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Complete lies! (01/2024)

A half-truth is often believed.

Interview: Noëmi Kern

Literary scholar Nicola Gess studies narratives that may sound convincing but are only partially true. In times of crises, these half-truths tend to thrive.

Golden Gate Bridge ending in thin air above a rocky landscape
Golden Gate Bridge to nothing. (Image: University of Basel, AI-generated by Benjamin Meier)

UNI NOVA: What defines a half-truth?

Nicola Gess: While a small part of it is true, most of it is simply made up, a gross generalization, or otherwise misleading. Half-truths are a specific type of deceptive statement, a sort of bridge between the world of facts and the world of speculation or even fiction.

How does a half-truth differ from a lie?

Lies have a negative association with the truth — essentially, liars recognize the authority of the truth by contradicting it. By contrast, the term “half-truth” implies a blurred distinction between truth and untruth. People who operate in half-truths often don’t care whether what they’re saying is true or false — they just say whatever they think will go down best. Half-truths are also much harder to refute than lies. The process usually goes something like this: “Yes, although one aspect or another may be true, other aspects are simply incorrect.” Many people either stop listening at that point because things seem too complicated — or they only hear the word “yes” because they want to believe a half-truth that corresponds to their world view.

In what context do you study half-truths?

In our project, we studied half-truths and other forms of disinformation in the context of “post-truth political discourse” and as an element of conspiracy narratives. For this, we used methodological tools from the field of literary studies, such as narratology and the theory of fiction. The half-truths we study often take the form of small stories and have a great deal in common not only with anecdotes, but also with rumors — particularly in the sense that they are passed on and changed in the process.

Are misinformation and disinformation the same as half-truths?

Half-truths are a powerful tool for disinformation and are therefore a frequent tactic. Not all disinformation has to rely on half-truths, however — and it goes without saying that half-truths are also encountered in other contexts. In our project, for example, we also studied them as part of the confidence trickster’s toolbox.

As internet users, we’re confronted with vast quantities of information from multiple sources on a daily basis. Does that make us more susceptible to falsehoods?

Yes and no. Obviously, the internet is not only a catapult of false information, but also allows us to verify information very quickly. Of course, this calls for a new form of media literacy so that, among other things, we’re able to differentiate between reliable and less-reliable sources.

Is a skeptical society necessary for half-truths to catch on?

Half-truths have always been present and widespread. In terms of public discourse, however, we can say that half-truths and other forms of disinformation thrive in particular during crises of knowledge and trust. To put it simply, where there is a need for knowledge and explanations but also a lack of trust in the relevant authorities, the resulting void can be filled with disinformation. This effect could be observed, for instance, in the Querdenker (“lateral thinkers”) movement during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What role do half-truths play in politics?

Here, it’s helpful to contextualize this question with regard to the concept of “post-truth politics.” This term, which emerged in 2016 in the context of Brexit, the US election campaign and the victory of Donald Trump, refers to a phenomenon that many people were experiencing for the first time in those days: Specifically, that the distinction between fact and opinion seemed to be increasingly blurred in the world of political discourse, with greater weight attached to gut feelings and resentments than to verifiable facts. Clearly, a shift had taken place in the political discourse, and the term “post-truth politics” was coined to describe precisely that shift. At the same time, it’s important to say that we didn’t exactly live in an era of fact beforehand. As early as the 1960s, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described what she saw as a worrying and growing tendency to blur the distinction between evidence-based factual truth and subjective opinion. If we look even further back in time, we also detect the effect I mentioned earlier: The post-truth phenomenon is generally typical of times of crisis — specifically crises of knowledge and trust. Our research project therefore considered not only the politics of half-truths in the present day but also the era of the Prussian Reform Movement or the Weimar Republic, for example, both of which were times of great political, social and media upheaval.

When people operate in half-truths, it’s no longer a question of true or false. Are fact checks ineffective in these circumstances?

I don’t think fact checks are generally ineffective. On the contrary, I think they’re absolutely vital — but I would combine them with a fiction check.

What do you mean by that?

For example, a fiction check involves scrutinizing factual stories that run too smoothly, where everything fits together as a coherent whole, and roles are just as we expect them to be — these kinds of stories are often “too good to be true”. A fiction check also means that, instead of simply stopping once the story is successfully refuted in a fact check, you also look at how the story was constructed so convincingly. After all, rather than operating within a binary system of true or false, half-truths follow a logic that’s geared toward credibility, emotional appeal and the ability to connect and draw attention. They often have more in common with literary stories than with raw data, and it’s essential to understand this logic if you want to dismantle half-truths in the long term.

Book: Nicola Gess: Halbwahrheiten. Zur Manipulation von Wirklichkeit (Half-truths. On the manipulation of reality), Berlin 2021.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2024).

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