The advancements in information technologies and the proliferation of social media platforms in the past couple of decades have led to the birth of an online milieu where seldom information is put under rigorous analysis of its provenance, objectives and factuality. The lack of space for extensive explanation on social media frequently leads to oversimplified arguments without supporting evidence and based on flawed logic. This is particularly true on platforms like Twitter where brevity is mandated (UoI, 2022). When it comes to the mass media, such as television and newspapers, the situation becomes even more complex if considering their ownership and the intentions of those running those mediums. While the mainstream media appears to be more regulated at first glance due to the employment of trained journalists, fact-checkers, and editors, the so-called post-truth era largely exposed a shift in this mindset, which has been well defined by Al-Rodhan (2017): “an era of boundless virtual communication, where politics thrives on a repudiation of facts and commonsense”. Thus, post-truth politics translates into assertions, which allure to one’s emotions and gut feeling, rather than having any basis on empirical evidence and valid information (Al-Rodhan, 2017). As further argued by Keyes (2004), a post-truth era creates an ethical twilight zone, where the attached stigma to lying is lost, and lies could be told with impunity and with no consequences for one’s reputation. That results in the creation of rumours, disinformation, ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories, which could go viral in short time and give impetus to false realities and serve propaganda purposes (Al-Rodhan, 2017).
This is where discussing and recognizing logical fallacies becomes critical in order to identify disinformation and propaganda. The term logical fallacies was first introduced by Aristotle in his work De Sophisticis Elenchis (e.g. On Sophistical Refutations) (SEP, 2020). While Aristotle and afterwards many other philosophers and scholars have done extensive analysis and breakdown of the concept of a logical fallacy, for the purposes of this paper we will use the following definition: arguments that are based on flawed reasoning, invalid premises or draw wrong conclusions, which ultimately appear convincing as long as the error is not recognized. In some circumstances, logical fallacies are used on purpose to deceive and mislead the audience or reader, while in others, they are committed by mistake owing to the ignorance or the argumentator’s cognitive biases.
In fallacy studies, it is common to distinguish between formal and informal fallacies. An informal fallacy is flawed because of its logical structure as well as its content, while a formal fallacy is found erroneous only because of its structure (Dowden, n.d.). Slippery Slope is an example of an informal fallacy with the following form: Step 1 leads to Step 2. Step 2 then leads to step 3, and so on until we reach a clearly inappropriate step, hence step 1 is not allowed (ibid). This kind of argument relies heavily on the likelihood of progressing from one stage to the next. Thus, the probabilities are based on the substance of the argument, not only on its form (ibid). In contrast, the fallacy of Argument from Ignorance, relies on the premise that if one does not know (or cannot verify) whether a statement is true or false, it must be necessarily false, or necessarily true (depending on the argumentation). Thus, the quality of the argument is based on its content.
Fallacies could be further categorized as deductive or inductive, based on whether the flawed argument is best evaluated by inductive or deductive criteria (ibid). Inductive reasoning uses observation to draw a general principle. In inductive arguments, the conclusions are probable depending on the evidence; in contrast, in deductive reasoning, the conclusions are certain.
While there are hundreds of different fallacies the following section will explore only the major ones. In addition, it will include also appeals to emotion. The attempt to elicit a certain emotion in the reader/audience on behalf of the argumentator in order to persuade the former in the latter’s position is known as an appeal to emotion. For each fallacy and appeal to emotion listed, there will be a definition together with an example that illustrates it.
Definition: the author attacks the opponent personally (the person’s character, actions, etc.) rather than addressing the person’s actual views.
Example: That author has written several books arguing that pornography harms women. But she is just bitter after her last divorce, of course she would say that.
Appeal to fear
Definition: Using scare tactics; emphasizing threats or exaggerating possible dangers.
Example: Losing your vision is a terrible thing. Why take the risk? Why trust your precious eyesight to anyone except Viva Vision?
Appeal to Heaven
Definition: The argumentator claims to know the mind of God (or a higher power), who has allegedly ordered or anointed, supports or approves of one’s own country, standpoint or actions so no further justification is required and no serious challenge is possible.
Example: It is God’s will that our nation kills the infidels.
Appeal to Nature
Definition: Something is claimed to be good because it is perceived as natural, or bad because it is perceived as unnatural.
Example: Homosexuality is bad because it is against the laws of nature.
