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David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Lies, lies, lies.

It was one thing when American politicians made assertions that were palpably untrue: Barack Obama arguing in defiance of the fine print of his own proposal that patients were guaranteed to keep their own doctors under Obamacare; Donald Trump insisting against all evidence that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever.

But it is quite another for the country to be bombarded from abroad by falsehoods in the weeks leading up to vital midterm congressional elections.

Revelations about a new Russian disinformation offensive through social media jolt the very foundation of American civic life, coming as they do amid growing concerns over how to evaluate the truth in politics, the media, even everyday life. The crisis of the truth is so profound that courses on media literacy are offered across the continent, from the University of British Columbia to the University of Pittsburgh.

Indeed, determining the truth is the most ancient question of all, haunting scholars and theologians for centuries, a challenge potent and resilient enough to have tortured Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bertrand Russell, the Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – and the international inspectors who searched for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It prompted Shakespeare, in Othello, to assign to Emilia the task of asserting, “I must needs report the truth.” It prompted Gilbert and Sullivan, in H.M.S. Pinafore, to have Buttercup sing, “Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream.”

Questions about what is true and what is false – now at the heart of claims being made about American political figures in midterm congressional contests – have defined, and changed, history. The course of world events has been turned by issues involving distortions of the truth, outright untruths and episodes where the truth was truly unknown.

It all may have begun with the Genesis episode where Jacob won the blessing of the blind Isaac by deceiving his aged father, putting an animal skin on his hand so Isaac thought he was dealing with Esau.

Like political figures everywhere, the leaders of the United States often had a casual relationship with the truth, so much so that Lyndon Johnson’s comments about the Vietnam War prompted the phrase “credibility gap” and Richard Nixon’s lies about his involvement in Watergate led to his resignation. This is all without detailing the misleading or false claims Mr. Trump has repeatedly made as President – more than 5,000 by the count of The Washington Post, including 125 in a 120-minute period on Sept. 7, almost certainly a North American record.

We now know, of course, that, contrary to the claims of Otto von Bismarck, an 1870 episode involving a casual encounter between Kaiser Wilhelm I and the French ambassador to Prussia didn’t really include unreasonable French demands and threats that were enlisted as justifications for the Franco-Prussian War. We now know that, contrary to his finger-wagging “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Bill Clinton did have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a fact that led to only the second presidential impeachment in American history.

Now Americans – already jaded by the ideological tint of much of the news and confused by what is true and what is false on the web and in social media – are confronted by reports that Russians are interfering in the midterms through social media posts designed, among other things, to undermine the Robert Mueller investigation examining ties between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russian operatives. Not that the United States hasn’t used falsehoods in its dealings with Russia in the past; documents in the archives of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum clearly set out the lurid internal discussions leading to the 34th president’s fabrication that a U-2 aircraft downed over the Soviet Union in 1960 was a weather plane rather than part of a CIA espionage operation – a lie that added a new chill to the Cold War and that the Soviets easily, and happily, unmasked.

This new Russian disinformation offensive has been described as “information warfare.” In truth, false information has always been part of warfare. It was employed, for example, by the Second World War Allies in 1944 to convince Nazi Germany that the D-Day invasion would be at Calais rather than at Normandy, a ploy that included phony inflatable tanks, deceptive road-building and distracting troop movements. “In wartime,” Winston Churchill said, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” In wartime, perhaps. In peacetime elections, never.

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