Revised! How Words Manipulate Us…
Deceptive language surrounds us! We continually receive words and images that mislead, misinform and try to manipulate an audience.
Revision on 3/29/2023: I added Deceptive Statement number 8, and the section “Lying by Omission and Distraction” that discusses it.
Why do people and institutions present lies to us? Here are some reasons:
- To sell products
- To gain attention through likes, clicks and our reaction
- In a conversation, to gain power by controlling the agenda or upsetting another person
- In public life, to gain political power through votes, outrage or even violence
We can’t stop all untruths. However, we can recognize them. And, we can discover which parts are true and useful to us and thus worth keeping.
Can you spot the lies and misdirections in the samples below?
8 Deceptive Statements
- Weird but genius bras that are wildly popular on Amazon…
- Pravda reports…
- His inhumane open-border policies devastate Americans
- A Tragic End Today, for Tom Selleck…
- We wore masks to protect against the China Virus
- My opponent met in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty
- Wokeness caused the fall of Silicon Valley Bank
- Ask your investment advisor “are you a Certified Financial Planner?”
Did you spot them all? If not, then you are open to manipulation by advertisers, media, politicians and liars of every stripe.
But hey, this is the real world. Companies and individuals have to grab your attention to build their brand name and make a living. And sometimes their videos and stories reward us with entertainment or emotions that we welcome.
The key is to recognize manipulation so that we can decide what to do, or not do, about it. First, we’ll explain the deceptive phrases above. And then we’ll summarize how to spot their siblings and cousins when they ask for your attention.
Sample: “Weird but genius bras that are wildly popular on Amazon…”
This phrase, and ads like the one shown here, rely on words and images to that catch your attention. And if they arouse an emotion (greed, anxiety, sympathy) they are especially powerful. Here are some of their revealing features:
- Words that promise money or power: rich; millions; billions; wealthy
- Words that suggest beauty or social approval: wildly popular; burns fat, perfect skin
- Revealing special knowledge: weird; secret; strange; genius; deadly; fake
- Words suggesting authority: expert; research; numbers (“top 3”; “worst 5”)
Sample: “Pravda reports…”
Most folks know that “pravda” is a Russian word meaning “truth.” However, the capitalized word Pravda labels a propaganda outlet owned by the Russian government. It only tells the truth when the truth happens to agree with its owner. As a result, the name is inherently deceptive.
This is an example of misnaming to confuse or mislead, which Senator/Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called “semantic infiltration.” Wikibin gives examples, including:
- “Evil Empire” to describe the Soviet Union and its allies
- “Affirmative Action” to describe preferential treatment of some groups
- “Racial Profiling” to imply that offender profiling by law enforcement places excessive emphasis on race
In fact, one TV commentator even refuses to say the name of a particular company because its name includes the word “news,” which the commentator regards as deceptive!
Not all deception is evil: when someone uses a substitute term to avoid offending someone else or embarrassing himself, we may call it a euphemism. For example: “I was over-served at the party and wound up with a headache.” However, sometimes it’s difficult to be sure whether the usage is innocent or intended to deceive.
Sample: “His inhumane open-border policies devastate Americans…”
This quote from a news headline includes a value judgment: the word “inhumane.” If you cruise through the sentence, paying attention to the verb and object, you may accept that adjective as a fair characterization of the subject policies without questioning them. Prof Viviana Masia characterizes this sentence structure as an implicature, an invisible way to inject a message or opinion.
Here are a few other examples from media headlines:
- Her wild conspiracy theories should keep her off the air…
- AMC’s hype machine can’t fix the broken economics of movie theaters
- A fragile election in an unsettled political moment
Sample: “A Tragic End Today, for Tom Selleck…”
This is one of many out-and-out lies posted to cause you to click through. The text often presents alarming news about a celebrity. As a result, since you haven’t heard this news before (because it isn’t true!), you may be inclined to read the story to learn more. Unfortunately, the story has little or nothing to do with the headline. For that reason, Snopes writers were so frustrated that they wrote essays debunking this dishonest way of advertising: see here or here.
When you read legitimate news articles, ads like these appear and usually do not deliver what they promise. Here are a few more examples:
- 14 Chilling Photos
- Latest Wellness Hack – Rectal Ozone Therapy
- Move Your Money Before This Major Event
Sample: “We wore masks to protect against the China Virus”
The National Council of Teachers of English has given many “Doublespeak” awards. To them, “doublespeak” means a choice of words intended to mislead, and to distort reality. In addition to China Virus (a xenophobic way to describe COVID SARS-19), they have given awards for:
- Truth isn’t truth (Rudy Giuliani)
- Alternative facts (Kellyanne Conway)
- Aspirational goals (George Bush and others, referring to goals that “do not aspire to all that much”)
Sample: “My opponent met in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty”
This is an example of a “dog whistle”: using a term that the target audience understands, but which may not be noticed by most people. To those familiar with conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers scheming to destroy the US, this sample accuses the opponent of disloyalty to the US without saying something obviously anti-semitic.
