Red Herring fallacies

Red herring fallacy

The red herring fallacy occurs when someone introduces an irrelevant or unrelated topic or argument to divert attention away from the original issue or argument being discussed. This fallacy is often employed in disinformation campaigns to distract or mislead by shifting the focus to an unrelated topic or issue.

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Ad hominem fallacy

An example of disinformation using the ad hominem fallacy is the tactic of attacking the character or credibility of individuals or groups who support certain political policies or ideologies, rather than addressing the actual merits of their arguments. This fallacy aims to discredit an opponent by focusing on personal traits, affiliations, or past actions, rather than engaging in substantive debate.

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Appeal to emotion fallacy

The appeal to emotion fallacy occurs when someone attempts to persuade others by invoking strong emotional responses, such as fear, anger, or sympathy, instead of presenting valid reasoning or evidence. Disinformation campaigns often exploit people's emotions to override critical thinking and rational judgment.

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Appeal to tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatem)

Appeal to tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatem) – a conclusion supported solely because it has long been held to be true

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Straw Man

Straw Man: Misrepresenting or exaggerating someone's argument to make it easier to attack.

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False authority

False authority (single authority) – using an expert of dubious credentials or using only one opinion to promote a product or idea. Related to the appeal to authority.

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What does it look like?

Red Herring fallacy:

  • For instance, a disinformation campaign might respond to a criticism or inquiry about a specific policy or action by bringing up unrelated scandals or events involving other individuals or organizations. By diverting attention to a different topic, the campaign seeks to sidestep the original issue and mislead the audience by introducing irrelevant information.
  • The red herring fallacy can also manifest as an intentional misdirection or exaggeration of a minor point to overshadow more significant concerns. By amplifying a trivial or less significant aspect of an argument, a disinformation campaign attempts to distract from the substantive issues at hand and manipulate public perception.
  • It is important to recognize when the focus is being shifted away from the original discussion or argument. By staying vigilant and maintaining focus on the main issue, individuals can avoid being misled by the red herring fallacy.
  • To counter the influence of the red herring fallacy in disinformation campaigns, it is crucial to stay informed, fact-check claims, and demand that discussions and debates remain focused on the relevant topic. By promoting critical thinking and maintaining a focus on substantive issues, individuals can mitigate the impact of this fallacy and foster a more informed and meaningful public discourse.

What does it look like?

Ad hominem fallacy:

  • This fallacy is often used to divert attention away from the issue at hand and manipulate public opinion through character assassination.
  • For example, in political campaigns or discussions, disinformation campaigns may attempt to undermine the credibility of a candidate or advocate by highlighting irrelevant personal flaws, spreading rumors, or distorting their past actions. By discrediting the individual, the disinformation campaign avoids engaging with the actual issues or policies being discussed, diverting attention and casting doubt on the credibility of the person's positions.
  • This type of disinformation can be particularly effective when it taps into existing biases or prejudices. By attacking an individual's character or affiliations, the ad hominem fallacy attempts to sway public opinion through emotional manipulation rather than addressing the substance of the argument.
  • It is important to recognize that engaging in ad hominem attacks does not provide a valid critique of an argument or policy. Evaluating ideas and policies based on their merits and evidence, rather than focusing on personal characteristics or affiliations, is crucial for meaningful and productive discussions. Disinformation campaigns that employ the ad hominem fallacy hinder constructive dialogue, undermine public trust, and perpetuate a climate of division and hostility.

What does it look like?

Appeal to emotion fallacy:

  • For instance, a disinformation campaign may use fearmongering tactics to stoke public fears about immigration by exaggerating the perceived threats associated with migration. By highlighting isolated incidents or presenting distorted narratives, the campaign aims to evoke strong negative emotions, such as fear of crime or job loss, and subsequently shape public opinion and policy outcomes.
  • Similarly, disinformation campaigns may use the appeal to emotion fallacy to generate outrage by manipulating or misrepresenting information. They may present selectively edited videos or misleading stories to provoke anger, division, and social unrest. By exploiting people's emotional responses, these campaigns seek to undermine social cohesion, sow discord, and amplify existing tensions within communities.
  • It is important to recognize that while emotions can play a role in shaping opinions and decisions, they should not be the sole basis for evaluating complex issues or determining the veracity of information. Relying solely on emotional appeals without considering evidence and logical reasoning can lead to misguided beliefs and actions.
  • Critical thinking and fact-checking are essential in evaluating information presented in emotionally charged contexts. By promoting media literacy and encouraging individuals to analyze information critically, we can better resist the influence of disinformation campaigns that employ the appeal to emotion fallacy.

What does it look like?