Appeal to Pity
Definition: Trying to evoke an emotional reaction that will cause the audience to behave sympathetically even if it means disregarding the issue at hand.
Example: I know I missed assignments, but if you fail me, I will lose my financial aid and have to drop out.
Appeal to Status
Definition: The status appeal speaks to individuals who want to identify themselves with a higher class.
Example: Star Line cruise aren’t for run-of-the-mill travelers. Book a cruise to paradise and leave the ordinary behind.
Appeal to Tradition
Definition: The ancient fallacy that a standpoint, situation or action is right, proper and correct simply because it has “always” been that way, because people have “always” thought that way, or because it was that way long ago.
Example: In my country abortion has always been illegal, why suddenly changing this?
Argumentum ad Baculum
Definition: The fallacy of “proving one is right” by threats of violence, terrorism, superior strength or raw military might.
Example: Give up your foolish pride, kneel down and accept our religion today if you don’t want to burn in hell forever and ever.
Argument by repetition or argumentum ad nauseam
Definition: Repeating an argument or a premise repeatedly in place of better supporting evidence.
Example: That movie, “Titanic” deserves the Oscar for best picture. There are other good movies, but not like that one. Others may deserve an honorable mention, but not the Oscar, because “Titanic” deserves the Oscar.
Argument from False Authority
Definition: Relying on claims of expertise when the claimed expert (a) lacks adequate background/credentials in the relevant field, (b) departs in major ways from the consensus in the field, or (c) is biased, e.g., has a personal stake in the outcome.
Example: In an interview on the sidelines of the World Health Organisation Summit, David Beckham argued that playing sport is the best prevention against pancreas cancer.
Argument from Ignorance
Definition: If one does not know (or cannot verify) whether a statement is true or false, it must be necessarily false, or necessarily true (depending on the argumentation).
Example: I’ve never been hit by lightening when standing under a tree, so we’ll be perfectly safe to shelter by this oak now.
Argument from Motives
Definition: The fallacy of declaring a standpoint or argument invalid solely because of the evil, corrupt or questionable motives of the one making the claim. The opposite side of this fallacy is falsely justifying or excusing evil or vicious actions because of the perpetrator’s aparent purity of motives or lack of malice.
Example: Osama Bin Laden wanted us to stop killing Afghan civilians, so we have to keep up the fight!
Definition: Also known as appeal to common belief or appeal to the masses, this fallacy implies that since everybody else is doing something or believing in something, others should do so as well.
Example: Mcdonalds has served 100 billion people in the world. You should try it too.
Definition: Fallacy of logos where A is because of B, and B is because of A. The author goes in a circle by restating the argument or conclusion instead of providing any relevant support.
Example: Copying someone else’s homework is unethical because it’s dishonest.
Definition: The author puts everything into one of two mutually exclusive categories, leaving the impression that there is nothing else and nothing in-between the two positions.
Example: Either finish school or look forward to an unsatisfying life and a low-paying job.
Definition: The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.
Example: I don’t see how you can say you’re an ethical person. It’s so hard to get you to do anything; your work ethic is so bad.
Finish the Job/Just a Job
Definition: Arguing that an action or standpoint may not be questioned or discussed because there is “a job to be done,” or that it is simply “one’s job”, falsely assuming the “job” shall never be questioned.
Example: How can torturers stand to look at themselves in the mirror? But I guess it’s OK because for them it’s just a job like any other, the job that they get paid to do.
Definition: Denying or invalidating a person’s own knowledge and experiences by deliberately twisting or distorting known facts, memories, scenes, events and evidence in order to disorient a vulnerable opponent and to make him or her doubt his/her sanity.
Example: You claim you found me in bed with her? Think again! You’re crazy! You seriously need to see a doctor.
Definition: The conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth.
Example: We can safely dismiss any opinion from person X on economic inequality since he is a millionaire himself.
Guilt by Association
Definition: A variation of the Ad Hominem fallacy. The fallacy of trying to refute or condemn someone’s standpoint, arguments or actions by evoking the negative ethos of those with whom the speaker is identified or of a group, party, religion or race to which he or she belongs or was once associated with.
Example: My opponent for office just received an endorsement from the Republican Party. Is that the sort of person you would want to vote for?
Hypnotic bait and switch
Definition: Stating several uncontroversial true statements in succession, followed by a claim that the arguer wants the audience to accept as true. This is a propaganda technique, but also a fallacy when the audience lends more credibility to the last claim because true statements preceded it.
