How to Manipulate the Truth

Hector Macdonald’s new book exposes how facts can be massaged to mean whatever you want them to.

In a blink and miss appearance in the 2011 film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Naseeruddin Shah tells Farhan Akhtar “Sach hota kya hai? Sach ka har ek ka apna apna version hota hai!” (What is truth? Everybody has their own version of it).

Much of Hector Macdonald’s book Truth—How Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality is based on the above notion. Different versions of the truth that people believe in or are made to believe in form the core of his book.

Macdonald offers examples from different areas of life to make his point. Take the case of the toothpaste brand Colgate. Colgate advertised for many years claiming that “more than 80 per cent of the dentists recommend Colgate.”

But was that really the case? Yes and no. Macdonald writes:

Consumers naturally assumed the survey data behind this claim measured the proportion of dentists who recommended Colgate toothpaste in preference to other brands. In fact, dentists were being asked which brands they would recommend, and most named several; a competitor brand was recommended as often as Colgate.

But when Colgate presented these findings through an advertisement, it presented its ‘version’ of the truth, which was that 80% of the dentists recommend Colgate. This was true. But what they didn’t tell the consumers was that 80% of the dentists recommended another brand as well, given that the survey offered the dentists multiple options to choose from. If this information would also have been revealed, then the meaning of the advertisement would have changed. In fact, the company would have never made an advertisement with this piece of information in the first place.

Numbers play a very important part in the way something is portrayed. As the writer Greg Easterbrook once said, “Torture numbers enough and they’ll confess to anything”. The media is an excellent example of this.

China-bashing is a favourite pastime of the Western media. In 2010, it was reported that 18 Chinese employees of the electronics manufacturer Foxconn tried to commit suicide; 14 of them succeeded. This made headlines in the Western countries simply because Foxconn manufactured Apple’s iPhone and products for other big companies like Sony, Dell and Samsung. Not surprisingly, accusations of labour abuse were thrown at Apple as well as Foxconn. I mean who doesn’t like the idea of taking on the big bad company. But was the media right in this case?

While, every suicide is tragic, just reporting the absolute numbers doesn’t tell us the real truth, but only a version of it. As Macdonald writes, “[Foxconn] employed close to a million people in 2010, implying an annual suicide rate of around 1.5 per 100,000. The average suicide rate in China was 22 per 100,000. In other words, the suicide rate at Foxconn was less than 7 per cent of the national average.”

By looking at the right proportions, what seemed like a big thing suddenly isn’t newsworthy at all.

In fact, in India, the media has been writing on farmer suicides for many years now. The suicide of every farmer is a sad event. But the question I haven’t seen any media report answer till date is whether the rate of suicide among Indian farmers as a whole, or Indian farmers in a particular state, is higher than the rate of suicide among Indians in general or the rate of suicide in that particular state.

This single piece of information would add so much to the entire debate on agrarian distress and farmer suicides in India. But somehow it doesn’t seem to make it to the media.

In some cases, companies go out of their way to promote their version of the truth and make it into a business model. The best example for this strategy are diamonds. The supply of diamonds is controlled by De Beers, which has been able to use its monopoly in the business to restrict the supply of diamonds over the years. By controlling supply it has “managed to create an illusion of scarcity and dictate market prices for decades.”

Over the years De Beers has managed to position diamond rings as engagement rings. Macdonald writes:

Between the two world wars, diamond consumption in the United States had halved. NW Ayer [ a New York based advertising agency] reckoned that the way to reverse this decline was to develop a connection between diamonds and romance. Women should be persuaded to view the quality and size of diamond as a representative of their suitor’s love. The agency’s stated goal was to ‘create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.’

This is how a diamond ring was turned into an engagement ring.

Further, the advertising agency also worked towards projecting the idea that a diamond needed to be owned forever. As Macdonald writes:

‘A diamond is forever’ the advertisements declared in 1948 and in most years since, clearly implying that a selling a diamond would be pretty despicable behaviour, if not outright betrayal of love.

And this is how a stone that isn’t so scarce as it is made out to be was turned into something that every women aspires to have. The women and the men buying diamonds have been made to believe a certain version of the actual truth, which in this case isn’t the actual truth.

Macdonald offers many such examples in his book and does a great job of busting all the techniques that are used to manufacture a certain version of the truth. Lest people get confused, he does not deal with post-truth (or fake news as it is more simply called) at all. I guess a chapter or two on that would have made the book even better. (Having said that Evan Davis’s Post Truth is a fantastic read on the subject).

But even without dealing with Post Truth, this book is a fantastic read. In the end Macdonald writes, “If you receive a targeted message containing a misleading truth, call it out. Otherwise, we may never know about it, and the Misleaders will grow ever bolder.”

While this sounds like the right message at the end of the book, the trouble is that there are so many versions of truth going around out there that anyone calling them out will have to do just that and nothing else.

And that is a dilemma that really cannot be solved.

About the author

Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times. His latest book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It Is Hurting Us, has just been published. He is also the author of the Easy Money trilogy.