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Making Truth Matter: Recognize and respond to tricks that harm understanding

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A core component of Make Truth Matter Again is helping people resist potentially unwanted persuasion, both online and offline. Taking inspiration from general wisdom and a framework of social psychology called inoculation theory, people can develop resistance against manipulation attempts if they know about those manipulation attempts. Simply put, increasing awareness helps to reduce manipulation.

There are many ways in which the media, politicians, and trolls use their words to have an influence over you, perhaps greater than you might want. Here are 13 such weapons used in their arsenal of manipulation.


1. Emotional Language

2. Incoherence

3. False Dichotomies

4. Scapegoating

5. Ad-Hominem Attacks

6. Whataboutism

7. Gish Gallop

8. Gaslighting

9. Changing the Goalpost

10. Unfalsifiable Claims

11. Oversimplification

12. Framing

13. Deception


The first five came from Innoculation Science, which has shown that using their well-crafted movies reduces these micro ‘hacks’ into your self-control.

The other techniques are highly common tactics that need to be considered as well. Each one of these is used in manners to capture your attention and your understanding in different ways. Together, being aware of the components of a conversation may allow you to figure out when it is most appropriate to dig-in, or to bow away for your own time.



1. Emotional Language

Emotional language is designed to trigger an emotional response in the reader or listener. This can be done by using words that have a positive or negative connotation, or by using words that evoke certain feelings. For example, words like “terrorism” or “freedom” are loaded with emotion and can be used to manipulate someone’s opinion. Similarly, adjectives like “amazing,” “appalling,” “disgusting,” etc. can be used to make the reader feel a certain way about the subject matter.



2. Incoherence

Incoherence is when an argument is made without logical or coherent thought. This can be done by making illogical leaps or by using non-sequiturs. For example, an argument that “we should bomb Syria because they have chemical weapons” is incoherent because it does not follow that bombing Syria is the best way to deal with their chemical weapons. It is easy to understand why incoherence might work. The use of the word “because” is most generally used in people who enjoy cause-effect reasoning: all of us. Thus, many are attuned to the response that if a “because” is there we are more inclined to permit it. The ease with which people tend to permit fake “explanations” increases just because the word “because” was included has been shown in other studies (don’t take our word for it just because we said “because” though 😉).




3. False Dichotomies

A false dichotomy is when an argument is made by presenting two options as the only possible options when in reality there are more options. This is also known as 'black and white thinking'. For example, an argument that “you are either with us or against us” is a false dichotomy because there are more than two sides to the issue. Another example of false dichotomies would be when pro-life advocates argue that “you are either pro-life or pro-abortion.” This is not quite true because there are people who are neither purely pro-life nor pro-abortion, such as those who believe in abortion in cases of rape or incest.


4. Scapegoating

Scapegoating is when an individual or group is blamed for something that they are not responsible for. This can be done by suggesting false relationships between things such as when confusing correlation with causation. For example, blaming the increasing number of immigrants as causing all of a given country’s problems is scapegoating.



5. Ad-Hominem Attacks

An ad-hominem attack is when an argument is made by attacking the character of the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself. For example, an argument that “you can’t trust anything he says because he’s a liar” is an ad-hominem attack. Another argument like “global warming is not real because Al Gore is a hypocrite” is an ad-hominem attack because it is attacking Al Gore instead of the science of global warming. Ad-hominem attacks are fallacious because the character of the person making the argument is irrelevant to the validity of the argument.


6. Whataboutism

Whataboutism is when an argument is made by deflecting attention away from the original subject of an issue and onto another subject in the same issue. This can be done by changing the subject or by raising an example when someone argues that “It’s fine Russia invaded Ukraine because the US invaded Iraq!” The ‘what about’ comes from pointing out errors or actions made by one to justify the errors or actions made by another.


7. Gish Gallop

The Gish Gallop is when an argument is made by bombarding the listener with a rapid-fire series of generally lower-quality claims, without giving them time to process or respond. While the number of arguments might seem to lend credence to a position, Gish Gallop can be misleading because the truth of an argument is not determined by the number of arguments made.





8. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is when an individual or group attempts to make another individual or group question their own reality, memories, or perceptions. This can be done by deceitfully denying that real events happened, or happened the way that they are being remembered. Phrases such as “you must be imagining things,” or “That is not what was meant, you don’t remember it right” are some quick indicators of gaslighting.


