Hiding misinformation in meanings


It is hard to spread misinformation, because information spreads too, and they eventually run into each other and explode.

If a person wants to lie then, they can be better off to make words correspond to different things for different people, so that even when people hear the information it sounds the same as the misinformation.

For instance, suppose you buy tea in Alphaland and sell it in Betaland. As a dishonest businessperson, you would like it if the people in Alphaland believed tea was cheaper that people in Betaland believed it was. However if there are two different verbal sentences kicking around about the price of tea, they will eventually run into each other, because sentences can spread fast.

A different solution is to corner the market for tea weighing devices in at least one nation. Then make them all give slightly biased readouts. Now tea costs the same amount per pound in the two places, but you just sell more pounds than you buy. The information and the misinformation both sound like “tea costs $10/lb”. Tea measuring devices cross the sea slower than words, so this might be more sustainable.

Relatedly, if you wanted to not have your children informed about Santa Claus, you might just call him something else—e.g. Joulupukki—in your home. If you want, you can tell them there is a probable faker called Santa Clause and it is a matter of controversy whether he is the real deal like Joulupukki. Because words refer to unusual things, the information—‘Santa Clause isn’t real’—sounds just like your misinformation.

This can really only work if people are sufficiently isolated that the differences in meanings don’t become obvious, but that sometimes happens.


I’m not much in favor of misinformation. But one time I was young and desperate and I did something like this.

From when I was a young teenager I was substantially in charge of raising my three younger brothers, and (because I was not a good necromancer) I had to keep the violence within certain limits.

First (I think) I tried to be nice. I sat down and talked to them about what had happened, and if someone had clearly been vicious, I sent him to his room or something. But it seemed that only punishing people who are clearly guilty leads to not-very-conscionable levels of violence to innocent children.

I pondered justice and mercy. I construed the situation game theoretically. I experimented with different rules and punishment regimes. The children bit themselves just to spite each other (I think).

I gave up on figuring out guilt, and tried just sending everyone to their room for every fight. They started fights just to see the innocent victim punished. They also destroyed parts of the house and its contents if they were annoyed about being sent to their rooms unjustifiedly, so sending people to their rooms was kind of costly.

I wondered whether children are oblivious to incentives, or just wisely refuse to negotiate with authorities, forcing the authorities to give up. But I couldn’t really give up, because I didn’t have any other options (I was a step ahead in the not negotiating, as the children might have realized if they had read Schelling).

This all took up a lot of the time that I wasn’t at school, if I recall. Every time I would sit down to read a book or something, I would be interrupted by shrieking. I really don’t like shrieking. At this point, I don’t even like the sound of joyful childish laughter, I think because I associate it with joyful childish unapologetic cruelty and hatred. But furthermore, I don’t like being interrupted every five minutes to have a big argument with some children. So I really didn’t like this situation.

My brothers were ‘meant to’ go to bed in the evening. If I started encouraging them to go to bed at about 10pm, that gave the four of us enough time to argue about whether they should or not for three hours before an adult came home and became angry about how the children weren’t in bed. At which point my brothers would go to bed, because the adults were bigger and more exhausted and more authoritative than me.

At some point I realized I had been thinking about things all wrong. All peace really required was for my brothers to believe that it was almost 1am. And my brothers’ beliefs about what time it was were almost entirely dependent on seven or so clocks. And clocks have little dials on the back of them that you can turn around to change where their hands are.

It was somewhat complicated, because there were a bunch of external signs about what time it was. For instance, school would end at 3pm or so. So it had to be 3.30 or so when the children returned home. After that I would gradually change all seven or so visible clocks in the house forward half an hour or an hour at a time, several times through the afternoon and evening. Then by about 8pm it would be past midnight, and the children would hurry off to bed before any adults came home. Then I would get hours (!!!) of solitude (!!!) and peace (!!!)

This was somewhat complicated by the TV schedule, which I said must have been printed for a state in a different time zone with somewhat different programming.

It was also complicated by me messing up one time, and my brother noticing that it was still light at midnight. But a conspiracy didn’t occur to him, and he dismissed it as ‘funny weather today’.

Ultimately the entire scheme was short lived, but only ended by my mother and stepfather objecting to it. My brothers didn’t suspect until I told them about it later.

So, that’s another example. I sometimes wonder if there is more of this kind of thing in the world.

4 responses to “Hiding misinformation in meanings

  1. michealvassar

    Fascinating story. I’d like to know more about that experience, and about what it’s a metaphor for.

  2. My moral intuition says messing with the clocks like that is Wrong, but also it seems like one of your better options given the scenario. So I mostly hope that your parents had a good reason for putting you in that position.

  3. As I was reading section I, I was thinking, “This is really abstract. Is there a real-world situation it would apply in outside of an SF novel?” So I was surprised and interested by section II. (And I felt impressed by young Katja but also pretty sorry for her. Sounds like you had a tough childhood.)

    (FYI, I tried to leave this comment signed in with my Google account but I got “ERROR: please fill the required fields (name, email).” — fields which disappeared once I signed in with my Google account.)

  4. There’s a bit in Seeing Like A State that’s a bit like your tea example. Summary: https://www.jefftk.com/p/variable-measurement-units-and-flexibility


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