- Note: although the term “Bullshit” has a negative meaning in everyday language, it is an accepted term in academic discussions to evaluate political discourse. It is in this context that the word was used in this peer reviewed study and news story.
Bullshit and lies are the most common form of misinformation perpetrated by leaders of political parties in Britain and Spain. That is one of the findings of a new study which investigated political statements analysed by independent fact checking sites.
Nearly two thirds of all false statements that had been assessed by the fact checkers were classed as lies (provably false) or as bullshit (vague statements which cannot be proved or disproved).
The results also showed that right-wing parties were most responsible for all forms of falsehoods, although the researchers point out this could also mean that they are most likely to face analysis from factcheckers.
The findings have been published in the journal Javnost - Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture.
“The flow of misinformation is a blight on societies. It leads to mistrust of facts, media and institutions,” explained Professor Darren Lilleker of Bournemouth University who led the study. “When politicians lie their opponents will call them out, but this can simply result in the politicisation of facts. Each side of a political divide has its own truth,” he added.
Professor Lilleker and his co-author, Dr Marta Perez-Escolar from the University of Murcia, examined 466 statements from party leaders on fact checking sites EFE Verifica and Newtral in Spain, and BBC Reality Check and Full Fact in the UK. The study covered the period 1st July 2021 to 31 July 2022. They grouped the nature of the false claims into the following categories:
Misinformation: statements which are false or inaccurate but where there is no evidence that it was a deliberate attempt to mislead (also known as ‘misspeaking’).
Alternative facts: biased interpretations of facts to support a political view.
Bullshit: Claims made that cannot be verified, often used by people with no concern for the truth.
Lies: Where it can be demonstrated that the politician knows their statement is wrong.
Lies were the most common category (34%), bullshit second (31%) followed by alternative facts (30%). Just 5% of false statements were down to the politicians misspeaking.
Bullshit and lies appeared mostly when either attacking the policies of opponents, defending one’s own policy or in policy promotion. Such forms of disinformation were not isolated to content on social media, which are rarely factchecked. Bullshit was used significantly in speeches and television interviews, lies similarly but also in policy statements.
“As these are designed for mainstream media consumption and appear above the radar, it suggests many political leaders are unconcerned about the importance of the truth,” Professor Lilleker commented.
The leaders of the UK governing party and Spanish opposition parties most likely to be found to use bullshit and lies in their communication. When looking at the use of alternative facts, the researchers found equity across the left-right spectrum.
Professor Lilleker and Dr Perez-Escolar conclude that “The flagrant use of bullshit and lies, while simultaneously calling out their more mainstream opponents for similar practices, poisons the notion of democratic pluralism and makes low public trust seem perfectly justified.”