11 of the Biggest Lies in History

By: Alia Hoyt & Jane McGrath  | 
Young George Washington tells his father he chopped down the cherry tree
Young George Washington tells his father he chopped down the cherry tree in this illustration, an incident experts say never happened. Betttman/Getty Images

According to legend, a young George Washington confessed to cutting down a cherry tree by proclaiming to his father, "I cannot tell a lie." His father embraced him for telling the truth and declared that honesty was more valuable than a thousand trees. The story is testament to how much respect Americans have for their cherished first president and honesty in general, even though, ironically, the story is not true. (It was invented by one Washington's first biographers after Washington's death.) Still by most accounts, it appears that Washington was a man of high moral character. Unfortunately, in the annals of history, it seems there are 10 dishonest scoundrels for every honorable hero like Washington.

Supposedly, the truth can set you free. But for many, deceit holds the key to money, fame, revenge or power, and these prove all too tempting. In history, this has often resulted in elaborate hoaxes, perjuries and forgeries that had enormous ripple effects.

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In the following pages, we'll go over some of the most colossal and significant lies in history. Although such a list can't be comprehensive, we sought to include a variety of lies that influenced politics, science and even art. As a result of these, lives were lost, life savings destroyed, legitimate research hampered and — most of all — faith in our fellow man shattered.

Without further ado, let's delve into one of the oldest and most successful lies on record.

11: The Trojan Horse

Trojan horse
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts is the lesson from the story of the Trojan horse. ilbusca/Getty Images

If all is fair in love and war, this might be the most forgivable of the big lies. When the Trojan Paris absconded with Helen, wife of the Spartan king, war exploded. It had been raging for 10 long years when the Trojans believed they had finally overcome the Greeks. Little did they know, the Greeks had another trick up their sleeves.

In a stroke of genius, the Greeks built an enormous wooden horse with a hollow belly in which men could hide. After the Greeks convinced their foes that this structure was a peace offering, the Trojans happily accepted it and brought the horse within their fortified city. That night, as the Trojans slept, Greeks hidden inside snuck out the trapdoor. Then, they proceeded to slaughter and decisively defeat the Trojans [source: Pickles].

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This was unquestionably one of the biggest and most successful tricks known to history — that is, if it's true. Homer alludes to the occurrence in "Odyssey," and Virgil extrapolates the story in "The Aeneid." Evidence suggests that Troy itself existed, giving some validity to Homer's tales, and scholars have long been investigating how historically accurate these details are. One theory behind the Trojan horse comes from historian Michael Wood, who proposes that it was merely a battering ram in the shape of a horse that infiltrated the city [source: PBS]. Another theory is that battering rams were covered up with damp horse hides. This kept them from catching fire if the enemy tried to do so [source: Pickles].

In any case, the story has won a permanent place in the Western imagination as a warning to beware of enemies bearing gifts.

10: Han van Meegeren's Vermeer Forgeries

paintings by Han van Meegeren
A visitor looks at paintings by Han van Meegeren May 11, 2010, in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. Seven decades after duping the art world into embracing a fake as "the masterpiece" of Johannes Vermeer, its creator now has his own exhibition in a Dutch museum he once conned out of a small fortune. ROBIN UTRECHT/AFP via Getty Images

This lie resulted from a classic case of wanting to please the critics. Han van Meegeren was an artist who felt underappreciated and thought he could trick art experts into admitting his genius.

In the early 20th century, scholars were squabbling about whether the great Vermeer had painted a series of works depicting biblical scenes. Van Meegeren pounced on this opportunity and set to work carefully forging one such disputed work, "The Disciples at Emmaus." With tireless attention to detail, he faked the cracks and aged hardness of a centuries-old painting. He intentionally played on the confirmation bias of critics who wanted to believe that Vermeer painted these scenes.

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It worked: Experts hailed the painting as authentic, and van Meegeren made out like a bandit producing and selling more fake Vermeers. Greed apparently overcame his desire for praise, as he decided not to out himself. In fact, he "earned" the equivalent of $30 million via the fraudulent paintings [source: NPR].

However, van Meegeren, who was working in the 1930s and '40s, made one major mistake. He sold a painting to a prominent member of the Nazi party in Germany. After the war, Allies considered him a conspirator for selling a "national treasure" to the enemy [source: Janson]. In a curious change of events, van Meegeren had to paint for his freedom. In order to help prove that the painting was no national treasure, he forged another in the presence of authorities [source: Holzwarth].

He escaped with a light sentence of one year in prison, but van Meegeren died of a heart attack two months after his trial.

