Propaganda Prop # 15: The Proof Pretense

Once upon a time, I decided to dispose of a few collectible items I had stashed away, including quite a few comic books, by selling them on eBay. In short order, I established a solid reputation as a top-notch vendor with several glowing reviews commending my quality merchandise, low prices, and reliable shipping. That all was shot to hell by a single negative review from a buyer who, for reasons I can’t fathom, was either regretful of purchasing a comic book from me or just wanted for some reason to trash my reputation. In any case, he claimed that the item I sold him had damage that substantially lowered its value, implying that this may have been because my “packaging was haphazard at best” (quite false). What I found most interesting, however, is that just for good measure, he added “PHOTOS FOR PROOF”. He probably didn’t realize it, but he was employing a seldom-discussed but often-utilized propaganda technique, which we’ll call the proof pretense.

As the name implies, the proof pretense consists of asserting that you have proof of something when you really don’t. The objective is to make such a claim so frequently, so forcefully and/ or so earnestly that people become convinced you really mean it — even if the real evidence says otherwise. It comes in five varieties; let’s call them ghost proof, dummy proof, shadow proof, mirror proof and ether proof.

The Ghost

Ghost proof is simply professing to have proof and then presenting no semblance of it — the comic buyer didn’t post a single photo of the ones he declared he had, he just expected his statement in ALL CAPS to suffice. Although you may be more likely to encounter the other four varieties in political discourse, you’ll also hear plenty of ghost proof if you keep your ear to the ground.

One notable example that comes to mind was in the 2008 presidential debates, when John McCain suddenly and irrelevantly blurted to Barack Obama, “Your campaign has been more negative than mine, and I can prove it.” Anyone who’d been paying attention knew that this was not in the same hemisphere as the truth. He just said it hoping that his claim of proof would be enough to convince some people. But he did not, of course, actually serve up his proof, either on that occasion or at any time thereafter.

If you’ve heard anything at all about the My Pillow Guy. you’ve no doubt been hearing for many months now that he has absolute proof that the 2020 election was “stolen”. And by golly, he’s going to deliver it. Any day now. So keep those dollars rolling in.

The Dummy

Sometimes a person will proffer something that is alleged to represent proof, but there is no opportunity to examine it to verify its value. One notorious case was when the arch-fiend Senator McCarthy (not to be confused with the arch-fiend Speaker of the House McCarthy, though the parallels are unsettling) launched his infamous witch hunt when he stood on the floor of the chamber and brandished some paper which he declared listed the names of 205 communists working for the federal government. Needless to say, he did not allow anyone to examine his “list”. And in his subsequent retellings, the exact number of names on it varied wildly, down to as few as ten. The “list” was clearly just a prop, a dummy. But many dummies took him at his word.

The Shadow

Suppose McCarthy had allowed his colleagues or the media to take a peek at that list, and it really did have names on it. It’s an excellent bet that anyone who’d properly investigated any of them would have learned that they actually were not communists at all. This is the essence of shadow proof: misrepresenting the significance of whatever facts you offer.

If the impertinent comic book buyer really had submitted his photos, would that have constituted proof that my service was shoddy? Hardly. There’d be no way to establish that whatever condition the comic was in when he received it was the same condition it was in when I shipped it – or indeed that it was really the same item at all.

This is perhaps the most common proof pretense of them all: presenting what is purported to be evidence, and may have the general outline of evidence, but really has no substance to it. You’ll see this with virtually everything right-wingers offer as proof. It’s particularly cropped up a great deal in all the allegations about election fraud. They show photos of “suitcases of ballots” being “suspiciously” dumped at the polls; those photos turn out to be standard ballot containers, and there is absolutely nothing suspicious about their delivery. They report “dead voters” who turn out to be very much alive. They produce hundreds of affidavits from “witnesses” to fraud. These turn out to be statements from individuals who simply had complaints or suspicions, however groundless. One fellow was suspicious simply because he saw a black person voting.

The Mirror

Mirror proof consists of citing oneself as an authoritative source of information when no such presumption is justified. “Yes, it’s true that California wildfires are caused by Jewish space lasers; here’s a blog post I wrote saying so.”

Sometimes the manipulators camouflage their duplicity by filtering it through an intermediary. During the Iraq fiasco of the Bush years, Dick Cheney covertly got a piece planted in the New York Times that bolstered the administration’s false claims of Iraq possessing WMD’s. Then, in an interview, he alluded to that piece to back up those lies, without mentioning his own complicity in placing the story. (This dovetails with another technique called trading up the chain, which we’ll examine in the future.)

To be sure, there are some folks who have every right to pose as authorities, because they are. I’ve sometimes alluded to Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton, who is perhaps the foremost authority on U.S. history around today, so he’s perfectly entitled to speak with conviction. But even so, it’s not because his “opinion” is more valid or accurate than anyone else’s; it’s because he’s done the research, and can support his statements with a plethora of historical documents. He’s a true expert, not merely a mirror.

The Ether

Strictly speaking, perhaps this one shouldn’t be classified as a proof pretense at all; it’s actually the attitude that no proof is required, because the proposed premise is a given – just as it was once considered a given that the universe was composed of some cosmic substance called ether. And that the earth is flat. And that it’s the center of the universe. And that women have one more rib that men. But while such propositions are often propounded without anyone feeling the need to prove them at the moment, there is generally the underlying implication that they already were proved somehow or other, at some time or other in the past.

