Daily Editor Panu and Staff Writer Linus braved the maze that is getting into Italian House to visit an event on lying and the law.

On Friday, the Knight Institute for the First Amendment held their first “round table” to discuss how lies and democracies are related. “Lies and the Law” was the first event of a series that will go throughout the year, both online and in person. The series began with a discussion of three people known for their work about lies and democratic institutions: Quinta Jurecic, a senior editor at Lawfair, Masha Gessen, an author and staff writer at the New Yorker who writes about totalitarianism, and Sophia Rosenfeld, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania known for her work on the history of democracy. The event was moderated by Genevieve Lakier, a visiting scholar at the Knight Institute for the First Amendment at Columbia Law.

There were no prepared remarks at the beginning of the event, rather there was a video that set the tone of the conversation. Clips of different presidents lying filled the screen, starting with Nixon declaring that he was not a crook, and ending with a montage of different demonstrably false claims from Trump. The last of these—“I will always tell you the truth”—was the one that the discussion focused on. For the panelists, the series of lies that were shown could be broken into two categories. The first were “normal lies,” that is lies that have a political message or at least a tangible goal. To some of the panelists, these lies are impossible to separate from democracy. Every candidate for president says that they are thrilled to be in Iowa, for example, and every politician may make promises that they only realize later are impossible to keep. As the panelists remarked, we are used to hearing the lies of this nature. The video even showed how ubiquitous these lies are. As Masha Gessen pointed out, however, there was a difference between these lies and the lies of the Trump administration. For many of those, there were no political goals that the lies served. Rather, they were just asserted as new truths about the world.

Gessen used a different phrase to discuss these lies told without a purpose, describing them as “totalitarian.” While “normal lies” may try to protect a politician’s image (Clinton going on live TV to say that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”) or to achieve a goal (Bush lying about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction to justify warmongering), the “totalitarian lie” is a goal unto itself. They throw into question the very nature of truth by making it something that can be debatable. When Nixon said “I am not a crook,” as Rosenfeld pointed out, he was acknowledging that it would be bad if a politician were a crook: that was exactly why he claimed not to be one. The totalitarian lie, meanwhile, is different. They try to influence the political climate to the extent that there isn’t any basis for anyone to agree on anything. While normal lies may at least be aspirational, claiming that the politician is better or more caring, the totalitarian lie is the opposite, aiming primarily to break the system. As an example of a system broken by these totalitarian lies, Gessen described the political climate of Russia, the country which they were born in and fled from. There, they described the political environment as one where the public is robbed of their ability to form opinions because there is nowhere to start. Lying is so common and so uncontroversial that it doesn’t appear as if the truth even matters. In Gessen’s words, “the shared fabric of reality is completely lost.” 

Much of the conversation, then, focused on the difference between these two types of lies, which ones were worse, and if there are any solutions to getting us out of a “post-truth world.” There was not a consensus on the panel if these “totalitarian lies” were worse, but by the end of the discussion, there was agreement that they presented new problems that did not exist in the lies of before. The question of solutions, then, was a natural one. Gessen gave an example of one country that had managed to move from a totalitarian state to a democratic one: Estonia. There, they claimed, a common narrative shared by every politician is that the people are fundamentally good even when they were under totalitarian rule, and that every problem in their political process was caused by outsiders. This narrative created some common ground that functioned as a shared reality, or at least a shared truth. Whether or not this common narrative was a lie or not, it did allow further democratic norms to be formed—the panel even discussed this seeming contradiction, discussing the roles of myths as functioning both in similar and different ways to lies. This solution, however, may not be one that could be applied to moving America out of a place with no shared truths. As Jurecic remarked, lies are a terrifying enemy to think about, as they are internal to one’s political system; it is much easier to create a narrative with an external threat causing every problem. America does not have the same ability to create such a narrative as a much smaller country that had just emerged from external totalitarian rule.

The conversation then moved towards potential solutions to combat the worrying present where lies are becoming so challenging to isolate. Lakier asked the panelists about their thoughts on fact-checking in the media as a means for political change. In reply, Rosenfield made a strong case for how small-scale solutions like fact-checking are simply not effective enough to tackle complex ideological systems, while also coming with the capacity to have a “dangerous effect on a lively culture of ideas.” Gessen also expressed skepticism in fact-checking by news organisations in bringing any tangible change—they contended that publications that hosted fact-checking pieces as an isolated genre of journalism only added to the repetition effect whereby the lie wound up being echoed in a capacity that would facilitate its reach to a wider audience of people. In addition, Gessen talked about how using the medium of the fact-checking article removed the burden of responsible reporting from news publications because they were not compelled to consider plausible side-effects of reporting stories based on the politicians’ lies. Uncritical reportage of other awful things then simply becomes another facet of their self-professed “neutrality.” 

Jurecic raised the possibility of an alternate solution—truth commissions. She proposed extending the scope of these commissions beyond the context of states that have gone through a period of grave political upheaval like civil wars, or authoritarian rule, to the United States where Drumpf’s four-year term has fundamentally altered the political landscape. Still, she added with an exasperated laugh, that most of the pessimism towards truth commissions in the US came from the (probably accurate) belief that there weren’t even enough truths to get started with such a project within the American landscape. The panelists went on to discuss how the politics of truth commissions actually often play out, focusing on the example of South Africa’s truth commissions. Jurecic emphasized how they were used to reckon with South Africa’s colonial history, and apartheid as a facet of the past—when the racialized dynamics of that history remain to this day. In that sense, truth commissions frequently wind up working to “tame” truths without the burden of reckoning with their effects on the contemporary context. 

While the conference was discussing contemporary events, much of the conversation was set on Trump. Each of the panelists became known by analyzing his administration, and there is still much analysis to be done there. As a result, however, many of the lies told by the Biden administration—and indeed, other politicians who routinely engage in similar “totalitarian” style lies—were not discussed in favor of discussing these reality-warping lies of the previous White House. Such an analysis also brought with it a level of hopelessness. In trying to find solutions to how we could move on from a president that lies, much of the analysis concluded with the need to vote him out, and to move back to “normal.” As this panel showed, however, this action—and the freezing of Trump from most of his platforms—was not enough to shake the fear of these lies and the damage they caused. This specter was so large as to obscure any other more contemporary threats of lies from being fully discussed.

This event was only the first in a yearlong series of round tables held by the Knight Institute. You can find the full schedule, essays, and more here. The next event will be held on October 13.

This Fancy Stage in Italian Academy via Panu’s phone camera