Example: Is it right that such a small percentage of Americans control the vast majority of wealth? Is it right that you have to work overtime just to make ends meet? Is it right that you can’t even afford to leave the state for vacation? Do you really want to vote for John Smith?
Definition: The soundness of an argument stands or falls based on the identity of the arguer.
Example: In 1862 Abraham Lincoln said he was willing to settle the U.S. Civil War either with or without freeing the slaves if it would preserve the Union, thus conclusively proving that all whites are viciously racist at heart and that African Americans must do for self and never trust any of them, not even those who claim to be allies.
I Wish I Had a Magic Wand
Definition: The fallacy of regretfully (and falsely) proclaiming oneself powerless to change a bad or objectionable situation over which one actually does have power.
Example: What can we do about gas prices? As Secretary of Energy I wish I had a magic wand, but I don’t [shrug] .
McNamara fallacy (also known as: quantitative fallacy)
Definition: When a decision is based solely on quantitative observations (i.e., metrics, hard data, statistics) and all qualitative factors are ignored.
Example: Donald Trump Jr. Tweeted: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
Definition: A fallacy that argues how one’s consistently moral life, good behavior or recent extreme suffering or sacrifice earns him/her the right to commit an immoral act without repercussions, consequences or punishment.
Example: Those who criticize repression and the Gulag in the former USSR forget what extraordinary suffering the Russians went through in World War II and the millions upon millions who died.
Definition: Labeling an opponent with words that have negative connotations in an effort to undermine the opponent’s credibility.
Example: My stand on abortion is the only correct one. To disagree with me would only shows what a pig you really are.
Definition: Offering evidence, reasons or conclusions that have no logical connection to the argument at hand.
Example: A pit bull attacked someone in the news. My neighbour owns a chihuahua. My life is in danger.
Passive Voice Fallacy
Definition: Concealing active human agency behind the curtain of the grammatical passive voice.
Example: Scholar Jackson Katz notes (2017): “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls.”
Definition: Taking a condescending attitude of superiority toward opposing standpoints or toward opponents themselves.
Example: Your argument against the war is so infantile. Try approaching the issue like an adult for a change.
Definition: Form of propaganda and a logical fallacy. A plain folks argument is one in which the speaker presents themselves as an average Joe — a common person who can understand and empathize with a listener’s concerns.
Example: Bill Clinton enjoyed eating at McDonald’s. George Bush Sr. loved going fishing. Ronald Reagan was often photographed chopping wood, and Jimmy Carter presented himself as a humble peanut farmer from Georgia.
Poisoning the well
Definition: Undermining an opponent’s credibility before he or she gets a chance to speak.
Example: The prosecution is going to bring up a series or so-called experts who are getting a lot of money to testify here today.
Post Hoc Argument (also known as False Cause)
Definition: Attributing an imaginary causality to random coincidences, concluding that just because something happens close to, at the same time as, or just after something else, the first thing is caused by the second.
Example: AIDS first emerged as an epidemic back in the very same era when Chinese immigrants moved to the country -that’s too much of a coincidence: It proves that Chinese immigrants caused AIDS!
Definition: The author introduces unrelated, irrelevant information to divert attention from the real issue.
Example: Why should we be concerned with spending money on public health in this state when terrorism threatens all of us?
Definition: The fallacy of deceiving an audience by giving simple answers or bumper-sticker slogans in response to complex questions, especially when appealing to less educated or unsophisticated audiences.
Example: Build, Back, Better!
Definition: A fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity.
Example: The War against Terror is just another chapter in the eternal fight to the death between freedom and absolute evil!
Romantic Rebel (also known as Conspiracy Fallacy)
Definition: Claiming truth or validity for one’s standpoint solely or primarily because one is supposedly standing up heroically to the dominant “orthodoxy“.
Example: Back in the day the scientific establishment thought that the world was flat, that was until Columbus proved them wrong! Now they want you to get vaccinated without disclosing all the diseases these vaccines carry and the money these people make from them!
Sending the Wrong Message
Definition: Attack on a given statement, argument or action, no matter how good, true or necessary, because it will “send the wrong message”.
Example: Convicting prostitutes does absolutely no good against the sexual exploitation and sex trafficking because they’re victims themselves, but we can’t just let them go. People will think we’re okay with it.
Shifting the Burden of Proof
Definition: Challenging an opponent to disprove a claim rather than asking the person making the claim to defend his/her own argument.
