Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Dangers of Political Lies

Person deciding between true and false

Person deciding between true and false

David DeCosse

David DeCosse is the director of Religious and Catholic Ethics and Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

Facebook has said that it will not take down ads with lies from political candidates. To make the decision, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg weighed the possible harm of lies against the great value of what he calls “voice.” And the value of voice won out: If you’re a politician and you want to lie in your political ad on Facebook, no problem: you can do it.

I’ll grant that the issue of lies in political ads on social media is thorny. But I’d like to focus on one aspect of the issue that has gotten short shrift in Zuckerberg’s calculations and in our broader culture: The harm of lying – especially political lying.

For Zuckerberg, the problem of lying in political ads seems like part of the risk you take when you commit to voice. If you like free speech, he seems to be saying, you have to accept some of the consequences of such freedom – like the fact that people will lie. Moreover, he argues, tech companies shouldn’t be the judge of what’s a lie and what’s not. Even though he’s the CEO of a global company of unprecedented scale, he seems to consider lying like it’s a local, one-off sort of problem. Some politician over here might lie in her ad and then some politician over there might lie in his ad. But what are you going to do: Such individual indiscretions are the price you pay for progress in a free society.

The moral philosopher Sissela Bok can help us think through more clearly what’s at stake with Facebook’s plan to permit political lying. In her contemporary classic, Lying, she argues on behalf of what she calls the “principle of veracity” as a minimally necessary basis for a functioning society. This is a lowest-common denominator principle based on the common human intuition to favor truth over lies. Humans across time and cultures prefer truth because, she says, “trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.”

Bok also says that we often underestimate the harm of lying by analyzing a lie only from the perspective of the liar. Why did he or she lie? Was it done with cunning or courage? This is the perspective that Zuckerberg insists on. He has said that a company like Facebook shouldn’t refuse to run ads with lies because doing so would get in the way of ad viewers making judgments for themselves about the liars behind the ads.

Fair enough, Bok might say: We should make judgments about such liars. But she also stresses – in a way that Zuckerberg hardly acknowledges – that lies must be considered from the perspective of the deceived. And here she notes several points relevant to our current dispute over political ads on social media. First, she says that lies are always coercive for the one being lied to: Lies seek to persuade not by appealing to our freedom to choose but by compelling us via deception to narrow our field of choice. As such, lies give power to the liar and take power away from the persons being lied to. In turn, this shift in power accumulates over the course of repeated lies. “From this perspective,” she says, “it is clearly unreasonable to assert that people should be able to lie with impunity whenever they want to do so.”

Indeed, she calls lies about politics the “most dangerous body of deceit of all.” This is not because all politicians lie, as common cynicism holds. To the contrary, Bok says, there is a notable difference between political societies that honor the principle of veracity and political societies that don’t. Instead, the great danger of political lies comes from harnessing on a huge scale the coercive physical force of the state to the coercive mental force of lying. Such societies – one lie at great scale at a time – fail to distinguish truth from falsehood and finally collapse.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, has said that Facebook is only providing a “tennis court” for the robust democratic give-and-take signaled by dueling political ads on the social media site. By using the anodyne metaphor, Clegg is likening a tennis court to a democratic forum for speech: One equally situated player/politician lobs a volley one way while another equally situated player/politician lobs a volley back.

But this metaphor misses the point raised by Bok’s analysis of lying: The lying player/politician isn’t equally situated with the player/politician who isn’t lying. The former amasses power while the latter loses it. An inequality settles in over time incompatible with fair play and with the equality implicit in a self-governing political society in which in principle no one rules over anyone else. The ball may go back and forth but, after a while, it isn’t tennis – or democracy – anymore.

Dec 5, 2019