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Volume 13, Issue 18;   May 1, 2013: Devious Political Tactics: Mis- and Disinformation

Devious Political Tactics: Mis- and Disinformation

by

Practitioners of workplace politics intent on gaining unfair advantage sometimes use misinformation, disinformation, and other information-related tactics. Here's a short catalog of techniques to watch for.
George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of Journalists

George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of Journalists of the United Kingdom. Eric Arthur Blair was the author of 1984 using the pen name of George Orwell. A passage from that novel reads, "The key-word here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts." This is a concise description of a technique known as "the Big Lie," first described in Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, who accused Germany's Jews of using the technique, and who used the technique himself to great effect. The Big Lie is closely associated with what is here called "disinforming en masse." Both tactics exploit boldness to create credibility. The Big Lie is bold in its denial of reality, disinforming en masse is bold in its distribution. Government lies or the lies of political parties are inevitably bold in both dimensions. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Because so many political transactions in modern organizations revolve around the distribution or exchange of information, devious tactics related to information are becoming increasingly common. The general approach involves withholding information, or distorting it before passing it along. Here's a short catalog of devious political tactics related to information.

Hoarding information
Since information can be power, withholding information from a target can deprive that target of power. But simple withholding is risky if you're caught doing it, because openness about harming someone invites retaliation. More sophisticated approaches involve distributing the information through channels the target ignores or cannot access, or timing the distribution so that it only becomes available when the target cannot benefit from it. These more sophisticated approaches allow the hoarder to deprive the target of information while at the same time reaping "points" for keeping the target informed.
Trading in fool's gold
Political operators who engage in information exchanges can often help each other politically. But perfidious operators sometimes offer information that appears to be valuable, but which they know to be worthless or nearly so. Perhaps it has a short shelf life; or many people, outside the awareness of the recipient, already know it; or it's incorrect in some subtle but very important ways.
Disinforming en masse
Disinformation is not only false — it's known to be false by the person disclosing it. But when disclosed to numerous people — over a wide area — it's usually received uncritically, because people believe that nobody would blatantly lie so widely without fear of being caught. In other words, the breadth and boldness of the distribution tends to lend credibility to the disinformation. To employ this tactic, the source of the disinformation must have confidence that the information cannot be easily falsified.
Making errors in details
Some information Perfidious operators sometimes offer
information that appears to be
valuable, but which they know
to be worthless or nearly so
is valuable only if it's correct in every detail. Examples are procedures, directions, dates, times, email addresses, telephone numbers, URLs, and the spelling of names and places. Operators who don't wish to divulge such information, but who must do so when requested, can delay the disclosure, possibly rendering it worthless, by including errors in the material significant enough to prevent the recipient from using it successfully, but carefully designed to be plausibly explained as "typos."
Cluttering the cupboard
When operators absolutely must disclose the information, but don't want recipients to actually use it, they can include the information in a field of irrelevant clutter that prevents recipients from finding it easily. An excuse is usually required to justify the action. Example: "Oh, we thought you needed the results for all customers, not just the ones who complained." Example: "Sorry, we can't extract by that set of criteria — it isn't one we're set up for. So we used these other criteria instead."

Humans are endlessly clever. Send me examples of other techniques, and I'll add them to the catalog. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Myth of Difficult People  Next Issue

Read about more devious political tactics.

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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