Fortunately, some of these tenets have become obsolete and discarded in recent times or the not-too-distant past: e.g., that black people are intrinsically inferior; that females are unsuited for holding public office or casting ballots; and that gays are inherently perverted, and arbitrarily choose their sexual orientation.

But other presumptions, while soundly discredited, still exercise a solid grip on public consciousness, and still are deeply embedded in the social, political and legal fabric: e.g., that guns make us safer; that capital punishment reduces crime; that “illegal” immigrants are a threat; that pandering to the rich is good for the economy; and that religion is necessary to ensure moral conduct.

Another dead belief that refuses to be buried is that the media, and the Internet, systematically suppress “conservative” voices. This blatant lie has been repeated so often, so long, and so loudly that it’s presumed by many to be indisputable; and indeed, anyone who questions it will be ridiculed.

Ether proof is often proclaimed in such a manner as to suggest that the person or persons to whom the claim is addressed are already well aware of its veracity. Former Guy, for instance, had a practice of following up one of his whoppers with something like “I know that, and you know that”. Another tactic is to try to shift the burden of proof to anyone who doubts the claim. One religious website that tried to respond to criticisms of the Bible as being inconsistent and contradictory flatly declared that it was the skeptic, and not the believer, who is making bold claims. And after Former Guy lost the 2020 election and began his campaign of delusional lies about fraud, he insisted that he would not concede until Joe Biden “proved” that he actually got 81 million votes – as if 81 million votes was not, in itself, proof of 81 million votes.

That’s not how elections work. It’s not how skepticism works. And it’s not how proof works. At least not the genuine kind. But the make-believe variety follows its own rules. Which is to say, no rules at all.


  1. I think all of this doublespeak and misinformation exist primarily for one reason, as do many other tactics used by Right Wing Trump supporter. their tactics are being used to discredit virtually everything dems have done or said, which might possibly succeed in discrediting Trump. As most of us know this has been going on since the Clinton vs Trump election and has not stopped (even after Mitch McConnel revealed, on camera that, that Jan 6 was “deliberately provoked by Trump and other powerful people,”–no ifs ands or buts. Then there is Trump’s own AG who was recorded under oath saying that he told Trump that the “Big Steal is bullshit!”

    What is so scary is that you were right to warn readers that there is no possible way to change MAGA people’s minds since they have already drunk the Kool-Aid. And when dems righty protest against the right wing, they have been told that dems project ideas onto Reps? And in the world of their mad choosing they don’t need “no stinking proof” because they know that whatever Trump says, is Gospel truth?

    Lately I have been watching videos on Netflix about Hitler and his rise to power. Many ordinary citizens let it all slide because they did not believe Hitler would go to such horrific extremes, or because other people in his circle would talk him out of taking such rash actions. But soon even non-Jewish citizens feared for their lives, if they said anything at all that disagreed with Hitler and his Nazis.

    In recent years Holocaust survivors have told us that we should never think it can’t happen here, because no matter how safe or unbiased we think the culture around us is. During the 100 years of the 20th century an average of 1 million people died as victims of genocide 1 million per year, and all of this is documented!

    In Rwanda some people even testified that it was as if all the propaganda they could not escape, descended on them like a thick, dark fog that hypnotized them, and even succeeded in persuading them to kill their own neighbors, whom they once were friends with, and whose children even played with their children? I think very dark times are ahead for us all during which, the craziest patients on the ward holds all the Keys.

  2. I could not post this comment before because of being stymied by what happened when I tried to comment through Twitter or the word website. Here it is again because I feel that problem has been solved.

    Great article!! I am currently trying to dispel some lies made by a conservative realty denier who makes bold claims, And then offers his own beliefs or his own words as proof for them. He has begun to try and turn the tables by quibbling and smearing every known negative opinion or fact offered by Dems, and each time I ask him to show me a link he denies my request in a huff and fights over picayune statements that really prove nothing, such as if the sun is really at the center of our solar system, (which of course is a falsehood), because if the orbital tracks left by planets are mapped and examined– revealing that our planet’s path around the sun is elliptical. So I had to counter by citing that the sun’s vast gravitational force keeps the planets revolving around it. He also criticized me by asking who I meant when referring to (The Times)? Well of course there are many journals which include the words “Time,” or “The Times,” on their front pages, but I had to explain that the New York Times is so Iconic that we commonly refer to it as “The Times.” He is denying every real fact I used, and trying to discredit me with every adverse tactics in his troll utility belt?

    Well, of course this guy made me a little angry, which is probably part of his strategy. He deflects and re-deflects ad infinitum. And since Musk took over, Twitter has become a trash heap of misinformation, disinformation and outright lies! But each time I write a satisfying post which defends facts and Reality, he quickly diverts the topic to my character faults or lack intelligence against his (Trump alone) verified knowledge.

    I hate to say so, but Twitter is now a conservative mouthpiece which apparently cherishes any mis, or dis, information it contains, So I am feeling a lot like dropping out of the Mad Hatters Tea Party–too bad, since Twitter once accepted facts from reputable sources, even if those “facts” do not agree with objective facts–unless their Board of Directors approves of such subjective crap!

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