9: Bernie Madoff's Ponzi Scheme

Bernie Madoff
Accused $50 billion Ponzi scheme swindler Bernie Madoff exits federal court March 10, 2009, in New York City. Madoff was attending a hearing on his legal representation. Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Bernie Madoff admitted that his investment firm was "just one big lie," it was a huge understatement. In 2008, he confessed to having conned about $50 billion from investors who trusted him with their savings. Madoff used the formula of a Ponzi scheme to keep up the fraud for more than a decade [source: Pressler].

This classic lie is named after the notorious Charles Ponzi, who used the ploy in the early 20th century. It works like this: A schemer promises investors great returns, but instead of investing the money, he keeps some for himself and uses the funds from new investments to pay off earlier investors.

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Madoff may not have invented this lie, but he took it to new lengths. For one, he made a record amount of money from the scheme. But he was also able to keep it going much longer than most Ponzi schemers. Usually, the scam falls apart quickly because it requires the schemer to constantly find more and more investors. But Madoff, whose clients got returns of over 10 percent regardless of the stock market's performance, was able to keep it going longer by encouraging them to reinvest their "profits" with him. Eventually, though, the investors did start requesting their money back in greater amounts (we're talking millions) than he could give.

This was an especially shocking lie because Madoff, as a past chairman of the board of NASDAQ, had been an accomplished and respected expert in the financial field. Compare this to Charles Ponzi, who was a petty ex-con by the time he launched his scheme. In any case, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison and died at 82 after serving 11 years [source: Yang and Kay].

8: Andrew Wakefield's 'Study' on Vaccines and Autism

Andrew Wakefield
Disgraced MMR vaccine research doctor Andrew Wakefield (L) makes a statement at the General Medical Council headquarters in London. Anthony Devlin/PA Images via Getty Images

In 1998, the respected medical journal Lancet published an article by British physician Andrew Wakefield, in which he linked autism with the commonly given measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The study received wide publicity even though the research was based on an incredibly small, selective sample size of 12 children. There were also serious ethical issues, such as the fact that Wakefield (who later lost his medical license) didn't get the necessary clearances to work with/examine the child subjects and even falsified the data he included [source: Rao and Andrade]. Ultimately, Lancet retracted the paper, leaving Wakefield in a cloud of shame.

But the damage was already done. In the years that followed publication of the study, childhood vaccination rates dropped below 50 percent in some parts of the U.K., although they rebounded by 2013 to 90 percent. During that 15-year period, U.K. residents experienced more than 10,000 preventable cases of measles, plenty of which came with long-term effects and hospitalizations [sources: BBC, Shute]. In the U.S., measles, which had been declared eradicated in 2000, made a comeback, with more than 2,000 cases in the last 20 years [source: Quick and Larson].

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7: The Tobacco Industry on Cigarette Smoking

surgeon general's warning on smoking
Dr. Daniel Horn, director of National Clearing House for Smoking and Health, holds three packages of cigarettes bearing new warning labels that must be on all packages after Jan. 1, 1966. The label reads: "Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health." Cigarette companies continued to deny that cigarette smoking was dangerous for another 30 years. Bettmann/Getty Images

Blame the cigarette industry for some of the biggest whoppers ever told. We know that cigarettes are both extremely addictive and unhealthy, even deadly. The U.S. Surgeon General issued a report about the dangers of cigarette smoking as far back as 1964. But manufacturers claimed exactly the opposite for decades! These lies weren't even relegated to the 1950s, either. As recently as 1994, James W. Johnson of R.J. Reynolds said, "Cigarette smoking is no more 'addictive' than coffee, tea or Twinkies" [source: Nilsson]. That, of course, is utter nonsense. In fact, cigarettes are addictive on the same scale as cocaine, alcohol and opioids [source: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health].

In fact, the industry was fully aware that nicotine is addictive, as research repeatedly showed, but continued to deny it. The CEO of Philip Morris likened them to Gummi Bears, rather than hard drugs. Also, cigarette company leaders repeatedly denied that there was any health risk to smokers and those who inhale secondhand smoke [source: Truth Initiative].

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Today, of course, it is widely accepted based on decades of research that both first and secondhand smoke are severely detrimental, and that nicotine is highly addictive. In fact, smoking is now known to harm just about every organ in the body, and leads to cancer, emphysema, heart disease and so on. Cigarette smoking causes one out of every five deaths in the U.S. or more than 480,000 deaths each year, including from secondhand smoke [source: CDC].

On the plus side, in 1998, the four largest tobacco companies (after being sued by most U.S. states) reached a settlement where they agreed to pay $206 billion over 25 years to help defray the medical costs of smoking-related illnesses [source: Nilsson].

