In a Word . . .

. . . False

 

One thing you learn early in journalism is that, despite what the laws of physics state, in human affairs there is indeed such a thing as smoke without fire. And if you don’t learn that pretty quickly then you and your publication could suffer a most costly lesson.

It is a tragic fact of humanity that nothing spreads faster than gossip, the more salacious and unlikely the better/faster. It was Winston Churchill who, like so many well-known public figures, had himself to endure his own unfair share of the slings and arrows of outrageous gossip, once said “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.

That was then. Now, with social media, the lie has triumphed before truth has even woken up to its existence. A study published in Science magazine, the respected journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, looked at the publication of more than 100,000 news stories, independently verified or proven false, as they spread (or failed to) on Twitter.

The conclusion, as summarised, was that: “Falsehood diffused farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

This is hardly a revelation. It is why there was the Eighth Commandment: thou shalt not bear false witness.

Like so much else that is good, it has rarely been in fashion.

One of the great things about becoming experienced as a journalist is that you can gain a certain skill at identifying he/she who is lying, with intent. Indeed, intent can be key.

It pays to wonder what he/she has to gain by telling you whatever.

In politics, he/she may be trying to damage an opponent, secretly. Similarly, if in business. It may be driven by ambition, or revenge, or to curry influence.

Still, before dismissing “the hoarse whisperer” (as I refer to such people), it is always wise to check discreetly what is claimed. To be sure.

A certain type can make even that unnecessary: the shifty ‘come-here-till-I-tell-ya’ sort who claim the most outrageous behaviour by well-known figures he/she dislikes, and regaled so, so sotto voce he/she can end up like a worm in your ear. Beware of such appalling people.

False, ‘intentionally untrue’. From late Old English and Old French fals, faus. Modern French faux. All from Latin falsus.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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