Lies, Dupes, and Shit Tests

Leaders sometimes tell outrageous lies. Maybe they are channeled through “fake news” sites. Of course fake news has been around forever — e.g., we’ve long spoken of “government mouthpieces” and propaganda. How could leaders get away with such lies?

A great read on this is a working paper by Andrew Little: .pdf Here is a summary: .html. Andrew’s theory supposes that some segment of the population are dupes — gullible enough to fall for the lies. Of course if most people are dupes, there is not much of a story to tell (though not to say it isn’t accurate). But the world also contains sophisticates who can see through the lies. The dupes could nonetheless induce sophisticates to express belief in the lie (even if privately the sophisticates think differently). The reason is that the sophisticates share a sense of the need for consensus. So they will go along, not because they believe or even like the lie, but because they would simply prefer to be part of the consensus.

A complementary way to think about this does not require there to be any dupes at all. I call this the “shit test” explanation. Suppose everyone is a sophisticate. But for at least some of these sophisticates, it is important to be in good standing with the leader. Then the leader can say something outrageous, but this serves as a shit test: the leader can use this to check people’s commitment to the leader. If you are truly devoted, you will “swallow the shit.” The more outrageous the lie, the better as a shit test (although maybe the leader cannot push it too far). The way people respond therefore conveys information about whether they are with the leader or not. The leader’s allies might also beat other people over the head with the shit: are you with us or against us? You would expect separation in people’s expressed support for the lie on the basis of their degree of attachment to the leader or the degree to which they feel compelled to go along with the leader’s allies. An implication of the shit test theory is that a mirror phenomenon is also possible: when the leader speaks truths those who are alienated from the leader may have reason to deny those truths.

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3 thoughts on “Lies, Dupes, and Shit Tests

  1. Cyrus Post author

    thanks for the link — sorry for the slow approval. my email alerts for comments was being eaten by my spam filter so i missed this. approved now.

  2. Laura Adams

    Also relevant is Lisa Wedeen’s analysis of legitimacy in Syria under the elder Asad, Ambiguities of Domination. She talks about how mandatory, outrageous displays of loyalty on the part of elites create a sense not of obedience to but complicity with the regime. I’m not sure about her assumption that there is some “truth value” to such public displays and that those who profess lies experience it as hypocrisy or complicity. As Alexei Yurchak counters in Everything Was Forever until It Was No More, often such gestures are, as I think you suggest, just the normal behavior for a particular social situation, not a declaration of truth.

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