Honoré Daumier - Intermission at the Comédie Française
Intermission at the Comédie Française by Honoré Daumier, 1858. Photo credit: Honoré Daumier / Wikimedia

A quaint tale of manipulators being manipulated.

At a time when the American public seems to be more ignorant than ever, the tools of deception have become more sophisticated.

We live in an age of scams that trick the senses. Photos can be altered, films and videos can be manipulated to an exquisite degree of realism. Malware can add images of nonexistent cancerous lymph nodes to CT scans. Artificial intelligence can generate photorealistic images of people who do not even exist. Videos appear to show someone saying things in a speech they never said. Voice simulators can fool your nearest relative into thinking that’s you on the phone asking for $500 to spring you from a Turkish prison.

And then there are the sophisticated tools of psychological manipulation.The human sock puppets. The trolls who control the internet. The CIA, with its department of perception management and its assets in the media. The unlimited supply of bribable witnesses who will swear to anything. And those who manufacture scandals, like the conservative activists who tried to frame presidential candidate Peter Buttigieg for sexual assault. The paid audiences, like those for hire from companies such as Crowds on Demand, who surround politicians with canned adoration. The manufacturers of false claims that genuine protesters — even children who survived mass shootings — are just paid actors.

All of this chicanery has three main effects:

First, much of it does the job it was intended to do, fooling all kinds of people, from rubes to rascals.

Second, knowledge that such things go on makes it easier to believe what you want. Tell me nice things about your candidate, and I can say that’s fake. Tell me bad things about mine and, again, I can say that’s fake.

Third, and this is the most disturbing of all, those who are savvy about these fancy tools are actually ignorant in their own way — because they often don’t know the truth when they see it.

Young Holocaust skeptics are an extreme example. They have fallen under the spell of Holocaust-deniers who seem credible to them because some have, or appear to have,  advanced academic degrees. The skeptics I’m referring to are the earnest ones, not anti-Semites who want to create a memory hole. I mean young people who honestly have trouble accepting as true what most other people know is true, but so horrible they call it “unbelievable.” Such a person recently challenged me to explain how I could believe such a thing. I did not know where to begin.

He knew he could not depend on his eyes and ears when presented with that gut-wrenching  evidence we’ve all seen. Although I knew he was not typical, I was still bothered with my inability to explain why I thought I knew something he didn’t. Does truth have a distinct smell? Does he lack that sense of smell?

Earlier generations grew up learning about these horrors from people they trusted. Soldiers returning from the war. A grim-faced president and his generals. A media they believed in, like their local newspapers; Life magazine; the gritty black-and-white documentaries shown on TV and in movie theaters; a somber-faced Edward R. Murrow, cigarette in hand, looking deeply into the camera, surrounded by smoke that somehow seemed related to what he was reporting.

Even though there have always been scams, the high-tech ones really bother me. So I like to look back on the quaint, low-tech tools of yesterday’s conmen. My favorite story on this came from an African student in Russia.

In August of 1968, I went there with my husband, who had been invited to a UN-sponsored economics conference. While he worked to solve the world’s problems, I wandered about on my own. I had only one spy on my tail, as far as I knew. He was a fat, sweating fellow who was always out of breath, even when I walked at a leisurely pace.

On one occasion, I turned around abruptly, walked up to him, and demanded to know why he was following me. He insisted that he would never do such a thing. Then he said he was following me for my own protection. Then he said he would certainly never follow anyone.

One day I managed to lose him and made my way to the University of Moscow. There I came upon a group of African students lounging around in front of the school. They had been laughing hysterically about something, and, except for a random spasm, were just recovering when I arrived.

I sat on a bench nearby, and soon one of them joined me. After we had become friendly, he told me a tale about the Russians, one that explains why his comrades were in such hysterics.

He said his country was full of Russians, who were pretending to be there to help — but were really there to get their hands on a particular resource, I forget which one, but it was supposed to be in a cave. And the Africans didn’t want to show it to them.

So the Russian spy service — the KGB — came up with a plan that involved exploiting this tribe’s ancestor worship. The tribe kept generations of skulls on shelves so that, from time to time, they could consult them for their advice. They would go into a drug-induced trance to better hear the voices of the skulls.

When the KGB learned of this, they rigged a skull with a tiny microphone and, at the right time, had the skull tell those Africans that “they should help their brother Russians in every way they can.” But the KGB goofed. The piped-in voice spoke in Swahili, a lingua franca in Africa — instead of in the language of the tribe. No way would the skull speak in that language.

And the skull spoke it with a broad Russian accent.

From what I could tell, the Africans seemed to have been taking turns imitating it. But what got the Africans giggling the most was how the tribe responded. They did not let on that they knew what was going on. Instead, the next day, they were all smiles, and most anxious to please their Russian brothers — and promised to show them where they might find that natural resource. They led them to a cave full of bat guano, which they themselves were supposed to clean out, but didn’t feel like it.

I was never able to confirm this story.

Related Stories:

Lies, Liars, and Lying

Are You a Skeptic?

Great Quotations on Secrets

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Sailko / Honoré Daumier / Wikimedia.


  • Milicent Cranor

    Milicent Cranor is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy. She has worked as a creative editor at E.P. Dutton, a comedy ghostwriter, and editor of consequential legal and scientific documents. She has also co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals.

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