Why do people believe some politicians’ lies even when they have been proven false? And why do so many of the same people peddle conspiracy theories?
Lying and conspiratorial thinking might seem to be two different problems, but they turn out to be related. I study political rhetoric and have tried to understand how populist politicians use language to develop a cult-like following, divide nations, create culture wars and instill hatred. This pattern goes back to antiquity and is seen today in leaders including former President Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. These leaders are capable of using words and speeches to whip people into such an emotional tempest that they will do things like march on the seat of Congress or invade a neighboring country.
What makes this kind of speech worrying is that it is not just emotions like aggression they can manipulate; politicians can also use rhetoric to influence the public’s thoughts and beliefs, and spread lies and conspiracy theories. Those lies and conspiracy theories are stubbornly resistant to countervailing facts and can sow divisions that destabilize their own societies.
My research analyzes real speeches made by politicians past and present, including those of Trump, Orbán and Putin, using cognitive linguistics — a branch of linguistics that examines the relationship between language and the mind. What I have found is that throughout history, speeches by dictators and autocrats have one thing in common: they use dehumanizing metaphors to instill and propagate hatred of others. [Continue reading…]