The history of lying makes us believe that where there are lies there must be a liar. But fiction can, and perhaps should, educate its readers to question their grounds for wanting to believe things. The reason it’s so tempting to embody the age of lies in individuals is that the cultural history of lying has taught us to see lying principally as a matter of one person misleading another. But that may be less true than it once was. Political lies now tend to be something more than statements by individuals that are designed to mislead: they are partly generated by the desires and beliefs of the lie-ee. They can be algorithmically created to elicit a particular response from an audience that has been microtargeted, and is fed little drips of misinformation it is predisposed to believe. The guiding presumption of algo-lying is that human beings are as manipulable as white mice. The object is to develop a stimulus that provokes the desired behaviour. Send out the stimulus, irrespective of its truth or falsehood; keep sending. Provided the white mice are in a majority and they all head for the cheese it’s a victory. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is a lie that generates unpredictable side effects, like a loss of trust in institutions, or if the lies designed to appeal to the white mice so enrage the piebald mice that they start a civil war. It’s short-term outcomes that count.
The algo-lie may seem to be a counterexample to my paradoxical claim that the truth has changed more than lies. The algo-lie is indeed new, but it has two genealogical features in common with earlier forms of lying. The first is that it’s generated by feedback between liar and lie-ee, just as Wickham fashions his lies from Lizzy’s prejudices. Another reason the algorithmically generated lie is like Wickham’s – or indeed Zeus’ – lie, is that it elicits emotions in those lied to of a kind that those who fashion the lie hadn’t predicted. And that’s why the algo-lie is proving so hard for democracies to cope with. It may produce the electoral results the algo-liars want, but it also generates wild emotional by-products. ‘Evidence’ or vividness, as Quintilian knew, creates a direct pathway to the emotions of an audience, even if the evidence is false. The spread of the algo-lie makes us want to transform our politicians into Pinocchios and ourselves into Othellos of towering rage and confusion. We want someone in whom to embody the lie, but the absence of a liar from the algo-lie means the rage of the lie-ee loses its proper object. It turns into rage against our collective gullibility, or a more selective proxy rage against the nameless others who are sufficiently credulous not to see that they have been played. Being lied to can make us hate ourselves for being manipulable; but it can also make us hate other people who, we judge, are being jerked around by irrational appetites and ill-grounded opinions. Like Agamemnon’s audience, we are roiled into motion ‘like the long sea rollers/of the Ikarian deep’, whipped up by the wind.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor