A short course on peaceful but determined activism
Know Your False Arguments
False arguments aka fallacies are routines people fall into when they haven’t properly thought through what they’re saying or typing. Whether by accident or design this crude trickery involves a process of clutching at straws, which distorts reasoned argument. As a result, it’s probably helpful to have a clear understanding of at least the most commonly used false arguments to avoid falling back on them yourself and to call out those using false arguments to pursue damaging agendas:
- Appeal to Authority
Trying to strengthen an argument by referring to a ‘big name’ or unsubstantiated claims of expertise is clearly deceitful. This can be used in combination by trying to claim a cluster of support for a false argument based on presenting claims of expertise, which doesn’t exist. To avoid falling for this make sure your experts are experts and offer some evidence supporting the experts’ views.
- Hasty Generalization
We have a bias towards jumping to conclusions about people on the basis of small or inaccurate samples. Two personal stories about visits to two different funfairs don’t offer enough evidence to draw any conclusions about funfairs at all. However, many people enjoy or revel in anecdotes and stats, which tempt us to put limited or personal opinions ahead of wider, but less personally emotionally connected, information.
- Missing the Point
The parts of an argument support a particular conclusion - but a different conclusion is offered. Checking for this approach means asking whether or not the evidence to back the conclusion is what’s actually being presented. There might be a few possible conclusions you could draw from the evidence, but the one pulled out of the hat isn’t supported among the evidence.
- Post Hoc (Aka False Cause)
This is where it is assumed that because B follows A, A caused B to happen. Two events that seem related in time are often not linked by any actual cause. Asking for an explanation of the actual processes connecting A to B usually reveals the presence or absence of any genuine causal link.
- Slippery Slope
This false argument claims that one step in a particular direction will unleash a runaway chain of events. Watch out for claims which appear unlikely or unreliable at any point in the whole chain, as a single weak point may bring the whole argument down.
- Ad Populum
In this case the basic falsehood lies in exploiting our natural preference for fitting in or getting along with most people. This becomes very misleading when in reality most people don’t actually agree with the argument being made. Jumping on the bandwagon is one form of this fallacy, which is focused on normalising the far from typical.
- Ad Hominem
Personal attacks on those supporting an argument are at least fairly obvious, but may be directed at you through undermining your sources and evidence. Typically an author or expert is called out for their personal appearance, opinions or habits, rather than for their professional ability.
- Tu Quoque
A tu quoque argument simply involves claiming you have done what you are arguing against. This fallacy is an absolute staple of extremists who have given up on presenting reasoned arguments. When a tu quoque false argument appears step back and handle with care immediately, as it’s an attempt to muddy the waters and blur lines until anyone looking at the argument from outside finds it hard to tell who is saying what.
- Appeal to Pity
Making you feel sorry for someone or something to get you to accept an argument is all too common. A bundles of woes may be offered up, but not necessarily connected to or supporting the conclusion put forward.
- Appeal to Ignorance
This false argument isn’t far removed from claiming someone is a bit slow on the uptake. It usually works along the lines of stating ‘there’s no certain evidence or definite answer we can reach, but my conclusion is the best we can get so we should go with that’. Basically, that’s using a lack of or refusal of evidence to try to lend a false authority to a potentially misleading conclusion. A lack of relevant evidence is the fairly obvious tell.
- Straw Man
A flawed or incomplete version of the argument you are trying to make is set up in your name and then attacked. Essentially, your argument is being misrepresented to offer you up as an easy, false target. Always point this out fairly gently, as carrying on with a broken or incomplete version of your argument, which has already appeared to have been taken as accepted, leaves you open to becoming identified with the straw man.
- Red Herring
In the middle of debate the argument is taken off at a tangent into areas with little or nothing to do with the original discussion. Without reining in the false argument, red herrings are not unlike digital games where the main plot gets lost among endless mini-dungeons and side-quests. Often those using this false argument avoid ever returning to the original line of debate. Check the steps in the argument to see if everything put forward backs the conclusion.
- False Dichotomy
The incredibly tiresome false dichotomy treats the world as an online quiz where everything is broken down into two choices. One of these is set up to be ruled out and so it is claimed there is only one workable choice. Clearly, a false dichotomy is used to close down debate while presenting grounds to rush to a pre-constructed false conclusion.
- Begging the Question
Begging the question involves someone arguing while either overlooking a doubtful assumption within an argument or presenting an argument that is more or less the same as the conclusion on offer. The ‘evidence’ being offered is, therefore, nothing more than the false argument itself. Gaps or weaknesses in arguments need to be supported with evidence and it is misleading to present what you are trying to prove as sound evidence.
- Weak Analogy
Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren’t really alike when considered in context, the analogy is a weak one, and an argument that relies on this kind of approach is a weak analogy. The misleading comparison is essentially comparing apples to pears, which is no basis for an argument. Asking what exactly are the features being compared often polishes off this kind of argument.
There are many more false arguments out there, but most of those deliberately using them will call upon one of the above fairly early on, alerting you to what else might be going on.
Checking News Sources
- Accepting a single source for a story as a reliable guide to what is happening usually means locking yourself into taking one angle on a story.
- Be cautious of websites with unusual web address, some of which may be close to a well-known address.
- Beware sites that take pieces of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy).
- Check to see if a number of known and reasonably reliable sites are carrying the same story. Clearly with some stories and sites exclusives or breaking news might be expected; but otherwise one source alone is likely to be unreliable.
