Commentary: 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.

Rev. Charles E. Coughlin of Detroit addresses a mass meeting of his supporters in Cleveland in 1936. Father Coughlin, as he was known, hosted weekly radio shows that drew tens of millions of listeners around the 1930s and promoted anti-Semitism and pro-fascist views. Associated Press, File

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, in fact, 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. 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 London Times correspondent reported that a German soldier had “cut off a baby’s arms which were clinging to its mother’s skirts”. 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. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty said, “There is no famine or starvation, and there probably won’t 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 radio was a big step forward for lying. 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 also because they were only able to pick up Nazi party frequencies.

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?

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