The line between truth and falsehood seems to be growing dimmer with every new story of Russian disinformation or presidential allegation of fake news. it certainly feels like a new era, but in politics, the manipulation of narrative has evolved over the years into a form of high art. So much so in fact, the case can be made that one can lie, simply by telling the truth. And the BBC reports a new term has been coined to describe this phenomenon: paltering.
“It’s from the mid-16th century and it means something like to mumble, or to babble,” says Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.
The BBC article refers to a recent study done by behavioral scientists at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who were researching negotiation tactics.
“When people are using really instrumental forms of communication, trying to make deals, or get advantage, or take advantage over other people, what strategies do they use? Do they lie? Do they tell partial truths? Do they admit important facts?” Mercieca says.
The researchers found that negotiators do all of these things, as well as something they call paltering, in which you tell the truth but not the whole truth. The BBC gives this example of paltering: your mom asks if your homework is completed, and you reply that you just finished an essay on Tennessee Williams. The latter fact is true, but it doesn’t answer the question. You may very well have more homework left to do.
“It’s not new, by any means. But it is something that has recently become a term just to understand what people do,” Mercieca says. “It’s like when you say something that has a little bit of truth to it, that can be checked out in some ways.”
Take Politifact, a segment that appears every Wednesday on Texas Standard. In Politifact, politicians’ statements are rated on a scale that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire”, with levels including “Half True” and “Mostly True” in between.
“They are oftentimes identifying when people are paltering,” Mercieca says.
For example, Mercieca refers to a Politifact post in which a user with the handle “Activist Mommy” wrote: “Breaking! Roy Moore’s accuser worked for Democratic leaders and is actively campaigning for Moore’s opponent.” Politifact found the claim to be “Mostly False”.
“They said that the woman who is the accuser attended events for the Democratic Party as an American Sign Language interpreter. So it is true that she was there. Right? That’s true. But it’s a lie to say that her being there means that she supports the Democratic Party,” Mercieca says. “And so it’s a palter. It’s partially true, but it’s so misleading to focus on that fact, as opposed to the whole truth, that it’s a lie.”
Fighting paltering is not as easy as the Politifact truth-o-meter makes it seem, according to Mercieca, who teaches a fact-checking workshop at Texas A&M. She says that much of fact-checking is context-dependent and that it’s hard to judge the “level” of truth in a statement without background knowledge that may not be immediately available.
“I think that’s part of the interest in this story from the negotiation perspective,” Mercieca says. “If you’re trying to negotiate with someone, you’re trying to understand whether they’re telling you the truth. It’s really hard in the moment to know, particularly when it does resonate, it does seem partially true.”
The term “paltering” may make this determination a little easier. According to the BBC article on the term, by defining a concept we become, at least, a little more aware of it.
Written by Kate Groetzinger.