It starts with a brazen whopper of a falsehood that’s told with equally brazen straight-faced conviction. Think of the first telling of the lie as an attempt to set up a “priming effect.” Its goal is to program people—to prime them—to believe the propagandists’ follow-on messages.
To keep the “primed” in line and to gather new converts, the Big Lie needs repeating. A lot. By lots of people. Across lots of media platforms. All the while embellishing the lie to make it bigger.
For this, the tool of the day is the “media echo chamber,” social, digital, broadcast and print.
Propagandists wield the tool through the fervent acolytes they dispatch across media platforms. The acolytes parrot the Big Lie. They denounce non-believers and journalists who say, “Hold on, that’s not really true.”
The acolytes carry the aura of credibility by dint of title, position, wealth or celebrity. It helps sustain the illusion of believability.
The message repetition tends to work the most on people who spend a lot of time in the media of the echo chamber. Two theories of mass media predict as much.
One theory, called “agenda-setting,” says that folks are likely to think about and talk about things made prominent in the mass media. The other is called “cultivation.” It says that over time, prominent and repeated Big-Lie messages are likely to “cultivate”—to grow—an inverted reality for many of the folks who all but live in the echo chamber.
Status conferral and confirmation bias can come into play too. If you like the messenger, you’re more likely to like the message, especially if it validates how you already interpret the world.
And before you know it, the Big Lie has gathered a cadre of believers and opportunists who leverage it for their own interests. The more motivated believers can be incited into action to defend the Big-Lie “truth.” Like, say, laying siege to the U.S. Capitol.
Here’s the lesson of Jan. 6: Logic and critical thinking are best defenses against the Big Lie.
Think logically and critically about messages you see on social media, TV and in the newspapers. Who are the messengers? What are they claiming? What proof are they offering and can it be independently verified. What’s their motivation for sending the message?
A modicum of skepticism is a healthy thing.