Editor's note: "Integrity & Trust: Lessons From Watergate and Today" is a Deseret News event featuring legendary journalist Bob Woodward and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
SALT LAKE CITY — During the 2016 presidential campaign, a reporter for the BBC interviewed a teenager in Macedonia whose job was to invent stories to share on Facebook.
"The Americans loved our stories, and we make money from them. Who cares if they are true or false?" the teen said.
Now, two years into the Trump presidency, the question can be asked of the country at large: Who cares if anything is true or false?
Prosecutors looking into the 2016 campaign do. At least four associates of President Donald Trump have been charged with making false statements to investigators, and some of them will go to jail for lying. And the president is constantly challenged by media and the opposing party on the veracity of his statements.
An indifference to truth floats atop a culture swimming in lies from many sources, from Democrats as well as Republicans that parry half-truths and no-truths as political weapons, from Facebook feeds that go hidden or remain difficult to check, to deceptive advertising meant to manipulate and partisan media meant to convince.
It raises troubling questions. Among them: Will honesty and integrity be on trial in 2019, or are we already ensconced in a post-truth society? If the latter is true, what is changing and can we escape?
"Lies have consequences. Multiple lies have multiple consequences, including a breakdown in social cohesion and the basic trust upon which a society functions," Kim B. Serota, a researcher in Scottsdale, Arizona, who studies deception, has written.
As 2019 unfolds, it will become more clear whether honesty, once a bedrock of virtue, is eroding in American culture, and with it, other standards of ethical behavior.
The topic will be central to a conversation on integrity and trust featuring journalist Bob Woodward, sponsored by the Deseret News at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., from 6:30 to 8 p.m. EST Jan. 14. The event will also feature Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Michael Dimock, president of Pew Research Center.
What's at stake
The current administration is not the first to "not show tremendous fealty to the facts," in the phrasing of The Associated Press.
Recall Richard Nixon saying, “I’m not a crook” and Bill Clinton’s parsing of the word “is” while denying a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Ronald Reagan was accused of "serial blurring of lines between fiction and reality."
And the president's critics are not immune from spreading untruths.
The Washington Post and CNN recently took rising Democrat star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to task, challenging her “very slippery slope on facts.” Defending herself on CNN, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents New York's 14th Congressional District, separated fidelity to truth from moral behavior.
"I think that there's a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct than about being morally right," Ocasio-Cortez said.
The idea that strict adherence to truth is a component of morality, however, is a time-honored concept, long debated by philosophers and theologians.
“The moral prohibition against lying has deep historical roots. Dante reserved the deepest two levels of hell for liars and deceivers. It’s deeply ingrained in us as a people,” said Serota, a communications professor at Oakland University in Michigan who researches deception.
But human beings — and even animals — tend to practice deceit if it serves the evolutionary goals of being effective and efficient, Serota said, noting that some species of birds will hide food from members of their flock for their own use.
For humans, "Lying, from a communications standpoint, is what we do when we’re not being effective or efficient in the things we want to achieve," he said.
If a person's goal is a good relationship with a friend, for example, truth might be sacrificed for a compliment. Or, the truth of a sniffle might morph into the lie of the flu if a person wants to take a "sick" day for mental health. These types of lies are increasingly justified by Americans, according to a poll on honesty conducted last year by the Deseret News.
Americans — and especially Republicans — are also more tolerant of leaders who lie, the same poll revealed.
Fifty-five percent of Republicans said they would vote for a presidential candidate in 2020 who they believe "would lie to cover up the truth." Three years earlier, just 12 percent of Republicans said that in a Fox News poll that posed the same question.
The increase in the number of people who are willing to tolerate lying is evidence of polarization and tribalism, which, according to a report by the Rand Corporation, is one of the drivers of societal "truth decay."
When truth competes, it sometimes takes a backseat to other aspects of morality, said Hector Macdonald, the British author of "Truth, How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality."
"We still value truth, but increasingly we seem to value other virtues more and may sacrifice truth for their sake," Macdonald said in an email.
"So, for example, American voters increasingly seem to prioritize loyalty to their tribe (Republican or Democrat) over the accuracy of facts presented by their leaders. Similarly, families may sacrifice truth to preserve family unity."
Or, as Monika McDermott, a professor of political science at Fordham University, told The Deseret News last year, "It's not just about whether a politician is lying or not. It's whether he's lying on my behalf."
Truth decay and consequences
In their 2018 book "Truth Decay," Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich contend that inherent cognitive biases, increasing polarization and changes in how information is conveyed are among factors that have led to the erosion of truth as a value. Kavanagh and Rich cite four consequences of the trend: declining civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement, and societal uncertainty, specifically uncertainty in public policy, both on the national and international level.