9. Changing the Goalpost

Changing the goalpost is when the standards for what constitutes a valid argument are changed after the validity has been shown. This can be done by moving the goalposts, or by changing the definition of success. For example, saying that “we can’t trust climate science because the models have been incorrect in the past” changes the requirement of trusting climate science to have fully correct models in the past. Such goals may never be achievable.


10. Unfalsifiable Claims

Unfalsifiable claims are claims that can never be disproven, no matter what evidence is presented. This can be done by making claims that are based on personal beliefs, or by making claims that are not testable. For example, an argument that “god exists because I believe in him” is unfalsifiable because there is no way to disprove the existence of god. Another example of an unfalsifiable claim would be an argument that “aliens have visited Earth because there are UFO sightings.” This is also unfalsifiable because there is no way to disprove that aliens have visited Earth, and even if there were UFO sightings, that could be explained by natural phenomena.


11. Oversimplification

Oversimplification is when an argument is made by reducing a complex issue down to one or two key points. This can be done by ignoring important details, or by presenting only the positive or negative aspects of an issue. For example, an argument that “global warming is not real because it is cold outside” is oversimplifying the issue because it is ignoring differences between local and global changes, as well as longer-term trends that are observed with global warming. Another example of oversimplification would be an argument that “immigration is good because it brings in new people”. This is also oversimplifying the issue because it is only looking at the positive aspects of immigration and ignoring the negative aspects such as the strain on social resources.




12. Framing

Framing is when an argument is made by presenting the issue in a way that is favorable to the person making the argument. This can be done by using loaded language. A standard example is the use of the words “pro-choice” to frame the debate surrounding the freedom of a potential mother, while the “pro-abortion” or “baby-killer” focuses on the potential life of an unborn fetus. Other framing effects involve presenting the amount of harm that something brings instead of the lack of harm. The use of survival statistics for COVID-19 framed as having a “99.9% survival rate” compared with “about 1/1000 have died” can bias participants to believe that COVID-19 either isn’t or is a harmful disease worthy of effective action.


13. Deception

Deception occurs when words or arguments misleads by lying or by withholding information. This can be done by directly lying about the facts or omitting important information. For example, an argument that “global warming is not real because our winter was cooler last year” is deceptive because it is omitting the fact that global warming refers to long-term trends, and the short-term fluctuations that are being observed are within the range of natural variation. Another example of deception would be an argument that “vaccines are dangerous because they cause autism.” This argument is deceptive because it omits the fact that the original study that found a link between vaccines and autism has been debunked as fraudulent and withdrawn.


Your next move!


In order to respond to these forms of manipulation, we next suggest several effective methods that can allow you greater control of your understanding and conversations at hand. The method we use is called OURE for Observe, Understand, Respond Effectively.




Observe

  1. Pay attention to your emotions and learn the things that make you upset beyond your preferred level of reason.

  2. Pay attention to the words that are being used and how they affect you. This may involve understanding from whom the words are coming because similar words from those with different worldviews will have different meanings.

  3. Pay attention to the evidence or prior knowledge that is being given and ask questions to better understand its validity. It may likely be worthwhile to note topics you are less familiar with.


Understand

  1. Find a solid two-sided opinion. Try to understand what your interlocutor means by putting it all, or at least parts of it together in the most reasonable way possible. It does not mean you agree or disagree with multiple sides or perspectives.

  2. See if any of the tricks or fallacies are used. Find what seems fallacious.


Respond Effectively

  1. Functionally research the issue with more effort than a quick few glances at google searches … If you respond with certainty about something that is not so certain you do harm to your own ability to argue in the future as well as the perception of “your tribe,” making it harder for them as well.

  2. Speak, describing it from multiple perspectives. Aim to consider it from multiple perspectives and respond to your interlocutor, as well as other stakeholders in the interaction. Clarifications may help you to refine your response further.

  3. Be sure to disagree politely. If you respond in a way that inflames emotions, you may no longer be able to communicate with your interlocutor, even permanently. Insulting them, or that which they are positively inclined to will be directly understood by them as a potential affront. Be nice, but be sure to disagree when it is important to do so.

  4. Be willing to change your mind and cede a point. If all you’re doing is disagreeing, you’ll eventually be ignored. If you come to a point where you have been shown to be reasonably wrong, move on. Learn from why you may have misunderstood or miscommunicated your position. With some reflection, you’ll be better able to handle the next interaction.



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