Isn’t it outrageous that headlines can grab people’s attention by saying things that just aren’t true? This sort of click-bait title tries to assert things without basis and relies on people not checking them or getting sucked in by the hype, right? We need to get back to talking about facts! Show your research! The lies and propaganda have gone too far. Right?
Well, we can crack-down on fact-checking, but as our hypothetical headline-writer will smugly assert, the article title above is true; factually speaking. It is, of course, also completely misleading. Therein lies the issue.
The Obfuscated Truth
Just over one fifth (20.95%) 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 also 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. Most propaganda, and the real danger of misinformation, comes from factual truths that are bent to serve an agenda.
First Degree Misdirection
So what we need to seek out, in order to stem the tide of this noxious bullshit, is not so much facts; although we’ll certainly need those. What we need to be most aware of, is understanding what is being implied and suggested by a claim. As this is by its very nature a grey area, we can’t expect it to be straightforward, but there is clearly a range here; where ambiguous and innocent mistakes are at one end and headlines like the article title are on the other. You can’t categorically rule on what something implies or suggests, but you can probably tell the difference between the two ends of this spectrum. The sort of blatant click-bait that is the title of this article clearly intends 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 politics and online debates. Of course, the real abusers of misdirection won’t care to change. So it’s up to us, those who encounter the information, to point it out.
* - Although, given the current state of political discourse, I wouldn't want to hedge any bets here. ** - Citation needed.