Social Media Fallacies, Part 1

A trend I consistently see on social media sites it the use of illogical arguments to try to make a point.  It seems that the more emotional the discussion, the more ridiculous the arguments.  The irksome thing to me is that most of the people making these arguments have no idea just how irrational they are.

The current discussion of the Paris terrorist attacks and debate over President Obama’s push to bring Syrian refugees to the United States is a case in point.   I took a random sampling from my Facebook newsfeed, and found numerous quotes and memes that are utter nonsense.  Here are a sampling of them:

The M&M Argument

M&Ms

This is an example of a weak analogy.  The argument is that since you would reject all of the M&Ms rather than risk eating a poison one, we should reject all Syrian refugees because there may be some terrorists embedded.

The analogy breaks down for a couple of reasons.  First, M&Ms aren’t people.  Throwing away M&Ms isn’t a moral issue.  Whether or not we help refugees is a moral issue.  Second, the analogy implies that it’s impossible to determine whether any of the M&Ms are poison – they are all identical.  Refugees aren’t identical.  Some – small children, for example – can be fairly easily determined to not be terrorists.  Unlike the M&Ms, there are vetting procedures in place that can reliably identify some people as terrorists, and some people as non-threats.  Granted, these protocols aren’t foolproof, and extreme caution should be taken.  Still, unlike the M&Ms, it’s not random chance.

The Problem is Religion

The Problem Is ReligionThis one is an example of the fallacy of prejudicial conjecture.  An emotional, arbitrary, and ill-informed opinion is substituted for an accurate and factual assessment of the issue.  There is no factual basis for this argument.

It’s also an example of wishful thinking and manipulative propaganda.  Just because someone has an anti-religious beliefs doesn’t make religion bad.  Propaganda is defined by Webster as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”  This argument is really nothing more than a weak attempt to exploit the legitimate issue of terrorism in order to discredit God.

It’s also an example of a red herring argument.  It’s an attempt to distract from the actual issue being debated or discussed.

The entire argument is shown as preposterous when one uses the same form to argue against other issues:

FOOD poisoning

Homeless Before Refugees

Here are a couple that are very similar:

Homeless

There are a couple of logical fallacies embedded in these memes.

First, like many memes, the pictures are selected for their appeal to emotion.  Look at that poor little child!  Look at those homeless veterans!  How could you be so cruel as to ignore them and help refugees?  Tugging on people’s emotions is not a rational argument.

A second fallacy is the either – or fallacy, also known as bifurcation or a false dilemma.  These memes present us with a choice:  Either you support the American homeless, or you can support refugees.  It’s one or the other.  We can’t do both.  The fallacy is that in reality, we do not have to choose one or the other – we can do both.  In a bifurcated argument, the possibility of alternative solutions is ignored.

You’re an Idiot!  Look – a Squirrel!

obama-manilaIllogical arguments aren’t limited to social media memes.  There was a link on my newsfeed to a news report of President Obama making the following statement in regards to those who oppose Syrian refugee immigration:  “Apparently they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America.”

This is a typical ad hominem attack.  An ad hominem attack is simply an insult or name-calling.  It’s not a rational argument; it’s attacking the person, rather than their argument.  It’s typically used when the person making the attack has run out of valid arguments, and so they resort to name-calling.

It’s also a classic strawman argument.  A strawman argument first distorts the opponent’s actual position, making it easier to argue against.  Almost nobody is claiming that Syrian widow and orphan refugees pose a threat; it’s mostly the males of military service age that people have expressed concern over.  However, by falsely implying that those who oppose Syrian refugee immigration are against widows and orphans, it’s much easier to argue against than their actual position.

Not So Scary

Refugees in Cincinnati

This photo was posted by several people, and was accompanied by this text:

I saw a friend of a friend post this picture and felt I needed to share it. It is a picture of the first refugee family from Syria to be settled in Cincinnati, Ohio after they arrived yesterday.

A big faceless unknown is scary, I know, but when you put a face to it and see exactly who these refugees are, I believe that’s where we can all start seeing the truth behind this crisis and exactly who is being effected by this.

When we understand something, it’s a lot less scary and a whole lot easier to be compassionate towards others. This is something I feel relates to almost all aspects of life, not just this single issue.

Again, the photo is an appeal to emotion.  Look at those faces.  They’re not so scary, are they?

The language is also an appeal to emotion, not a rational argument.  A friend posted this.  The unknown is scary.  We need compassion.  This is nothing but playing on people’s emotions, and is not a rational basis for determining public policy.

This also falls under the fallacy of a biased sample.  The argument is that these people are representative of all of the 30,000 refugees we plan to bring in to the United States.  Just because someone posts one photo of one refugee family, it doesn’t mean all refugees are the same.  There are also photos of scary-looking male refugees floating around the Internet – which are just as biased.

Don’t be a Hypocrite!

Let’s look at one more:

Hypocrite!

This is a Tu Quoque argument.  Tu Quoque, or the appeal to hypocrisy, is a fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser.  It basically says, since you don’t live up to your own position, your position is invalid.  This is a form of red herring argument – an argument designed to distract from the real issue.  It’s just creating a diversion, and it’s not a rational argument.

Conclusions

My point with all of this isn’t to argue for or against Syrian immigration, but rather, to point out how silly and misleading many of the arguments are.  It’s also to point out just how gullible people are, since they see these silly arguments, but have no idea they’re nonsense.

This isn’t to say that illogical arguments can’t be effective.  We all use common fallacies when trying to persuade others, and these arguments can often drive a point home.  The problem is, these arguments are misleading and often play on emotions rather than reality.

Fallacious arguments aren’t limited to social media or to political discussion.  They’re found in science textbooks, legal cases, and the network news; they are used in discussions involving religion, politics, sports, and just about every other topic, especially when attempted persuasion is involved.  We all must be discerning and learn to spot faulty logic in order to not be persuaded by ignorance.


Advertisements

2 Responses

  1. I’ve actually just written a very short blog post on ‘Isis and the echo chamber’ – how to use social media correctly. Everything you have said is fantastic and I couldn’t agree with you more. I was just wondering if you would mind if I linked your profile in my post. Thanks 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: