“How do you tell if a politician is lying?” “His lips are moving.” In the US, that truism certainly holds. Lying on the campaign trail and in office are both so normalized that we’ve become numb to it. Except under threat of perjury (and sometimes even then), we no longer expect politicians to be truthful, instead we just give them a truthiness rating and hope they do better than the opposition party.
Is this indifference towards reality the norm in every modern country? Are there any democracies or dictatorships in which a public leader broadcasting a lie – say, a televised statement plainly misstating facts – results in a legal sanction against the liar? By that I don’t mean the mostly impotent outrage of the electorate, but a check and balance designed into the system? Something like a “lying in public office” civil or criminal offense?
If no such regulation exists, has it at least been subjected to legislative debate?
Perhaps I’m naive, but it seems strange that we have truth in advertising laws for seen-on-TV doodads and not for way more important things. How come?
In the UK it’s an electoral offence to make a false claim of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate in order to affect the result (so the “Sure, but let’s have him deny it” tactic would be illegal - if it could be proven on record who actually started the rumour, so you make sure it can’t). I don’t know if anyone’s ever been prosecuted for it.
But there’s a huge grey area around political claims (“Deep down, they really want to privatise the NHS!” or “Deep down, they don’t care if they tax the entrepreneurs out of the country!”), since there are always ways to phrase things so there’s a get-out.
The “How Come?” part is easy to answer. Who polices the police? You can make all sorts of laws legislating morality of elected officials but then who enforces them or what keeps the system from becoming corrupted? Prohibition prohibited the sale of alcohol and just about every elected official and police force looked the other way while they took bribes and cashed in. Truth is is much harder thing than alcohol to legislate and thus impossible from a practical standpoint.
In the U.S., political speech is protected by the First Amendment. Commercial speech, however, is not. Nothing is more important than political speech. Tempering that in any way, other than immediate calls for harm, is inimical to what free speech means.
There’s got to be a way to at least squelch crap like saying “my opponent opposed a bill that would have given $50000 to every injured veteran” without putting in the rest of the facts “it was attached to a bill that would have also closed the Department of Education”.
If the opponent opposes giving veterans money - by itself no strings attached, I’d be okay with reporting that as a fact.
And this is where the “free press” have a role - they should be fact-checking and challenging such statements. Something rather lacking in the UK, where the Tory party have been explicitly not challenged by the majority of the press due to the leanings of the press barons who own the papers.
Inherent in promoting enforcement of ‘truth in politics’ is:
a) the contradiction that ‘all the people all the time’ (or a big enough proportion to be a crippling problem) will be be fooled by politicians’ lies, yet usually a corresponding zeal by ‘enforced truth’ advocates that everyone be allowed to vote. How is preventing stupid and gullible people from voting any less valid than somehow making sure politicians don’t tell lies stupid people will believe? Truth promoters seldom present themselves as being fooled by politicians’ lies. The problem is always somebody else being fooled.
b) either solution, eliminating lies or disqualifying stupid voters, has the same problem: it assumes some class or group of pure truth seekers unaffected by grimy politics who will make these decisions. But if such a class of people actually existed, why not let them just rule? They could bring their perfect fairness to bear actually solving problems directly. It again tends to contradict the basic idea of democracy.
And I think the failings of truth enforcement is already clearly shown by ‘fact checkers’ at media orgs. They’re obviously biased, IMO. They don’t let politicians on the same side of the spectrum as they are off the hook completely, but they give them more slack when it comes to how the question of ‘truth’ is framed. Likewise their findings that politicians on the other side of the spectrum have lied are not uniformly inaccurate, but again the question tends to be framed in a much less friendly way.
Politics is all about people deciding their opinion how to frame issues, which factual details are central, important or not so important, what’s hyperbole making a point or fact you’re supposed to literally believe, etc. Politics is importantly and legitimately about things besides facts.
