Photo illustration by John Lyman



The Essential Role of Inquiry and Skepticism in the Age of Deception

During my forty-year career as a communications adviser to governments, corporations, non-profits, and individuals, I have never experienced a time when so many people and organizations were not only lying but were also repeating the lies of others. I understand the reason for lies in general, each born of enlightened self-interest. But why do so many of us believe these lies, so much so that we allow them to influence what we put in our bodies (or don’t), how we vote, and perhaps most importantly, how we feel about other people (including friends, family, and foreigners)?

Welcome to the ‘Theater of Lies.’ Here, purpose-driven lies and misinformation are produced, staged, and presented – using the proven storytelling techniques of Hollywood. But rather than for your entertainment (often included at no additional charge), this theater’s purpose is to manipulate your mind and influence your behavior, all of which benefit its producers rather than you. Its operations are global, local, and virtual. Its only walls are in your mind; itself a very powerful place (and, easily fooled).

The ‘Theater of Lies’ isn’t a theory. It’s real. It’s just that we’ve been living in it so long, that we no longer see it. Think of yourself as Jim Carrey in the 1998 film The Truman Show. Without his knowledge, his whole life from birth was staged and televised for decades to the world. In our case, messages from the real world are staged for us, with many of those messages false, misleading, and/or hyperbolic—each produced to influence our thoughts and actions.

The theater is not a single stage. It is a multiplex with multiple screens and stages, hosting messages from an equally large and diverse number of producers. The operation is not a conspiracy. There are no mastermind meetings held across time zones in dark rooms or Internet cafes. But they share the same techniques of spectacle, drama, comedy, and raising stakes to draw you into your seat and keep you there.

This theater has become so large, so insidious, and so powerful that believing its fiction has become far easier than any journey to discover the truth. Propaganda has become the fast food of information: easily available, deliciously packaged, and satisfying, but devoid of any nutritional value. Its purpose? That emotional hit of confirmation bias and the addictive quality of wanting more hits more often.

At one time, this art was the sole practice of kings and clergy. But today, our ‘Theater of Lies’ has expanded to a group that is much wider and larger, and with a depth of tools available that the monarchs and church leaders of the past would envy. That group is made up of four principal players, each with a unique role.

First, the propagandists; they produce the lies and distribute them. This includes government leaders (some), business leaders (some), media leaders (again, some), and their cadres of workers whose livelihoods depend upon their belief in the fictions of their masters.

Second, the audience; believing the lies of the propagandists and often repeating them to others. The actions of the first don’t work without the participation of the second.

The third player, I call “Edgars,” after Edgar Maddison Welch, the QAnon conspiracy theorist, who shot up a Washington, DC pizzeria in search of pedophiles. The dark corners of the Internet were where far-right MAGA supporters and Christian white nationalists had identified the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria along with various Democratic Party figures like Hillary Clinton as part of a child trafficking ring. The initiation of the Edgars begins in the audience.

For them, the propagandists’ lies have become so engaging that they morph into an irresistible need to become part of actual production. It’s a disturbing kind of audience participation. The magician’s playbook gone mad. More so, as in the propagation of lies and information, this kind of callout from the stage to the audience to join them can have deadly results. For example, the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol which resulted in at least four deaths, perhaps more. At no time in the world’s history has running away to join the circus come with such high stakes.

Finally, there is the fourth, also in the audience; the curious. In the search for truth, they are willing to question not only the beliefs of the first three but also their own. They are the heroes, and they are few. Yet, the well-being of every society on the planet depends on them.

We must nurture this rare group. We must grow their numbers. We must provide them with tools and platforms for sharing their questions and insights. We must create safe places for them to challenge the messages coming from the stage. We must protect them from the cancel culture that demonizes their thoughts and casts them aside in the modern version of biblical shunning or excommunication. Let us not forget Europe once had its own, more deadly version of cancel culture, the centuries-long purge of religious dissidents known as The Inquisition (now repeated as criminally political processes in such autocratic countries like China, Russia, and North Korea). In America, this threat is emerging.

Today, the intensely choreographed productions coming out of the ‘Theater of Lies’ have eroded society’s most precious resource: trust. Without it, international powers risk war, governments risk civil disobedience, and central banks risk defaults. As evidenced during the pandemic and its vaccination process, people will risk their health and even their lives to hold hard their mistrust of authority and science, the power of misinformation fueling their actions.

One of the unforeseen consequences of evolving digital technology is that it has created an enormous buffet of enticing information to consume—and we gobble it like it was popcorn. If this was real food, our bodies could not process it all. We’d self-select. It is the same for information. Yet unlike real food at a real buffet, the information presented in the ‘Theater of Lies’ is not just in front of us; it constantly surrounds us 24 hours a day. Our only escape is discrimination, a skill that few people truly have. It is a skill of the curious, the critical thinkers, and those that choose to join them.

And join them, we must. The producers are real and the Edgars they inspire endanger us all.