Straw man fallacy

The straw man fallacy occurs when someone misrepresents or exaggerates another person's argument to make it easier to attack or refute.

Instead of addressing the actual issue or argument, they fight a distorted or oversimplified version of it created by themselves, thereby sidestepping the genuine discussion at hand.

brexitbus

The Brexit campaign slogan, "We send the EU £350 million a week, let's fund our NHS instead," was a highly controversial statement. The main criticism was about its accuracy regarding the actual net contribution of the UK to the EU after considering the UK's rebate and other financial benefits.

The slogan suggests a direct and overly simplistic trade-off between EU payments and potential NHS funding. This implies that the sole or primary reason the NHS wasn't receiving additional funding was because of the UK's contribution to the EU, which is an oversimplification of public funding dynamics. It also didn't account for other economic implications of leaving the EU that could affect NHS funding.

It oversimplifies the trade-offs, does not address the broader and more complex economic realities. It relies on a distortion of facts and context, injects a misleading narrative into the public debate, exploits emotional biases.

How it works with disinformation?

Here's how straw man fallacy works in mis- and disinformation context:

  • Misrepresenting Opposing Views by deliberately altering or oversimplifying an opponent's argument to make it easier to attack, thus preventing a genuine examination of the issue at hand.
  • Distorting Facts and Context by taking statements out of context or exaggerating them to create a distorted version that can be easily refuted, shifting the focus away from the actual matter.
  • Diverting Attention. By setting up a straw man, the real issues or arguments are often overshadowed, leading the audience to focus on refuting the misrepresented position rather than the authentic concern.
  • Crafting Misleading Narratives by constructing a narrative based on the distorted arguments, which can be easily defended or promoted, solidifying the disinformation campaign's position.
  • Exploiting Emotional Biases. By misrepresenting arguments, they can be tailored to provoke stronger emotional reactions, capitalizing on fear, anger, or other emotions, making the audience more susceptible to the fallacy.
  • Reinforcing Existing Prejudices. By creating straw man arguments that appeal to existing biases or prejudices, the disinformation campaign can further entrench those beliefs, making them harder to challenge with factual information.

Video by Colburn Classroom | Used under Creative Commons license

Suggested use in training

We suggest a couple of learning activities related to straw man fallacy:

  • Straw Man Scenarios
    Description: Divide students into small groups and provide each group with a set of genuine arguments on a topic. Have them craft a scenario where one party uses the straw man fallacy to misrepresent the other's argument intentionally. After presenting their scenarios, have a discussion where students identify the fallacy and discuss why it's misleading and what is the primary mechanism of influence.
    Objective: Through role-playing, students will directly experience both the presentation and refutation of a straw man argument, fostering a deeper understanding.
  • Real World Fallacy Hunt
    Description: Ask students to browse current news articles, opinion pieces, or social media debates to find potential examples of the straw man fallacy. In the following class, students present their findings, explaining why they believe the example demonstrates the fallacy.
    Objective: By searching for real-world examples, students become more attuned to spotting the fallacy in actual discourse, reinforcing its relevance.