Lying by misdirection

Earlier this week I read on Twitter about “that awkward moment when you realize Mitt Romney’s Slogan, ‘Keep America American’ was the same slogan used by the KKK in 1922.” This made me wonder what the context of his slogan was, so I did an DuckDuckGo search on it. It quickly became evident that he has no such slogan. He has said “Keep America America,” but that’s the difference between eating a Danish and eating Denmark. “Keep America America” could mean “Keep America a country that respects individual liberty,” though I wouldn’t count on it from Romney.

That tweet (which was retweeted from someone I don’t know) shows the technique of lying by misdirection. If it had said, “Romney’s new slogan is ‘Keep America American’!” then people might check if it really is. But treating it as a known fact and claiming to make a new discovery about it misdirects the audience from the key assertion. It’s an old magician’s trick: Keep them focused somewhere else.

Magicians, though, misdirect honestly (they don’t expect you to think they really materialized a rabbit) and with full awareness. The people who spread false stories often build them up through a series of evasions, operating not on an outright desire to spread untruths but on indifference to truth. The source of this particular lie may be an unsigned article on rt.com from December 2011. (But wait — that link no longer works! More in a moment.) That article says:

Among the little quips that the millionaire, wealthy, white former governor from Massachusetts has spat on the road to Washington is the urging to “keep America American.” Oddly enough, those three words aren’t all that original, as it looks as if ol’ Mitt has stolen the slogan from a group you wouldn’t normally think to cross — the Ku Klux Klan.

The article goes on at length on the history of the slogan, but provides no usable citation for Romney’s use. It claims, “The slogan has been muttered throughout his campaign and, as the Los Angeles Times reports, was used as recently as this week.” I did manage to find a correction by the LA Times indicating it had once attributed the expression to him but had misquoted the words. I can’t find them. Since the correction came later than the post, the author may have believed Romney uttered those words; but the lack of a specific reference and the assertion that it’s a “slogan” that “has been repeatedly muttered” by unspecified people indicate a mind that doesn’t care about the facts. (Update: Snopes gives its analysis of the issue.)

But— Here’s where things get complicated when you leave a draft lying around for a couple of days. The months-old post on rt.com disappeared since I wrote that. A search turns up the link, with a matching description, so I didn’t mess up the URL; that article was there not long ago. Apparently someone, whether or not it was the author, caught wind of the falsehood and yanked the article. Update: Never mind. The article’s back. It must have just been a glitch.

For all the detail I’ve gone into, I don’t want to give the impression that this lie as such is important. It’s an ordinary part of what passes for political discourse on all sides, and not a lot of people have repeated it. My point is how easy it is to sneak a “fact” across by assuming it rather than baldly asserting it. That makes the liar look informed and concerned with facts. Some of the stories portraying Obama as foreign-born or Muslim use exactly the same trick. On a few occasions I’ve suggested a hypothesis, only to find someone else taking my guess as a fact. I hope those didn’t spread any further.

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