Recognizing and Rejecting Patterns of Deception

During the 2012 election, flagged two different kinds of recurrent deceptions to put candidates on notice and increase public understanding of the substance of presidential campaigns. The first featured fabulations such as ‘Romney opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest’ and “Obama ‘gutted’ the work requirement in welfare reform”— that persisted in the face of debunking by the major fact checkers. The second drew on campaign rhetoric to illustrate “patterns” – including false logic and misleading uses of language— that campaigns use to invite false inferences or propel audiences toward unjustified conclusions.

Two statements made by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich exemplify what we mean by a pattern of deception. In late 2011, Gingrich claimed that “I balanced the budget for four straight years…” and last summer Clinton said, “I gave you four surplus budgets for the first time in more than 70 years…”

Instead of crying “false” (because their level of self-congratulation is unwarranted) or “partially true” (because each did play a role in balancing budgets), the Detecting Patterns of Deception page identifies the misleading move that Clinton and Gingrich share as “Overestimating an Individual’s Power.”  Each is claiming full credit for balanced budgets when the plaudits should be shared with many others, ranging from the Congressmen who supported the deficit reduction packages of two administrations to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy and those who created the tech boom of the 1990s.

Efforts to reject misleading moves and deception have been around for a long time. Since Aristotle defined thirteen fallacies, theorists have fashioned primers to protect audiences from seductive errors in reasoning and machinations that cloud judgment. Flackcheck’s Detecting Patterns of Deception page has followed this tradition, defining and illustrating 28 deceptive patterns clustered into six categories: Overestimating Power, Misleading Language, Misleading Audio-Visual Cues, Not Telling The Whole Story, False Logic, and Hypocritical Attack.

With this work, we are targeting those too young to have developed the strong partisan reflexes that produce confirmation bias. We expect that regular exposure to the Detecting Patterns of Deception page will teach even those who rationalize their own side’s excesses to spot the sorts of recurrent moves that would have made Machiavelli proud.

In the ‘more difficult but doable’ category of goals, we expect that our explanations will increase our audience’s understanding of how these inference-forging moves mislead. A tougher objective aspires, over time, to translate recognition and understanding into disapproval. In the “maybe under some circumstances” box, we hope (but with longer odds) that among at least some of our audience, our process of labeling, defining, explaining, and illustrating will lead them to reject the deceptive pattern regardless of the ideology of the candidate or cause employing it.

Put more technically, the Detecting Patterns of Deception pilot project assumes that IF:

a)    We craft clear definitions that schematize the relationships among our Patterns of Deception,

b)    Identify cogent exemplars from both left and right to populate those schemas, and

c)    Over time familiarize those who have not yet formed strong partisan attachments (i.e., high school and first year college students) with the categories embodied in the labels, the explanations of why each is problematic, and illustrations of the misleading moves from both left and right,


d)    Enhance audience political acuity by increasing recognition, understanding of the misleading nature, disapproval and  rejection of misleading moves  in ongoing campaigns and issue debates regardless of their source and do so without activating cynicism.

To see how well the categories illumine the gun control debate take a look at the rhetoric we’ve labeled “out of context”. “overgeneralization,” “ad hominem,” “slippery slope”, “red herring”, “false categorical” and “guilt by association.”