Not surprisingly, dog whistles are standard fare in political speeches. Why? Because a politician can give a hateful message that would draw wide disapproval if stated in clear terms. One of several good articles about dog whistles appears in Vox.
Here are a few examples of political dog whistles:
- “States’ Rights”: supporting “states’ rights” has typically meant favoring policies that disadvantage African-Americans and sometimes, other minority groups
- “Wonder-Working Power”: a phrase that sounds neutral to most people, but is heard by evangelical Protestants as a reference to God
- “Activist Judges”: when a judge issues an opinion that you disagree with, this phrase accuses them of skewing their decisions for political reasons rather than following the law
Dog whistles give a way for politicians to deliver secret messages to their supporters without using clear language that would attract wide disapproval. However, once a dog whistle term becomes widely recognized, it loses the “plausible deniability” that originally made it invisible to the general public.
Sample: “Wokeness caused the fall of Silicon Valley Bank”
“Woke” has recently become famous as vague name-calling. African-Americans originally used the term to describe someone who had “waked up” and become aware of injustice in society. Then, some conservatives adopted it as a general-purpose pejorative against progressive policies. Its application to Silicon Valley Bank was apparently triggered by SVB’s commitment to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) projects. In fact, the present meaning of “woke” appears to be, “If you’re progressive, you’re a bad person.”
It’s not hard to find examples of name-calling that the recipient will find offensive:
Lying by Omission and Distraction
Sample: “Ask your investment advisor ‘are you a Certified Financial Planner?'”
This phrase from a TV ad qualifies as a lie by what it leaves out. It should also advise the potential client to ask “Are you a Fiduciary?” After all, why are CFP credentials valuable if their holder does not commit to use them in the client’s interest?
This is one of many ads that lies by omission. Another prominent violation comes from advertisements for Medicare Advantage plans which tout their advantages, while not revealing their limitations. Multiple plans have been called out for fraudulent promotion and for seriously harming patients.
Lying by distraction is similar but different. Drug companies promote prescription medicines with attractive videos while a voice enumerates the awful side effects that some users experience. The appealing visuals dominate our attention, causing our brains to ignore the auditory warnings. By being demoted to a less effective form, the warnings are effectively omitted from the overall message.
Spotting Deceptive Language
We’re never going to do away with deceptive language. It is very profitable to its users, including both honest advertisers and dishonest scammers. And as noted, sometimes as consumers we welcome its entertainment, emotions or information.
What we need is to use our critical thinking skills. With vigilance, we can tell when we are being manipulated, and decide whether we want to accept part or all of the message.
Thoughtful people have considered how to protect from misinformation. One good source is the “SHARP” (Stop-Hone-Accumulate-Reason-Gain Perspective) framework offered by Reboot Foundation, which promotes critical thinking. I recommend it, and the foundation’s materials, to your attention.
In addition, you may find it helpful to have more than one viewpoint. I have two more to offer here.
First, I decided to ask the the ChatGPT app to “explain how written or spoken language can be used to manipulate, mislead or misinform.” It gave a pretty good answer. Accordingly, I have attached it here, along with my comment on the answer.
Secondly, I re-phrased the Reboot Foundation guideline. Some folks may find this version useful when you receive an “input” (for example, a headline or a video) that tries to influence you. Here’s my version:
- Stop: Stop and think before you react. If you are tempted to give an automatic or emotional response, recognize it but set it aside.
- Ask: Ask yourself questions. Such as: who sent the input? Is that person honest, sincere and informed? What is the sender trying to get you to do, and why? And what would the input look like if sent by someone else entirely?
- Dig: Go deep into the topic of the input. Gather as much information as you can that is reliable, logical and unbiased.
- Reflect: Use the additional information you have plus your reason. Analyze what you are being told, so you can discern what is true, and what part of it is relevant to you. This will bring you a tentative conclusion: what you personally should do, or not do, about the input. In addition, you may want to wait overnight before taking action – sometimes on the following day, “doing nothing” becomes a more attractive option.
- Enlarge: Look at the situation from different perspectives. Would family, friends or colleagues react differently than you to this input? Looking at it through another’s eyes may confirm or change your conclusion.
Deceptive language and videos are knocking at your door every day. No, every minute! I hope this blog helps you slow down and apply critical thinking to protect yourself.
– Opening image created with PowerPoint from red devil girl by liftarn and laptop by j4p4n, both on openclipart.org
– Whistle from glitch on openclipart.org
– Other images screenshot from media sources
The greek* word for truth is unhiddenness and to me you can use the analogy of a iceberg which is about 10 % above the water,the rest is below the water, which suggests we are not aware of truth.We intuit very little of it in my opinion.
There can be many viewpoints or gospels concerning our lives.Think of a cut diamond.You cannot see all of its sides.IE not all the facets. (Greek word alatheia*)