6: Piltdown Man

Piltdown man
Model of the skull of Piltdown man as reconstructed by Dr. Smith Woodward. Dark areas are from the original fossil, the light are the restored areas. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

After Charles Darwin published his revolutionary "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, scientists scrambled to find fossil evidence of extinct human ancestors. They sought these so-called "missing links" to fill in the gaps on the timeline of human evolution. When archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed what he thought was a missing link in 1910, what he really found was one of the biggest hoaxes in history.

The discovery was the Piltdown man, pieces of a skull and jaw with molars located in the Piltdown quarry in Sussex, England. Dawson brought his discovery to prominent paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, who touted its authenticity to his dying day.

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Although the discovery gained world renown, the lie behind Piltdown man slowly and steadily unraveled. In the ensuing decades, other major discoveries suggested Piltdown man didn't fit in the story of human evolution. Eventually, it was determined that the bones were only 50,000 years old, rather than 500,000 and that they came from both human and ape species, most likely an orangutan [source: Natural History Museum]. Some knowledgeable person apparently manipulated these pieces, including filing down and staining the teeth.

The scientific world had been duped. So, who was behind the fraud? Many suspects have surfaced, including Martin A. C. Hinton, a museum volunteer at the time of the discovery. A trunk bearing his initials contained bones that were stained in exactly the same way the Piltdown fossils were. Perhaps he was out to embarrass his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who refused to give him a weekly salary. However, most experts believe today that Dawson was behind the dupe, though some think he had assistance [source: Szalay].

5: The Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus
French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus (R) appears before the Council of War at Rennes, 1898. Bettmann/Getty Images

This scandal was built on a lie that dramatically affected national politics and was perpetuated for years by hatred. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French Army in the late 19th century when he was accused of a treasonous crime: selling military secrets to Germany.

After his highly publicized trial, authorities sentenced him to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, and anti-Semitic groups used him as an example of unpatriotic Jews. However, suspicions arose that the incriminating letters were in fact forged and that a Maj. Esterhazy was the real culprit. When French authorities suppressed these accusations, the novelist Emile Zola stepped up to accuse the army of a vast cover-up.

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The scandal exploded into a fight between so-called Dreyfusards, who wanted to see the case reopened, and anti-Dreyfusards, who didn't. On both sides, the debate became less about Dreyfus' innocence and more about the principle. During the dramatic 12-year controversy, many violent anti-Semitic riots broke out and political allegiances shifted as Dreyfusards called for reform.

After Maj. Hubert Joseph Henry admitted to forging key documents and committed suicide, a newly elected Cabinet finally reopened the case. The court found Dreyfus guilty again; however, he soon received a pardon from the president. A few years later, a civilian court of appeals found Dreyfus innocent, and he went on to have a distinguished army career and fought with honor in World War I. Meanwhile, the scandal had changed the face of politics in France [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

4: Clinton/Lewinsky Affair

Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton addresses reporters concerning an alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton vehemently denied the allegations and said he never told anyone to lie. JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP via Getty Images

In January 1998, citizen journalist Matt Drudge reported a sensational story that turned out to be true. The president of the United States, Bill Clinton, had an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. As suspicions mounted, Clinton publicly denied the allegations. As if this lie weren't big enough, it turned out that Clinton had lied under oath about the affair as well — which was perjury and grounds for impeachment.

Here's how the truth came out. Paula Jones was an Arkansas state employee when then-Gov. Clinton allegedly propositioned her. She later sued him for sexual harassment. In an effort to prove that Clinton had a pattern of such behavior, lawyers set out to expose his sexual affairs. They found Linda Tripp, a former White House secretary and confidant of Lewinsky. Tripp recorded telephone conversations in which Lewinsky talked of her affair with Clinton. Lawyers then probed Clinton with specific questions and cornered him into denying the affair under oath.

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During the highly publicized scandal, prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed Clinton, who finally admitted to the relationship. Based on Starr's report, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton for not only perjury but also obstruction of justice. Despite the scandal, Clinton maintained relatively high approval ratings from the American public, and the Senate acquitted him of the charges. However, in the eyes of many Americans, his legacy remained tarnished [source: CNN].

3: Watergate

Richard Nixon, David Eisenhower
Richard Nixon gives the thumbs-up after his resignation as 37th president of the United States. His son-in-law David Eisenhower is with him as he says goodbye to his staff at the White House. Gene Forte/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

Two decades before the Clinton scandal, another U.S. president was caught in a web of lies, and the controversy had devastating effects on the country as a whole.

In the summer before President Richard Nixon's successful reelection to a second term, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, housed in the Watergate Hotel. As details emerged over the next year, it became clear that officials close to Nixon gave the orders to the burglars, perhaps to plant wiretaps on the phones there. The question soon became about whether Nixon knew of, covered up or even ordered the break-in.

