I read somewhere recently that 40% of Americans still believe Iraq had something to do with the 9/11 attacks in New York. Many in Britain believe that the MMR vaccination causes autism. Here in Ireland, a campaign by the self-styled Iona Institute has convinced a sizeable proportion of our people that children raised by same-sex couples are at a disadvantage.
What do these three examples have in common?
They’re all based on misinformation.
Whatever Saddam Hussein’s flaws (and they were many), whatever his cruelties and his oppression, he was a secular leader. Women had equal status in Saddam’s Iraq, with equal educational opportunities and equal access to employment, at least in the cities. Nobody was required to adhere to any particular faith, and as a consequence, to people like Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein was the embodiment of anti-Islamic depravity. Osama bin Laden detested Saddam, and Saddam in his turn detested the likes of al Qaeda.
There was never the slightest possibility that Iraq had anything whatever to do with the attacks on New York, which were orchestrated by religious extremist, for extreme religious reasons. Say what you like about Saddam, but nobody could ever accuse him of being a fervent Muslim. Dick Cheney would, of course, have known that full well, after his years at the top of Halliburton, the vast conglomerate with so many tentacles in the Middle East. Every last man-jack of Halliburton’s crew, from the most senior engineer to the lowest roughneck knew precisely what the relationships were between the various regional actors. Everyone who enjoyed themselves in the bars of Baghdad knew this was no Islamic hotbed.
And so, when Dick, after severing all visible ties with Halliburton, began to juxtapose Iraq and 9/11 in the same sentence, without ever specifically saying that Saddam was behind the attack, everyone knew what he meant, or at least, they thought they did. And when the Bush administration began to hammer home the same message, by repeatedly mentioning Iraq in the same breath as the World Trade Center, it soon became clear in people’s minds that these were the bad guys. The strategy worked exceedingly well — despite official confirmation that Iraq had no involvement with 9/11, a very large proportion of Americans still believe the original lie.
We’ll come back to the reasons why.
In Britain, a doctor called Andrew Wakefield manipulated his research to suggest that the MMR vaccine was linked with autism, and in 1998 published those conclusions in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. Six years later, the Sunday Times revealed a conflict of interest, both scientific and financial. Wakefield owned the patent to a single vaccination. It took a further six years and a ruling by the General Medical Council that Wakefield was guilty of dishonesty and abuse of children before The Lancet finally recanted and withdrew the article, but the damage was already done. It made no difference that Wakefield was exposed as a fraud, that he was barred from practising as a doctor in the UK. Many parents were convinced that the MMR vaccine caused autism. As a consequence, vaccination rates fell back in Britain and measles began to increase, resulting in deaths and serious illness.
In both of those examples, the misinformation was promoted by people of a certain stature. Cheney had some authority in the public mind by virtue of his Vice-Presidential office and Wakefield because of his job as a consultant surgeon.
What to do when you have no status, because your views are simply bigotry?
Easy. Form a club and give it an important-sounding name. Thus we have David Quinn’s ridiculously-named Iona Institute which, by virtue of Quinn’s job as a journalist, can open many media doors. Of course, my supposition might be quite wrong. For all I know, the only reason our broadcast media offers unlimited access to various Iona shills is because every discussion needs a right-wing doctrinaire bully. In Irish journalist circles, this is known as “balance”.
Just like Cheney and Wakefield, the denizens of Ionaworld have little time for facts when there’s an agenda to be promoted, and this is why they lied to the Constitutional Convention by submitting a paper based on a wilful misrepresentation of work by genuine researchers. Falsely claiming that a Child Trends paper indicated worse outcomes for children raised by same-sex couples, the Iona submission materially misled the convention. But worse than that, they created a false impression in the public mind, for their own dishonest purposes.
It mattered little to the Iona people that the researchers protested about the false presentation of their research. Once a distortion has been committed, the job is done. Every slur thrown has a degree of stickability. Every piece of mud leaves a mark, and that’s what cynics like Iona, like Wakefield and like Cheney rely on.
These are only three examples, but I could give you a hundred more. The Belgrano. The Gulf of Tonkin. Whatever you like.
I’ve been reading a fascinating study about misinformation recently, and what comes out of it is this: if you tell a big lie, most of it will stick. It doesn’t matter if the other side refute it with logic. They might even make things worse for themselves by reminding people of the details, thereby reinforcing them.
Sometimes the misinformation isn’t even deliberate. People derive their facts from all manner of dubious sources, including songs, folk-tales and historical novels. Every country, including Ireland, has suffered from this phenomenon, as we know too well. I’ve met many people who never read a book and yet believe themselves to be authorities on Irish history. We saw something similar in the nineties when the Balkan conflict broke out, to some extent facilitated by an irrational folk-memory of a battle that happened in the 15th century.
But whichever way it happens, whether misinformation is deliberately injected into the public stream of consciousness by the likes of Cheney, Wakefield or Iona, or indirectly via urban legend or plain bad journalism, once it’s out there, the harm is done. You could take extreme examples but there’s no need. Whether the slur involves a huge crime, like the Nazi characterisation of Jews as untermenschen, or the small-minded, petty narrowness of the Iona bigotry, the process is the same.
No matter how absurd your suggestion, throw it out and some of it will stick.
Here’s the interesting thing. If you try to argue with the lunatic claim, you might make things worse. Why? Because our minds work in strange ways. When we hear something, we assimilate it, and the next time we hear the same words, we take them as a reinforcement of the thing we heard first.
Statement: Jesse James killed Billy the Kid in a gunfight.
We hear: Jesse James killed Billy the Kid in a gunfight.
Now look at the rebuttal.
Denial: Jesse James didn’t kill Billy the Kid in a gunfight
We hear: Jesse James. Billy the Kid. Kill. Gunfight.
That’s how the human mind works, I’m afraid. It’s not logical.
This is why The Lancet’s retractions of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent MMR article made no difference. People had already heard MMR and autism. It’s why the US government’s acknowledgement that Iraq wasn’t involved in 9/11 had no effect. All they heard was Iraq and 9/11.
And it’s what dishonest demagogues like the Iona Institute rely on to spread their poisonous message. They understand that most people believe the first big lie, although, ironically, Cheney, whose daughter is a lesbian, would see it for the nonsense it is.
Here’s that paper. Have a read of it if you feel like being enlightened.
because, by repeating the same words, even if you point out that they’re wrong, you might
If you want to rebut some public slander, you might end up only making things worse unless you do it properly.