Lying to the Reader

My second experiment did not take the form of any clear genre at its beginning, instead changing throughout, shifting into different forms. I set out to create a “fake debate” with issues being argued by the right and left. As I struggled with writing the script, balancing the dozens of opinions I came across during my research, and locating examples of misinformation relevant to each possible side, I knew I had to pivot and present my message in a different way. Instead of a fake script, I gathered real political commentaries and found common examples of misinformation with regard to the sample issue—gun violence. I then added these common examples of misinformation into the real commentaries as smoothly as possible, expecting the reader to believe the lies when surrounded by strong writing and relevant points. After these commentaries were presented I then revealed to the reader the purpose of the essay—to demonstrate our susceptibility to misinformation online, especially when it confirms our prior beliefs of an issue.

I struggled with defining this genre, eventually deciding on calling it a “misdirect essay,” getting at the idea that the writer leads the reader down one argument before revealing the purpose of the essay is an entirely different argument. Since this genre is completely undefined, here’s some takeaways for successful misdirection gathered from a variety of different types of genres:

  • Present the initial “misdirect” topic with as much passion and care as the actual topic; this means research and evidence.

Entering into reading an article the reader has no reason to believe the writer is trying to trick them. Still, the power of the misdirect is built on the surprise the reader will feel when it is revealed of the actual purpose of the essay. This surprise stems from the initial topic being treated as seriously and with as much attention as the actual topic. This meant the misdirect topic needs to be relevant and demanding enough to warrant an educated argument. In my case, I decided “political polarization,” which is incredibly relevant to today, was an appropriate way to lead my reader down a certain path. The respect given towards the initial topic makes the essay easier to write and will keep the reader reading long enough to get to the reveal. To build the topic of political polarization I used statistics from “Confirmation Bias And the Power of Disconfirming Evidence” and “Political Polarization in the American Public.” If the presentation of the misdirect topic doesn’t promise any conclusions or new insights the reader may see the essay as not worth their time, so the misdirect topic cannot just go through the motions of common knowledge.

  • When incorporating different views be as neutral as possible.

This point was more specific to my own experiment, as I was looking to gather different political commentaries that I could incorporate lies within. I wanted to present the commentaries I ended up choosing in an unbiased manner trying to leave any assumptions, beliefs, opinions up to the reader’s prior beliefs. An article I found helpful in guiding this pattern was “Right and Left React to the Deepening Divide Over Gun Control” which was published in the New York Times and written by Anna Dubenko. The essay left any political conclusions to the reader and presented different opinions, no matter how far right or left, fairly. I applied this to my misdirect essay because a major point I was trying to make was the inevitable bias of the reader. If I was able to incorporate these opinions on an equal playing field, any differences in opinions by the reader would stem from their prior beliefs. This was crucial in keeping their attention towards the misdirect topic for as long as possible.

  • Explain why the initial “misdirect” topic is related to the actual topic

This may be the most crucial part of the misdirect essay. How a reader would even stumble upon your misdirect essay in the first place is by searching for articles about the misdirect topic, as the titles of these essays have to be about that topic. This means, in order for the reader not to get mad when realizing they’ve been tricked and exiting out to find another article about the topic they were looking for, the actual topic needs to be related to the misdirect topic in some manner. Any slight relationship between the two could be enough to keep the reader there. In my case, both political polarization and misinformation are relevant to the political sphere, and I spend a decent amount of time arguing for misinformation’s role in political polarization. The article “The CNN Town Hall on Gun Control Was a Failure. And That’s Good for Our Democracy” helped me draw some conclusions, getting at the idea that finding or explaining a relationship between the two topics may take further research. If successful in revealing their connection, the reader could actually be rewarded with a new insight with regard to the misdirect topic they were originally interested in.

  • There has to be a specific reason for the misdirection

If there is no clear reason for the misdirection, the reader will feel they’ve had their time wasted. If you feel you need to explicitly explain why you were lying to the reader about the purpose of the essay, you probably shouldn’t do it. “Misdirect essays” work as a social experiment and consequently the topic of interest usually comes before picking this genre. In my case, I literally wanted to get the reader to believe something false and presenting the lies in a believable manner made the essay work.

2 thoughts to “Lying to the Reader”

  1. This idea of a misdirect genre is really cool! I think you hit on some important points about the dangers of such a genre and how to make it as successful as possible. I would argue your last point, “There has to be a specific reason for the misdirection,” is the most crucial part of the essay because without a reason the paper walks on the slippery slope of just lying for no reason. The reason is what makes it different than misinformation. Of course, the way it is related is also critical, they honestly have a lot of overlap. I’m glad you mentioned being neutral because this is something I was really impressed with in your sample excerpt. When writing about politics it can be nearly impossible to not impose your own views. I never felt like you did that though, and this idea of a misdirect is something that anyone on any side of politics should have to read. We are all victims of trickery and it would be helpful to be able to know how we are getting tricked so we can all try and stray from misinformation. These were all great tips!

  2. You’re definitely focused on not alienating the reader. For instance, you suggest that the author provide a valid reason for the misdirect, and say that the “misdirect” topic and actual topic must be related so the reader doesn’t feel their time has been wasted. I appreciate this emphasis on the reader’s experience because many people approach political articles feeling angry or looking for something to disagree with, so you don’t want to accidentally distance the reader further. Going forward, I wonder if you could develop this relationship with the reader even more by clearly defining the platform through which your article would be disseminated.

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