Isn’t it outrageous when headlines grab people’s attention with a bunch of downright lies? The only trouble is… sometimes, as in the case of this one, they are true.
‘Technically’ is one of those sort of words that hides a whole underworld of meaning under a modest, unassuming exterior. Sometimes, the technicalities make all the difference. So, read on for the *gasp* shocking truth about the atmosphere your doctor doesn’t want you to know! Number eight will enrage you.
The Obfuscated Truth
Just over one fifth (20.95%.. very little over, but “over” makes it sound bigger) of our atmosphere is made up of oxygen. Oxygen is a toxic gas: high enough levels in the air will cause serious damage to the nervous system and lungs. Forget that you also need it to breathe— we’ll skip over that because it doesn’t sell our agenda. We also used the word “now”, indirectly claiming that it hasn’t always been this way. Also true; prior to the Carboniferous period, there was much less oxygen around than there is today. Of course the word “Now” in a headline like this implies human timescales –not to mention heavily suggesting human cause– but again we are sticking with facts so it’s all fine.
Our hypothetical headline writer’s mission in this case is to turn the public against oxygen. Given that the benefits of oxygen are common knowledge, this would be very unlikely to succeed in the real world* . However, substitute “oxygen” with something that is likewise beneficial but can be framed harmfully and it becomes clear how easy it is to deceive without resorting to outright lies. The Dihydrogen Monoxide spoof has been lampooning this very thing for decades.
There is this common notion of propaganda, that it’s just about lying to the public; the sort of bare-faced denial that Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf became known for during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (famously claiming “[there are] no Americans in Baghdad”, while American troops were pretty much kicking his door down). But most propaganda doesn’t rely on stuff like this, particularly in democratic countries where such claims are much easier to flat-out disprove. The most dangerous propaganda and misinformation comes from truth that is greatly distorted to serve an agenda.
First Degree Misdirection
A click-bait title such as the one I headed this article with tries to assert things without basis, based on assumptions people will make, by specific choices of words that pass the fact-test but imply things blatantly untrue** . It relies on people not checking them or getting sucked in by the hype. But the thing is, we can crack-down on fact-checking and it won’t do any good. When the line is true (factually speaking) it often gets a carte blanche; it may well be completely misleading. But not factually wrong so...
In order to stem the tide of this noxious bullshit, it is not so much facts we need; although we’ll certainly need those. What we need to be most aware of, is that what is being implied and suggested by a claim is just as valid a target of scrutiny as its facts. As this is by its very nature a grey area, we can’t expect it to be a straightforward path, but there is clearly a range here; where ambiguous and innocent mistakes are at one end and the above headline would be at the other. You can’t categorically rule on implication or suggestion, but you can probably tell where abouts on the spectrum it falls. Blatant click-bait such as our title here could be thought of as misdirection of the first degree.
Given that so few people check the sources, it should be just as important to demand accuracy in what’s being implied as well as what’s actually being said. This isn’t a new thing, but it’s still a concept thin on the ground in current politics and online debates. Of course, the real abusers of misdirection won’t care to change. So it’s up to those who encounter the information to call it out. Just because something is technically correct doesn’t mean it gets off without scrutiny.
* - Although, given the current state of political discourse, I wouldn't want to place any bets here. ** - Welcome to Marketing 101, I guess?