perspective and see the other image, our brains are unable to see both of them simultaneously. The human brain has not evolved to be conscious of more than one ‘truth’ at any point of time. So it is not a surprise that we fail to look for or see alternate points of view in many a situation.

The checker shadow illusion was developed by Edward H. Adelson, professor of vision science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this optical illusion, a square area labelled ‘A’ appears to be of a darker colour than the area marked ‘B’ when seen in the context of a cone and the shadow it creates. When one looks at squares A and B without the context of the cone and its shadow, both of them look similar in colour. This happens because human perception is shaped by the context in which we see things. So, if we change the context of an issue, our brains start seeing a very different ‘truth’ about the same issue. Chiselling away all the historical and societal contextual factors around an issue and then presenting it in a selectively revised context is an oft-used strategy by many information manipulators.

The solution to tackle such an insidious strategy of information manipulation is not to treat it as a war of information between various truths. The lay individual does not have the time nor the inclination to drown in a sea of information. Manipulators thrive in an environment of deep-rooted mistrust in institutional structures and in people who are dissimilar to us.

What the world requires is a new information dissemination strategy that generates trust all around. We need a communication strategy that gives the ‘complete’ picture, both the pros and cons of an issue at hand. Numbers must be avoided, and percentages all the more so, while easy-to-absorb graphic elements must be used; also, we need to use language that is simple instead of dense or overly scientific. What matters most in effective communication is credibility. That the information provider has nothing to hide needs to be conveyed, too. This strategy will go a long way in fostering a much-needed environment of trust.

When fake news is used for information manipulation, truth is the answer. But when truth itself is used to manipulate minds and thoughts, creating trust is the solution.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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