Fake News and Logical Fallacies

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Home > Articles > Fake News and Logical Fallacies

 Fake News and Logical Fallacies

Bertrand Leong | Today's Manager
December 1, 2018

The next time you catch yourself buying into a fallacy, pause and verify the facts. This might save you or your business from any unnecessary embarrassment and heartache.

If you watched Crazy Rich Asians, you would have seen how quickly news travels. Nick Young (played by actor Mr Henry Golding) was talking to his girlfriend Rachel Chu (Ms Constance Wu) in a New York café about inviting her to a wedding in Singapore when someone (Radio1Asia) snaps their photo and spreads the news to friends via social media chats and tweets. This sets off a chain of speculation and rumour-mill about who Ms Chu is and how she landed the eligible Mr Young. 1

The proliferation of social media has made information and reputation management a 24/7 responsibility—casting the spotlight on the way we consume, share, filter, and guard against misinformation. One person can be featured on multiple platforms (radio, print, television, and social media). If you don’t own a source of information, others will own it on your behalf by making fallacious claims that might prove detrimental to yours or your company’s reputation. Firms are now expected to respond in real-time within 45 minutes—a far cry from pre-social media days whereby a turnaround of several hours was the norm. A case in point was when Singapore’s presidential candidate in 2017, Mr Salleh Marican contacted social news Web site Mothership about a misleading article published on 8 August 2017 wrongfully attributing comments on the hijab to him. 2 Mothership deleted the article and post to protect Mr Salleh’s reputation and prevent further parties from being misled. But this was only after the article had attracted a slew of angry comments.

Technology is a double-edged sword. You can’t live with it and can’t live without it. The fact is millennials spend close to 18 hours a day consuming media; one-in-two people use mobile phones by country; and one-in-three bought something in a mobile experience. Purchases can now be made simply by “comment selling” on Messenger or Facebook, and businesses without downloadable apps are quickly losing market share. Companies will have difficulty innovating and adapting if all they do is try to survive by the quarter. Yet, the proliferation of media presents challenges for consumers and businesses alike. The creation of fake news or altered content is a worldwide practice with money and social engineering as key motivators for anyone choosing to manipulate information for nefarious reasons. Revenue is generated via clicks, and the spread of misinformation online can move markets and give unscrupulous opportunists another avenue to make a quick buck as observed in the boom in initial coin offerings (ICOs). 3

A Green Paper published by the Ministry of Communications and Information, and the Ministry of Law, sketched out how the spread of falsehoods by state and non-state actors have influenced elections, caused public alarm, or incited divisions worldwide. “The paper identified two types of perpetrators: Foreign state actors who want to ‘engineer specific outcomes’ in polls, as well as private individuals and entities, who are typically more driven by financial considerations.” 3 The Singapore Government in reviewing existing laws to tackle the spread of misinformation have pointed out (together with experts) that legislation is not the panacea—not when there are bigger external forces at play, which are sometimes covert and hard to trace. 3

Consumers therefore must be discerning in what they read and the sort of information they wish to divulge. They must be able to filter the truth from the trash while being wary of fake news, identity and data theft, phishing sites, and online scams which are becoming more rampant. Businesses realise that reputation management, cybersecurity, consumer data protection, and getting clear and timely messages out amidst the “noise” is vital in maintaining the trust of customers.

One must be mindful of fallacies when discerning fake news. They are troublesome stumbling blocks and defective reasonings which point to an absence of critical thinking. We commit them without realising. Fallacies are insidious and must be avoided at all costs. Let us examine some encountered fallacies in social media.

Appeal to Authority
The appeal to authority fallacy exists in business, academic, and political discourse. It is particularly effective in organisations that value hierarchy. 4 Singaporeans were stunned after a screenshot announcing the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew that appeared to be sent from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on 18 March 2015 was circulated online. 5 Reputable news networks like Cable News Network (CNN) and China’s CGTN (formerly known as CCTV-NEWS) had also mistakenly disseminated the false information. Both the PMO and news networks are respected sources. However, investigations revealed that the culprit behind the fake screenshot was a 16-year-old boy who, annoyed by the rumours of Mr Lee’s passing, wanted to demonstrate how easy it was for a hoax to be perpetuated. He proved his point. Sadly, Mr Lee did pass away some days later on 23 March 2015. 5

Appeal to Ignorance
Another common fallacy occurs when we assume that a lack of evidence to the contrary suffices as evidence. A UOB employee was misidentified in 2017 as one half of a couple who bullied an elderly man at a coffee shop in Toa Payoh. 6 Instead of checking, keyboard warriors donned their online vigilante capes and went out in full force, calling for her sacking—leaving the wrongfully-accused lady no choice but to defend herself on Facebook. While one of the accusers publicly apologised, it makes one wonder how the charge was even made in the first place and if other netizens were similarly remorseful for having defamed an innocent person. 6

Ad Hominem
Latin for “toward the person”, ad hominem happens when we judge a particular perspective, belief, or position on the basis of how we think and feel about the person who holds that belief. It attacks the person or group making the argument rather than the argument itself. In an opinion piece written by Mr Darius Lee 7 in response to a previous contributor, Mr Lee says that freedom of speech is the lifeblood of Singapore’s democracy which enables its citizens to participate in matters of public policy, and that name-calling and ad hominem arguments are an abuse of speech and do not advance democratic discourse. Just as it is inappropriate to hurl slurs at those who identify as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), we should not label those who disagree with the Pink Dot event as ‘hatemongers’ and ‘bigots’.

Scale this down to more mundane examples and they can include: ‘He/she looks old, so is probably bad with technology.’ ‘He/she is a millennial, so has little life and work experience.’ ‘He is male, so he doesn’t do any housework.’ ‘She is female, so she is a good homemaker.’ It is easy to take an idea, colour it with our own perceptions, and release it to others as ‘fact’.

When left unchecked, falsehoods can snowball into expensive problems. Rather than be held hostage by social media, let us be committed to rigorously uncovering the truth and tempering our assumptions with understanding. The next time you catch yourself buying into a fallacy, take a moment to pause, think, and verify the facts. It just might help you uncover a worthier truth, see things from a new perspective, and save you and your business from any unnecessary embarrassment and heartache.

1 The New York Times, 17 August 2018. How rumors spread in ‘crazy rich asians’ anatomy of a scene, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBjsep-Jnz0.

2 The Straits Times, 9 August 2017. Presidential hopeful Salleh Marican acts against fake news taken from a Facebook page, The Straits Times, https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/presidential-hopeful-salleh-marican-acts-against-fake-news-taken-from-a-facebook-page.

3 Ng K, 27 January 2018. The big read: money, lies and manipulation-the dark forces behind fake news, TODAY, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/big-read-money-lies-and-manipulation-dark-forces-behind-fake-news.

4 Flanders J, 21 November 2007. Clear thinking and common fallacies, Communication at Work, MindEdge, http://communication.atwork-network.com/2007/11/21/clear-thinking-and-common-fallacies/.

5 Kuan YT, 19 April 2017. 10 “Fake news” hoaxes that went viral in Singapore, https://mustsharenews.com/fake-viral-stories/.

6 Lim B, 9 April 2018. These are Singapore’s best fake news stories ever, RICE, http://ricemedia.co/current-affairs-opinion-these-are-singapores-best-fake-news-stories-ever/.

7 Lee D, 29 June 2015. Disagreement with pink dot is not hate, https://www.todayonline.com/voices/disagreement-pink-dot-not-hate.


Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management

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