Logical fallacies are errors or tricks of reasoning. When they occur accidentally, they are simply errors that may suggest that the person lacks argumentative skill. But sometimes logical fallacies are used intentionally as tricks to deceive or manipulate an audience. Some of the fallacies are used to prove that an argument is valid when it is not. Some of the fallacies are used to play with your emotions and draw your attention away from facts or arguments. If you read an article, social media post, or online comment and it makes you angry, offended or afraid, take a closer look: you might find a bunch of logical fallacies there.
Fallacies are like illusions. If you know how a rabbit got into a hat, you can’t be tricked next time.
Here are five of the most common ones.
Ad hominem means “against the man” in Latin, and this type of argument is used to attack the person who made the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the argument itself. An ad hominem fallacy often takes the form of name-calling, insults or hate speech. Political actors frequently use this fallacy to dismiss the work of journalists, policy makers, and researchers who contradict their statements or chosen narratives.
For instance, in 2010 “Obamacare” – a law that made health care more affordable in the US – was attacked by some of its opponents on the basis that it was un-American, since President Barack Obama’s father came from Kenya.
Similarly, in her book “Love Does Not Win Elections,” Ayisha Osori describes her 2014 primary run for a parliamentary seat in Abuja, Nigeria and how her opponents told her she is too young and not serious enough.
These arguments – Obama’s father coming from Kenya, and Ayisha Osori being too young and not serious enough – have nothing to do with Barack Obama’s Obamacare or Ayisha Osori’s political platform.
How not to be tricked by it? Ask yourself: is the argument being used attacking the other person’s case, their policy or political platform – or the person himself or herself. If it’s the latter, there is no reason to take the argument seriously.
Appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy that is used to manipulate the opponent’s emotions in order to win an argument. In the absence of factual evidence, it uses emotions in place of reason.
This fallacy is often used to spread rumors: when there are no facts to support the claim, emotions are frequently used instead. Often these emotions are negative ones, most commonly connected to children, death, or violence.
For instance, claims linking 5G networks to Covid-19 – circulated on WhatsApp in numerous countries in May 2020 – appealed to fear. Since there are no facts to support the claim that 5G causes Covid -19, an appeal to emotions was used in the post.
Similarly, Nigerian politician Martin Onovo’s claims on national TV in May 2020 that 5G radiation “cremates people” and causes cancer are not based on evidence, but fear.
Russian media often uses this fallacy. In 2017, it was used by Russian state television to accuse German authorities of failing to investigate the rape of an underage Russian-German girl called Lisa, who was allegedly raped by “migrants.” Again, there was no evidence of that, but the reporting was emotional and left no doubts that this incident indeed took place. Later it was found that the underage girl fabricated the story.
How not to be tricked by it? Ask yourself: are there any facts available to support the emotional story in question? If not, you have no reason to take it seriously.
Appeal to hypocrisy, also known as “whataboutism,” is a way to answer any criticism by saying “what about yourself” or “what about them,” without addressing the actual criticism.
In 2019, a deadly massacre at two mosques in New Zealand took place, in which 50 Muslims were shot and killed, and many were injured, by a white supremacist.
Global media responded to this event with extensive discussions of white supremacist attacks and movements. And as a response to that, US right-wing media platforms started to write stories about killings of Christians in Nigeria.
Chatham House Africa Programme associate fellow Matthew Page described this as classic whataboutism: right-leaning platforms reported the attacks in Nigeria, only to point out the alleged lack of coverage in global media in comparison to the New Zealand attack.
Whataboutism is also one of the most common logical fallacies in Russian disinformation. It was used extensively after the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 American presidential elections was launched. When asked about Russia’s interference in the American electoral process, Russian president Vladimir Putin changed the subject to US interference abroad.
How not to be tricked by it? Ask yourself: was the criticism answered? If it was not, there is no reason to take seriously what was said.
A false dilemma fallacy occurs when an argument is build upon the assumption that there are only two choices or possible outcomes when actually there are several. “Either you are for us or against us,” “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” “Either we do X or the country will collapse,” “Either we go to war with X, or X will go to war with us.” “America – love it or leave it,” “Pro life or pro choice,” “The Bible or Hell”, “Peace or justice,” etc.
In 2015, at the 25th World Economic Forum on Africa, one of the discussion topics was how to ensure that wildlife has a future in modern Africa. One of the arguments was that Africa’s wildlife and wild landscapes must or should be sacrificed in order for the continent to modernize and maintain its steady pace of economic growth. As Patrick Bergin shows on the World Economic Forum web page, wildlife contributes to economic growth, and African leaders need not accept that the price of doing business with foreign countries is the obliteration of their natural resource base.
The either/or fallacy most often shows a simplified version of the issues we have to deal with, and in doing so, can often used to inflame conflicts and to play people or groups against each other.
How not to be tricked by it? When you hear someone mentioning two options, two ways or two possible futures, there is reason to be skeptical. A seeming dilemma offers only two possibilities, but life is seldom that simple.
A bandwagon fallacy is also called an appeal to common belief or an appeal to the masses, because it attempts to prove an argument as correct simply because many people believe it to be so. It is about getting people to do or think something because “everyone else is doing it” or “everything else thinks this.”
This is one of the fallacies people experience when using social media. If the post is shared thousands, sometimes tens or even hundreds of thousands of times, if it “goes viral,” it has to be true, right? Not necessarily. In fact, it is easy to buy fake accounts to help to boost a post so that a social media platform will recognise it as “trending.” And even if no fake accounts are involved, many shares and likes prove only that this belief is popular, not that it’s true.
In 2019, the #spekboomchallenge, encouraging each South African to plant 10 spekboom plants to help reverse climate change, was shared on social media by thousands of people. The initiative claimed that the spekboom plant can capture and store “more than four tons of carbon dioxide per year per hectare planted, making it more effective than the Amazon rainforest.” Unfortunately this claim is not true – even though planting any greenery is good for the Earth.
This fallacy is also often used in political campaigns and advertising, appealing to people’s wish to be part of the “cool” crowd, to fit into social circles, to be on the winning side, to not be left out or left behind.
How not to be tricked by it? When you hear someone saying “everybody is doing this or that,” or “everybody knows this or that,” it is reason to be skeptical. Check facts, if available; ask specialists. And remember that “trending” social media posts are not necessarily true. If possible, do research to find the “patient zero” – an account that initiated the campaign or created the hashtag.