Op-Ed: A History of the “Big Lie,” from Plato to TikTok


Long ago, a respected social critic expressed concern that a new medium was leading to lies.

The year was 375 BCE, the critic was Plato, and the still relatively new medium was the written word, which he used, despite his many reservations, to disseminate his oral dialogues with Socrates.

Today, we are again concerned about the power of new media to facilitate lying. This time it’s the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. But if you look at history, lying is as old as man (older really, since some animals practice deception). And every advancement in communication throughout history has made it easier.

Plato, although he cared about the written word, was not averse to lying under all circumstances. In fact, he believed that societies needed what he called “a big lie”, a deception intentionally spun to serve a civic purpose, a grand national myth that would help forge a nation’s identity.

The myth we’ve believed in for so long about George Washington and the cherry tree is an example of the great Platonic lie. In the country’s early years, the United States felt the need for good founding lies and Washington, the tall, well-spoken and heroic Founding Father, seemed the perfect subject.

In the sixth edition of his 1806 biography of Washington, author Mason Locke Weems describes young George chopping down a cherry tree and confessing to his father, “I can’t lie. But this parable about lying was itself a lie. It remained popular for generations and eventually outlived the book.

The printing press, invented in the 15th century, also helped to spread lies, just as the written word had done. After the English Civil War in the 17th century, lies defaming Oliver Cromwell occupied the presses. In 1665 a fake cookbook, supposedly by Cromwell’s wife but full of fraudulent attacks on her husband, was published. The lying cookbook was invented.

One of the most successful examples of a printed lie was a pamphlet first circulated in Russia in 1905. It was so clumsily written and so blatantly untrue that it should have died quickly. Instead, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has been translated into many languages, is still being published, and is widely available on social media today.

The “Protocols” claimed to be the stolen notes of a meeting of a secret organization of Jewish leaders conspiring to take over the world. There has never been such a meeting because there has never been such an organization. The fact that the “Protocols” still survive proves the durability of the unconvincing lies and the utter lack of originality of today’s liars.

With the growth of newspapers, new opportunities for lying have emerged. Now a liar only had to convince a journalist to spread a lie to a mass audience. At the start of World War I in August 1914, the French spread false reports of atrocities in German-occupied Belgium to motivate Allied soldiers. A Times of London A correspondent reported that a German soldier had “cut off a baby’s arms which clung to his mother’s skirts”.

Several subsequent investigations have produced no evidence that such atrocities ever occurred.

Between 1928 and 1933, failed Soviet policies caused millions of people to die of starvation in Ukraine. New York Times Pulitzer Prize correspondent Walter Duranty reported, “There is no famine or starvation, and it is unlikely there will be.” Malcolm Muggeridge, a veteran journalist also covering the tragedy, later called Duranty “the biggest liar of any reporter I’ve met in 50 years of journalism”.

The Soviets attempted to cover up the Ukrainian tragedy with a deceptive technique known as the “Potemkin village”. A Potemkin Village was a scene of prosperity staged for guest viewers. Respected French leader Edouard Herriot organized a fact-finding mission to Ukraine. The day before his arrival, peasants were forced to clean the streets and decorate the houses. Shop windows were filled with food, but residents were not allowed to buy any or even crowd too close to the windows.

There were also American Potemkin villages. American cities have had paper buildings and lighting to make slums more beautiful for sporting events.

By the way, the whole idea of ​​a Potemkin village is a lie in itself. Gregory Potemkin, a government minister and lover of 18th-century Russian Empress Catherine II, is said to have built prosperous fake villages to make the countryside richer for the empress’s 1787 boat tour of Crimea. however, a Finnish diplomat and a Saxon diplomat made up these stories to give the impression that the Russians were desperately concealing their failures.

The radio was a big step forward for lying. Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Michigan whose anti-Semitic radio broadcasts were hugely popular in 1930s America, called the “Protocols” evidence of a Jewish conspiracy. Coughlin was a pioneer of talk radio, spouting lies over the radio without anyone contradicting him.

But the great master of the radio lie was Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. “It would not have been possible for us to take power or use it as we do without radio,” he once said. He distributed radios to the public. Having one of these official radios was a sign of being a good Nazi, not only because they were decorated with swastikas, but because they were only able to pick up Nazi party frequencies.

But all parties used the radio to broadcast their stories. In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Alexandre Koyré, a French philosopher and historian of science, declared: “Never have there been so many lies as in our time. Never has the lie been so shameless, so systematic, so incessant.

The exact same thing is being said today about the rise of social media. But there are differences now.

Social networks celebrate amateurism. Any idiot can step in.

And it is easy to use effectively. Donald Trump can spread an immense volume of lies on his own and send them to tens of millions of people in an instant. Goebbels needed a staff of nearly 1,000 professional liars.

And there’s something else: only a small fraction of listeners believe a lie when they hear it. If you lie to 100 people, you might have two or three believers, and if you lie to thousands, you might have hundreds. What happens when you lie to millions of people on the internet?

Mark Kurlansky is the author of “Big Lies: From Socrates to Social Media,” which will be released on September 27.

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