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In response to mounting suspicions, Nixon denied allegations that he knew anything. In front of 400 Associated Press editors, he famously proclaimed, "I am not a crook." He was talking about whether he had ever profited from public service, but that one quote came to represent his entire political career.

It was a lie that came back to haunt him. When it was revealed that private White House conversations about the matter were recorded, the investigative committee subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon's refusal on the basis of "executive privilege" brought the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that he had to relinquish the tapes.

The tapes were exactly the smoking gun needed to implicate Nixon in the cover-up of the scandal. They revealed that he obviously knew more about the matter than he claimed. Upon the initiation of impeachment proceedings, Nixon gave up and resigned from office. The scandal left a lasting scar on the American political scene and helped usher Washington outsider Jimmy Carter into the presidency a few years later [source: History].

One legacy of Watergate is that Americans began to distrust their political leaders far more than before. "In the wake of Watergate, the American people have come to believe that there is simply no such thing as an honest politician," wrote political commentators Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan in 2017. "Voters have become inured to politicians' lies — so much so that they routinely overlook scandals that would have made Nixon blush."

2: Donald Trump and the 2020 Election

Donald Trump, Stop the Steal
President Donald Trump speaks at the "Stop The Steal" Rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's electoral college victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Donald Trump was arguably the most polarizing president in U.S. history, and his reelection campaign was no exception. In 2020, Democrat Sen. Joe Biden defeated the incumbent Republican to take control of the White House, a result that Trump refused to believe happened honestly.

Since losing the election Trump has repeatedly made claims of voter fraud, thus encouraging his die-hard supporters to believe the same thing. In fact, more than a year after the election, 68 percent of Republicans still believed that the election had been "stolen" from Trump. The more devout the Republican, the more likely they were to think that the race was rigged. But blindness is a bipartisan issue: One 2020 poll showed that 45 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats believed that, "if my preferred candidate does not win the presidential election" it's somewhat or very likely that "election fraud will have been involved" [source: Byler].

However, the heavily investigated claims of voter fraud were never validated. Reporters from The Associated Press investigated the claims in the six states in which Trump challenged election results. Although they did find about 475 potential voter fraud instances, those are nowhere near enough to make a difference in context with greater than 25 million total votes [source: Woodruff].

Even so, Trump's claims of voter fraud inflamed some of his supporters, culminating in the 2021 Capitol Riots in which hundreds of people stormed the Capitol building trying to stop the certification of Biden's election victory [source: Wise]. Lawmakers had to be rushed to safety, and many Americans feared for the future of their country's democracy.

1: The Big Lie: Nazi Propaganda

Hitler
Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany, is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. He is considered the unofficial author of the Big Lie. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the time Nazism arose in Germany in the 1930s, anti-Semitism was nothing new — not by a long shot. The Jewish people had suffered a long history of prejudice and persecution. And although Nazis perpetuated centuries-old lies, this time those lies would have their most devastating effects. Like never before, anti-Semitism was manifested in a sweeping national policy known as "the Final Solution," which sought to eliminate Jews from the face of the Earth [source: Holocaust Encyclopedia].

To accomplish this, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, launched a massive campaign to convince the German people that the Jews were their enemies. Having taken over the press, they spread lies blaming Jews for all of Germany's problems, including the loss of World War I. One outrageous lie, known today as "blood libel," dating back to the Middle Ages claimed that Jews engaged in the ritual killings of Christian children and used their blood in the unleavened bread eaten at Passover [source: Holocaust Encyclopedia].

Using Jews as the scapegoat, Hitler and his cronies orchestrated what they called "the Big Lie." This theory states that no matter how big the lie is (or more precisely, because it's so big), people will believe it if you repeat it enough. Everyone tells small lies, but few have the guts to tell colossal lies. Because a big lie is so unlikely, people will come to accept it. Although the Big Lie is often attributed to being coined by Hitler and Goebbels, there isn't evidence that they actually wrote that this was their strategy. In fact, both men wrote that their enemies (the Jews and the British) used this tactic. Nevertheless, the Nazis certainly practiced the Big Lie [source: Jewish Virtual Library].

“No salvation is possible until the bearer of disunion, the Jew, has been rendered powerless to harm," Hitler said to his followers in 1922. The end result was that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews and 5 million other prisoners of war, Roma, gay men and members of other groups Hitler deemed "undesirable" [source: National WWII Museum].

The Big Lie theory helps us understand so many of the lies throughout history. Although we've barely scratched the surface of all those lies that deserve (dis)honorable mentions, you can satiate your historical curiosity by browsing the lists on the next page.

Originally Published: Mar 16, 2009

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