- It is not uncommon for news outlets to blur the line between journalists and comments with visitor blogs. These may differ wildly from the outlet’s standard output.
- A check to see who actually wrote an article may betray either bias or anonymity. If the site or article is claiming any expertise it’s necessary to see if there’s any information about the author/ source to back such claims.
- Site info pages such as About Us sometimes just blurt out biases. Statements of expertise or connects to other organisation might be expected to be found here.
- A messy, CAPS, Angry Fruit Salad of a site probably isn’t the best place to find reliable information.
- A plain or quiet site may not be fancy, but a look at the text can uncover hidden gems. A lot of good writers don’t have cash for a shiny site. Zoom in on that often tiny text.
- By-lines are there to tease you either in terms of clicking through or in the hope you’ll take a misleading by-line as gospel without checking something closer to the reality inside the article.
- A by-line or article that makes you irritable or angry - is quite possibly designed to do so. Check the story out on better sources before rushing to share or click through.
- If a site encourages you to confront, harass or straight-up DOX others, it’s probably trying to manipulate you and not a reliable news source.
- Slightly blurry video clips with patches of deeper blur in key areas are often run with a commentary that shouts an instruction to look at a blurry patch, where there is often nothing concrete to confirm claims in the accompanying commentary. Both the commentary and a fresh pejorative image or footage usually follows immediately.
- Photoshop is used to demonise individuals on a daily basis and women are particular targets for media abuse. If a public figure suddenly looks exhausted or appears to have a feature distorted a zoom usually reveals signs of quite clumsy image manipulation.
It’s fairly common for activism rooted in politics and parties of one kind or another to spill over into activists’ or supporters’ digital inputs and outputs. The temptation is to routinely visit the same broadly supportive sites and groups to source content in support of your arguments. Nothing wrong with that, but on its own our natural tendency is to favour information and information sources consistent with our existing views - confirmation bias. We all do it and I’m afraid the effect is quite significant.
We can probably see confirmation bias at work in personal feeds where a welter of political posts often punch and jab away at distant opponents, while putting off friends and colleagues who are in the feed and on some kind of middle ground. Avoiding this isn’t hard and mainly calls for a marked shift from pulverising to persuading. As part of that there probably needs to be an acceptance that activism is often for the long run and connecting the politics up to some of the many areas affected by politics is more likely to get your messages across than just countering others’ messages.
- How - keep the pick of the political posts and try out a fresh mix.
- Use sources/ links to a different angle on a current event.
- Post an image about a wildlife protection or ecological issue.
- Present an image showing peaceful activism.
- Link to and comment on a global issue.
- Link to a source of helpful information stating why it was helpful.
- Lightly rake over a local issue.
- Link to information about finding a solution to a concern.
A community page or group feed can broaden its appeal and continue to progress issues of concern by experimenting with the types of posts suited to a friendly feed. However, building and promoting change among wider groups calls for content suited to collaboration among groups.
- Issues-focused posts that often work well include the following:
- Participative posts inviting comment on a core issue.
- Exploring the topic beyond political or single issue boundaries.
- Content offering perspectives from other countries and cultures.
- Common ground posts, which highlight consensus.
- Different types of media covering the same topic.
- Community and/ or public service content.
It takes patience and experimentation to establish a pattern based on which posts get the most views, positive reactions and comments; but you won’t go far off track if you favour posts with compelling or at least relevant images.
Less predictable and less attack-minded posts will typically seem to go against the tide in groups that are already heavily conventionally politicised. In which case it’s a matter of gradually slotting in content likely to offer a good fit. The intention is not to try to overwhelm or to outdo politicised posts, but to encourage engagement on underlying issues and to try to break down political antagonism.
Something Out of Nothing
With few resources we sometimes need to invent our own solutions - often from next to nothing. The most helpful ideas can result from having to think more creatively, in part because there are almost no funds or very limited resources.
- Check you’re not re-inventing the whole wheel.
- Plan and plan some more.
- Habits die hard, so it is often easier to look for solutions that improve on or build on existing solutions.
- Look for a range of uses and audiences for your innovations.
- Get the most out of what you have before you start to bring in new technologies and overheads.
- Get close to or inside the problem so you know how things work on the ground.
- Consider knock-on effects where one innovation may lead to more innovations.
- The easier it is to use, the more it will get used.
- Inexpensive innovations can reach wider audiences.
- Aim for wide audiences and think beyond current limits.
Personal online activism calls for a connection, a smartphone and, in practical terms, probably some access to a desktop PC. Getting things done is a bit quicker and more secure if you can afford fairly up-to-date kit, but getting started with pages and groups on major social media platforms is free. Progressing from there, (with help from free online help/ demo videos), is much like setting up a micro-enterprise:
- Take suitable security precautions into account.
- Rely on broad research from a mix of sources and fact checks.
- Start with a free blog and a free blog template.
- Grab your preferred social media profiles.
- Write from what you know and add to what you know.
- Rely on free images and use attribution where required.
- Build your campaign/ a personal brand.
- Start growing a network among the like-minded and further afield.
- Have an end goal in the sense of a path you wish to follow.
- Invest carefully in more skills, equipment and support without putting all your eggs in one basket.
The Power of Networks
The video looks at the capacity of social networks to overwhelm and to offer both significant benefits and significant dangers.