Mark Twain has been credited with the aphorism that, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can lace up its boots,” although deeper inquiry appears to credit, the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift.
If indeed this clever insight was conceived by Swift in the 17th century, it was amazingly prophetic and has become alarmingly applicable to our 21st century lightspeed of internet disinformation.
It’s indisputable now that Russia interfered in our 2016 and 2020 elections through the use of disinformation, often through proxies. Vladimir Putin claims to be innocent, denying any such thing.
Conspiracy theories race around the internet at light speed. Seeds of the so-called “Big Lie” about 2020 stolen election were planted even before the election but blossomed vigorously after. Then came the slow, deliberate process of careful recounts and election audits setting the truth. There was no fraud, no election-machine hijacking, no malevolent forces at work to corrupt the outcome of the elections, but setting the truth took the time to “lace up its boots.”
This disinformation and misinformation disorder is a pathology that has reached epidemic proportions. It’s a disease that can kill truth and facts before antidotes can get into the information bloodstream and save the healthy tissue of our democratic society.
Russia knows how to use disinformation for its fast-acting and deleterious effects, like the nerve agent Novichok for its foes: Alexei Navalny, Alexander Litvinenko, and Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The race for the cure, for truth and well-being, come precariously close to the damaging effects of the poison, whether it’s chemicals or lies doing the work.
Russia is using the same tactics in its campaign of intimidation against Ukraine and perhaps as a tactical approach to invade all or parts of Ukraine. The most incredulous disinformation emanating from the Kremlin is the assertion by Russia that they are just responding to aggressive behavior by the U.S. and its NATO allies. Really? This by the Russian Bear that has assembled over 130,000 combat-ready troops, tanks, howitzers and rocket launchers along the Russian and Belarus borders with Ukraine. To do what, have a happy picnic?
Crimea was a lesson to be learned. According to a report from the Carnegie Moscow Center (linked to the Carnegie Center for International Peace in DC), with respect to the Crimea incursion, “The Russian people lapped up the real and imaginary threats that were fed to them, and generally assessed military action as necessary… (Yet) State propaganda has now overused its powers of mobilization. Instead of mobilization, it has created a fear of world war.”
The CMC suggests a slowly emerging truth in Russian society. It claims in its reporting that there is one final aspect to the problem of the Kremlin’s propaganda rationale (about Ukraine) to the Russian people. It reports: “War is the business of young people and conscripts. But 66% of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 have a very positive attitude toward Ukraine… Of course, if war breaks out, state propaganda will convince most Russians that it’s necessary, and that we are, in fact, “liberating” our Ukrainian brethren from an alien government (even if Ukrainians chose that government themselves in free elections). This will all take place despite the fact that in 2021, 23 percent of Russians believed Russia and Ukraine should be friendly neighbors but still have their own borders: only 17 percent of respondents supported a unification of the two states.”
Like Twain or Swift warned, lies advance quickly. When repeated over and over again, they become a barrage of disinformation that indifferent, easily gullible, or lazy minds digest or relent to, to move on with their lives, to try to make a living, feed their families.
To be forthright, lies have also been associated with good intentions. But a lie is a lie, even if it’s a “white lie.” George Washington was reported to have exculpated himself from transgression by telling his father, “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut down the cherry tree with my hatchet.” Problem is he never said that. It was a fictional narrative made up by an early biographer (Mason Locke Weems) who wanted to promote Washington’s unassailable character. A very-slow-to-be resolved case of 18th century misinformation, but George was “not guilty”!
On a more serious note, which is where this column began, the toxic effects of lies and misinformation in our age of social media can have devastating if not deadly effects. War in Ukraine could result in tens of thousands of deaths, for what — an autocrat’s deceitful obsession with power, notoriety and historical chauvinism?
Swift and Twain deliberately used satirical humor to warn of the effects of deception, now echoing across political landscapes centuries later.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Let us not forget how quickly lethal lies can spread and damage the lives and fabric of our society, especially in unstable political and geopolitical environments.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.