“When there is a lack of agreed-upon facts or analytical interpretations of data to drive policy decisions, policy decisions in areas as varied as health, finance, and foreign relations may be subject to reversals every time there is a change in administration or congressional leadership," Kavanagh and Rich wrote.
In an interview, Kavanagh said Americans increasingly distrust institutions, a trend that worsens as people trade healthy questioning for cynicism. “It’s important that we challenge and question the institutions that govern us. That’s part of living in a democracy. But that’s different from being cynical and thinking there is nothing to trust.
“Finding that balance between cynicism and trust is difficult, and we’ve seen a shift toward the cynical end of the spectrum,” Kavanagh said.
When people don’t trust other people, businesses and institutions to tell the truth, they become alienated and disengaged, less likely to engage in civic activities and even to vote.
“Democracy depends upon people being politically engaged, having a healthy civic discourse about policy options,” Kavanagh said.
Moreover, the research of Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at behavioral economics at Duke University, has shown that the act of lying causes neurological changes, making it easier for people to tell lies in the future.
“The dangerous thing about lying is people don’t understand how the act changes us," Ariely has said.
As to whether American society is becoming fundamentally more dishonest, Tim Levine, distinguished professor and chair of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a longtime researcher on deception, said it’s hard to know, since there has been no substantive tracking of ordinary Americans over time.
Research by Levine and others, however, has shown that, on average, Americans lie once or twice a day, but most people lie less than that. “Most people are pretty honest, but then there are a few people who lie a whole lot," Levine said.
He agreed, however, that Americans seem to be becoming more tolerant of lying when it’s done by people they perceive to be on their team. “I’m not willing to say that Americans care less about the truth these days, although there does seem to be a tolerance that would be hard to imagine pre-Trump.”
What are the solutions?
In his book "Respecting Truth, Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age," Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, argues that truth matters, as do the standards for discerning truth, such as the willingness to consider new information or data that is different from what we already believe.
"One of the best ways we can respect truth is to be hard on our beliefs," McIntyre said, adding that it’s important that people purposefully seek out the perspectives of people who think differently than they do.
“It’s easy to live in the blue bubble and to not ever encounter anyone who disagrees with you, and that’s as dangerous to liberals as it is to conservatives,” said McIntyre, who believes that children should be taught critical-thinking skills as early as first grade.
Susan Haack, a professor of both law and philosophy at the University of Miami School of Law, said her students’ gaps in vocabulary are indicative that critical thinking has waned. For example, students frequently tell her that they don’t know the meaning of tendentious, credulous and pious, words commonly used a few decades ago.
“What (not knowing) ‘tendentious’ and ‘credulous’ tell you is they’re not being taught how to make distinctions between better and worse evidence,” Haack said.
Another potential solution to a society awash in untruths is the frequent reminder and reinforcement of moral codes that champion honesty. In his 2012 book "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty," Ariely argued that cheating and dishonesty can be contagious, but that "awareness of moral codes (such as the Ten Commandments)" can have an effect on behavior.
In one study Ariely conducted, college students were asked to either cite the Commandments or 10 books they had read in high school, then given an assignment in which they were tempted to cheat. The group that recalled books showed typical patterns of cheating; the group that recalled the Ten Commandments (even some of them), did not cheat at all. "It seemed that merely trying to recall moral standards was enough to improve moral behavior," Ariely wrote.
The speed with which disinformation can be spread via the internet also challenges individuals who respect truth to slow down in their actions and words, said Abdu Murray, the North American director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and the author of "Saving Truth."
"We dilute our message with the billions of words we spout off; if we say a few words, carefully, our message has more impact," Murray said.
"I also think that what is important is that we learn to see the value in another human being. ... Not all ideas are equal, but every person who has them is. So while I can challenge an idea, I dare not disrespect a person. If we have that as our main goal, we'll find ourselves being more careful about our research, look up stuff before we spread it (on the internet) and try to be more charitable in our communication."
Kavanagh, the political scientist at the Rand Corporation, agrees Americans need to take a deep breath and slow down.
“Something that everyone can do is take a little bit more time when forming beliefs and opinions,” she said. “You can go with the flow when it comes to consuming news. You have to be proactive … be critically questioning about the information you see.”45 comments on this story
Levine, the deception researcher in Alabama, notes that Americans' right to free speech, "almost guarantees the right to be deceptive" if no one is harmed. But, he says, the sky isn't falling, at least not in our interaction with our families and friends.
“I have no way of knowing what proportion of stuff that comes past my Facebook is true or not, but I would think that most people, when they’re entering their birthday, are really entering their birthday. And when they post a picture of going out to eat, that they really were at that restaurant," he said.
“I encourage people to keep a little lying diary for a week or two. What most people find is that they don’t lie very much, and they really don’t have a reason to."