I don’t understand why truth-finding is considered impossible. Don’t we already have that system for perjury? All I’m saying is expanding “lying under oath” to “lying in public office”, but it would still take a prosecutor and a jury and a judge and evidence being presented, etc. The (fallible, yes) standard of truth doesn’t change, it just holds public office to the same accountability as a courtroom.
There is one Special Topic that is forbidden to lie about in Germany, that has recently been expanded. That is the Holocaust/ Shoah. Anybody denying that it happened, or that the numbers were significantly lower or similar, can and will be accused, at least for a Money fine, but up to prison.
The reasoning is:
Saying it didn’t happen and is just a lie concoted by the Jews to get a leverage insults the Memory and Reputation of the dead People, who can not take the defamer to court themselves, so the state steps in for them.
There is no objective reason to deny it or downplay it. The only reason, and the only People who do this, are in favour of Nazi or Fascist ideology, which in itself seperately is forbidden as being non-democratic and hateful.
The new law is similar about the Armenian genocide. Not really relevant for German domestic politics, more a “Show” law towards Turkey, where talking about the Armenin Genocide is an offensive because it besmirches Turkish honor.
There are different forms of lying, so while there is no General law, some things can be pursued by court, others not.
Factual lying - saying climate Change doesn’t exist, or that Evolution is not true. Not directly the subject of law (aside from the exceptions above), but the media would be all over it, because here “free press” means “uncovering truth and showing the Readers the Facts” not that nonsense of “we will give equal time to both sides and the Reader can decide”.
Personal accusations. Calling your Opponent an asshole is a personal Insult, which is against the law. As Long as they are candidates, they can choose whether to take it to court or let it go. If they have (a different political Position or are up for re-election) the state may step in and prosecute regardless, because certain Groups (e.g. cops) who work for the state have their personal honour protected by the state; or their Office is respected by law and insulting the holder of the Office is therefore prosecutable.
(The reason that insulting People is against the law is to curb the self-justice where if you feel insulted, you Punch the other guy starting a fight, or walk away being called a Coward. The third Option is to take the guy to court).
2a. Insulting an Opponent by calling him demonstratably true things: instead of saying that Joe Smith is an asshole, you say he is a tax-cheater and give proof. That is not assaulting his personal honour, so not illegal.
It Needs to be recent, however - if Joe Smith was convicted of petty theft 20 years ago and did his time, it’s considered over and done with.
It also requireds to hit the sometimes fine line between stating Facts (allowed) and drawing negative conclusions about his character (not allowed).
The big Grey area of campaign promises. Not illegal, because difficult or impossible to prove. The media and Opposition will likely Point out if promises are impossible to Keep / the numbers given don’t add up.
Others: if you / the yellow press misquote your Opponent by taking things out of context, he can sue you,/them because misquoting is not allowed. How much this is worth the effort, and the time it takes, and given how few People read corrections … means that often it’s not worth the time, but if the issue/ Person is big enough, they will fight the misquote.
Yes, and hopefully nobody would prosecute those kinds of statements. If they do, they’re essentially nuisance cases and you’d hope the check for that is removal of a judge or prosecutor who routinely does that…
In the past I’ve noticed both Snopes and Politifact both published articles proclaiming something was True when it was actually False solely because they were using very biased sources they later had to retract (though in Snopes case it’s still up but they altered the wording to make it seem true). If they can’t get it right 100% of the time, who can?
But there is already a method for determining truth in perjury cases. As with the rest of the justice system, mistakes can happen, but that doesn’t stop the courts from doing their thing day after day.
As is typical for those people, they use smear tactics and lying (while crying themselves “Lügenpresse” - lying media* and how mean the other parties and media are to them).
They have attacked Margart Kässmann https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margot_Käßmann former kind of speaker of the protestant church of Germany. She is now considering “legal steps”, but at the very end - after showing in detail how her words were taken out of context and twisted - the author notes that “Legally the situation is unclear, intellectually obvious”.
Even if Kässmann goes to court and wins, the damage is done, because removing fake images from the internet is impossible.