Example: So, you admit that massive undetected voter fraud is indeed possible under our current system and could have happened in this country at least in theory, and you can’t produce even the tiniest evidence that it didn’t actually happen! Ha-ha! I rest my case.
Definition: the process of force fitting some current affair into one’s personal, political, or religious agenda to support their argument.
Example: After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, fundamentalist Christian evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson introduced the events to their agenda. They claimed, “civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters bear partial responsibility…because their actions have turned God’s anger against America.” According to Falwell, God allowed “the enemies of America…to give us probably what we deserve.” Robertson agreed. The American Civil Liberties Union has “got to take a lot of blame for this,” said Falwell and Robertson agreed. Federal courts bear part of the blame, too, said Falwell, because they have been “throwing God out of the public square.” Also, “abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked,” said Falwell and Robertson agreed.
Shopping Hungry Fallacy
Definition: Making ill-advised but important decisions (or being prompted, manipulated or forced to “freely” take public or private decisions that may be later regretted but are difficult to reverse) “in the heat of the moment” when under the influence of strong emotions.
Example: Reducing the age of criminal responsibility in the United Kingdom to 10 years old after the killing of James Bulger by two 10-year-old children.
Definition: The author argues that taking one step will inevitably lead to other steps that cannot be stopped until it ends in disaster.
Example: If you allow one person to borrow your car, then everyone will start asking. Eventually someone will wreck it, and then you won’t have a car.
Definition: When someone takes another person’s argument or point, distorts it or exaggerates it in some kind of extreme way, and then attacks the extreme distortion, as if that is really the claim the first person is making.
Example: My boss isn’t willing to increase the number of vacation days we get each year. That means she doesn’t care about our health. It’s wrong not to care about employees’ health. She should be replaced with someone who cares about employees’ health.
Definition: The author goes beyond the support or evidence presented and makes overly broad, all-encompassing statements (“All ______ are _____”).
Example: All Muslim people hold extremist believes.
Definition: The author shifts qualities (good or bad) from one person or issue to another as a way of influencing the reader’s perception of the original person or issue.
Example: He has the bravery of Martin Luther King Jr., that’s why we should nominate him for the award.
Definition: Defending a shaky or false standpoint or excusing one’s own bad action by pointing out that one’s opponent’s acts, ideology or personal character are also open to question, or are perhaps even worse than one’s own.
Example: Sure, we may have tortured prisoners, but we don’t cut off heads like they do!
Definition: The presentation of an issue that makes it seem to have two sides of equal weight or significance, when in fact a consensus or much stronger argument supports just one side.
Example: Scientists argue that the Earth is a sphere, while others believe that it is flat, so evidently there are two sides to the story.
Definition: The fallacy of incorrectly comparing one thing to another in order to draw a false conclusion.
Example: Life is like a box of chocolates.
Where there’s Smoke, there’s Fire
Definition: Ignorantly drawing a snap conclusion and/or taking action without sufficient evidence.
Example: Mr. Police officer, the man sitting over there wears a turban and speaks weird language, he must be a terrorist. You need to do something about that!
While the examples used above are very simplistic and easy to spot, one must bear in mind that in real conversations fallacies are embedded in very long discussion, which makes them difficult to recognize.
Recognizing fallacies and appeals to emotion are important tools in addressing misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories online and offline. They are part of the so-called media literacy and information literacy strategies. Information literacy is defined as the capacity to locate, analyze, organize, utilize, and transmit information in all of its forms, particularly in circumstances requiring decision-making, problem-solving, or knowledge acquisition (Skyline College, n.d.). It entails a mix of research, critical thinking, computer technology, and communication abilities (ibid). Media literacy, on the other hand, stands for the ability to identify different types of media and assess them critically and analytically vis-à-vis the message they are aiming to convey and their authenticity. As argued by Hobbs (2010), digital and media literacy encompasses “the full range of cognitive, emotional, and social competencies that include the use of text, tools and technologies; the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the practice of messaging composition and creativity; the ability to engage in reflection and ethical thinking; as well as active participation through teamwork and collaboration” (p.17).
Critical social media and mainstream media content analysis should be given greater emphasis in order to increase young people’s cognitive defense mechanisms against misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and propaganda. Recognizing logical fallacies and appeals to emotion have a special role in the establishment of young critical minds.
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