Misinformation Techniques

 Posted by on April 25, 2013  Add comments
Apr 252013

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.

dick cheneyWhatever 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.

Download (PDF, 902KB)


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.


  15 Responses to “Misinformation Techniques”

Comments (15)

    PLEASE disassociate the Iona Institute from the genuine Iona Community, based on the island of Iona and in Glasgow, and with a very different theology from that of the Iona Institute.


    I think only the stupidest of readers would get them mixed up.


    Very well made points Bock.
    Just wondering if you would agree that the greatest source of misinformation today is the media industry,
    We have never needed a professional and competent media more than today, sadly I don’t believe we have one.
    Spin is the order of the day rather than truth.


    Hello Bock,
    I think your answer to Ken above is both insulting and dismissive, given the broad thesis of your original argument. Iona Institute, Iona Community? who knows, I had never heard of either until you mentioned one recently. Now, I know that, according to you, one is a backward, conservative, ultra catholic, secret society and that the other, by virtue of being linked with it in a post, is probably more of the same, even in fact, not exactly the same. And don’t tell me, given the very cogent arguments of your original piece, that I am one of the “stupidest of readers”.

    You have a central argument and it is

    “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.”

    You give this out in the very first paragraph and then rather than try to argue whether this proposition is in fact true or false, you demonstrate the “Falseness” of the argument by accusing the Iona Institute of misinformation.
    Well Bock, to answer your first argument first of all, I happen to believe that children who are raised in a house consisting of parents, one a man and the other a woman who love each other, are in the ideal family and have a significant advantage over children reared in other family arrangements.They have two distinct role model types to learn from and to look up to and what is wrong with that. It seems to me that this is the ideal family and while it may not be either always perfect or possible, it is still the ideal relationship for the rearing of children.
    Anyway, that out of the way, the rest of your article is interesting. I was very interested in the way you explained the psychology of this.

    “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.”

    You yourself Bock, delicious irony of delicious ironies, are guilty of some lovely misinformation in the form of linking the Iona Institute with the Nazis.

    “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.”

    I congratulate you Bock. Such a glorious piece of psychological manipulation. I will never be able to see or hear the words “Iona Institute” again without a picture coming straight into my mind of an SS Commander with a cruel face, piggy, cold eyes, framed with round gold rimmed glasses. Herman Goering or Michael McDowell, take your pick.
    I don’t know the Iona Institute or the sky over them but, thanks to you, I know what all right thinking people know about them, the dirty, right wing, bigoted, catholic bastards.
    Thanks for enlightening me,
    Thanking You,
    Yours Sincerely,


    Fonsie, you’ve excelled yourself.

    Firstly, it’s not your place to speak on behalf of anyone. If the man feels insulted, no doubt he’ll let us know.

    Secondly, it’s not your place to reword what I said.

    Thirdly, it’s not your place to tell me what my central argument is.

    On the positive side, you did manage to spot something I feared might be over-subtle for people such as your good self.


    Fonsie, Same sex marriage and adoption has been legal where I live for many years now. My children have gone to school with several children who have two same sex parents. This is anecdotal but relevant. In every case these were wonderful parents, two good distinct role models as you put it. They were loving and provided well for their children. Their children were tremendously well adjusted, and were well cared for. There is nothing to fear from gay marriage. I would suggest that Ireland look more at the binge drinking culture as a threat to its children. That would be a more constructive endeavour. Gay families are no threat to you.


    For the benefit of Fonsie, and other who may similarly be unaware of the Iona Community, I reproduce the opening paragraphs of their website: “The Iona Community is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.

    We are an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Church engaged together, and with people of goodwill across the world, in acting, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and the integrity of creation; convinced that the inclusive community we seek must be embodied in the community we practise.” More on their website.


    Very interesting piece. Mud certainly does stick, even if, like you said, logically it shouldn’t.

    Reminded me of the “white bear” psychological experiment, conducted in 1987, in the field of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Basically, if people are stressed out or worrying too much about a particular problem, if they make an active effort not to think about it, they could make the problem worse, because by trying suppress the thoughts, the way the mind works, they will have to think about those same thoughts. In the 1987 experiment, people were asked not to think about white bears. You can read more about it under “Ironic process theory” in Wikipedia.

    The Economist recently posted an explainer about the so-called “Streisand effect” – which basically is about how when you try to rebut a public slander, you might make things worse for yourself.



    @ Ken …What does “praying for the integrity of creation” mean?
    Just curious.


    That’s poetry
    Cruel faces, piggy, cold eyes…..


    Trofley. Thanks for this. You’ve put me on the spot. I could cop out by saying that I’m neither a theologian or a member of the Iona Community, although I agree with much of their thinking and use their material when I am leading worship. However, you’re entitled to more than this. To me, praying for the integrity of creation means that, in praying, we accept that creation is within the power of the Almighty and that we share creation with all else in it, rather than pillaging and destroying it, e.g. man-made global warming or the marine oil additive that is currently killing many seabirds off the south west coast of England.
    I hope that this helps.


    Hello Bock, Back again

    Firstly, I am not speaking on anyone’s behalf. I am merely commenting on responses as everyone is entitled to.

    Secondly, I did not reword what you said, anywhere I quoted you, I quoted you exactly.

    Thirdly, you lay out your stall in the very first paragraph of your piece. Thereafter your argument winds a circuitous route around boreens and back alleys trying to indirectly prove your point. It is surely germane to draw peoples attention to what point you are trying to promote.

    Finally, and I am quoting here
    ” On the positive side, you did manage to spot something I feared might be over-subtle for people such as your good self.”
    I absolutely love this, the patronising fuckology is glorious. I did manage to spot something? On the one side you have Bock with his great intelligence and subtle thoughts and on the other you have people who would not get it, people such as my good self. The thinly veiled insult and the grouping of “my good self” with “people such as your good self”, I love it.
    Wise up Bock. You are not the genius that you obviously think yourself to be and people who disagree with you are not necessarily fools.


    Fonsie, Your sense of entitlement is not based on reality. you’re not entitled to comment. Occasionally, when you behave yourself, you’re permitted to comment.


    Mark, speaking of spin#

    84% Catholics, Iona

    You are guilty of this method of misinformtation

    Would you retract that if you believe that it is wrong?


    Musha God love you Bock, but you’re absolutely full of it. All you ever want is yes men who will tell you how great you are, you are never prepared to indulge in a reasoned debate with anyone who dares to differ. You have a blinkered, narrow view of the world which is conditioned by the “liberal” agenda,and anyone who disagrees is wrong. For your own sake, open your eyes, open your mind.
    Regards, Fonsie

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