Appeal to tradition: 

  • An example of disinformation using the appeal to tradition fallacy is the promotion of discriminatory or prejudiced beliefs based on the notion of preserving cultural or traditional values.
  • The appeal to tradition fallacy occurs when someone argues that a particular belief or practice should be accepted or maintained simply because it has been a longstanding tradition or part of a culture for a significant period of time. This fallacy assumes that the mere fact of tradition validates the belief or practice, without considering its ethical or logical merits.
  • In the context of disinformation, this fallacy is often employed to justify discriminatory attitudes or practices towards certain groups based on their ethnicity, religion, or other characteristics. By appealing to tradition, disinformation campaigns attempt to legitimize prejudices and bias that are deeply ingrained in cultural or societal norms.
  • For example, a disinformation campaign may propagate the idea that certain discriminatory practices or beliefs towards marginalized communities are necessary to preserve a nation's cultural identity or protect traditional values. By exploiting cultural pride or fear of change, the appeal to tradition fallacy is used to manipulate public opinion and perpetuate discriminatory attitudes.
  • It is important to recognize that the mere fact of a belief or practice being rooted in tradition does not automatically make it morally or logically valid. Society evolves, and traditions can change over time as we gain a deeper understanding of human rights, equality, and social justice. Evaluating beliefs and practices based on ethical principles and evidence, rather than blindly adhering to tradition, is crucial for fostering inclusive and equitable societies.
  • Disinformation campaigns that employ the appeal to tradition fallacy hinder progress towards social equality, reinforce prejudices, and impede efforts to create more inclusive and diverse communities.

What does it look like?

Straw Man:

  • Imagine a debate on the effectiveness of a proposed policy to address income inequality. Person A argues that implementing higher taxes on the wealthy can help fund social programs and reduce the wealth gap. Person B, seeking to discredit Person A's argument, misrepresents it by stating, "So, you believe in punishing hardworking individuals who have achieved success through their own efforts, stifling economic growth and discouraging entrepreneurship." Person B then proceeds to attack this exaggerated and distorted version of Person A's argument, disregarding the original stance and promoting the false notion that it is an attack on success and economic growth.
  • In this example, the straw man fallacy is used by Person B to misrepresent and distort Person A's argument, making it easier to attack and discredit. By creating a weaker version of the argument that is easier to criticize, Person B sidesteps engaging with the original argument and instead promotes a distorted narrative to manipulate opinions and deceive others.
  • An example of disinformation using the straw man fallacy is the misrepresentation of climate change arguments. This fallacy involves distorting or exaggerating the opposing position to make it easier to attack or refute, rather than addressing the actual arguments put forth by proponents of climate change action.
  • In the context of climate change disinformation, this fallacy is often used to downplay the urgency and significance of climate change or to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. Instead of addressing the robust scientific evidence supporting human-induced climate change, disinformation campaigns may create a straw man argument by misrepresenting the position of climate scientists or proponents of climate action.
  • For instance, they may falsely claim that climate change advocates are calling for extreme and impractical measures, or that they want to cripple the economy with unnecessary regulations. By constructing this exaggerated and distorted version of the argument, the straw man fallacy allows the disinformation campaign to attack a position that doesn't accurately reflect the genuine concerns or proposals of those advocating for climate action.
  • It is important to recognize that misrepresenting the opposing position through the straw man fallacy does not address the scientific evidence or the real complexities of climate change. Constructive dialogue requires engaging with the actual arguments and evidence presented by proponents of climate action, rather than relying on misrepresented caricatures of their positions. Disinformation campaigns that employ the straw man fallacy hinder informed discussions, mislead the public, and impede meaningful progress in addressing the urgent challenges of climate change.
  • Example: "Opponents of the tax reform want to destroy the economy."

What does it look like?

  • An example of disinformation using the false authority fallacy is the dissemination of misleading information by individuals or groups who claim to possess expertise or authority in a particular field but lack the necessary qualifications or credibility.
  • The false authority fallacy occurs when someone appeals to an individual's or organization's perceived authority or expertise to support their argument or claim, even when that authority is not valid or reliable. In the context of disinformation, this fallacy is employed to deceive and mislead the public by leveraging the credibility associated with certain figures or institutions.
  • For example, a disinformation campaign may feature supposed medical professionals or scientists who present misinformation about the efficacy of vaccines or the existence of certain health conditions. By falsely claiming to possess expert knowledge or credentials, these individuals attempt to convince the public of their unfounded assertions and cast doubt on established scientific consensus.
  • Another example is the manipulation of endorsements or testimonials from celebrities or public figures who may not possess expertise in the relevant field. Disinformation campaigns may use these endorsements to give a false impression of credibility and authority to their claims, even if the individuals have no relevant qualifications or expertise.
  • It is crucial to critically evaluate the credibility and qualifications of sources of information. Genuine authority and expertise are built upon rigorous study, experience, and adherence to established standards of knowledge and evidence. Relying on false authorities not only perpetuates misinformation but also undermines trust in legitimate experts and institutions.
  • By promoting media literacy and encouraging individuals to verify the credentials and qualifications of those presenting information, we can mitigate the impact of disinformation campaigns that exploit the false authority fallacy. Engaging with reliable sources and seeking consensus among experts in the relevant field is crucial for making well-informed decisions and judgments.

Other related resources from our collection

Biases which frequently come into play with disinformation and help it influence our opinions and behaviours:

  • Authority bias
  • Bandwagon effect
  • Bias blind spot
  • Confirmation bias
  • Continued influence effect
  • Curse of knowledge
  • Dunning-Kruger effect
  • False consensus effect
  • Halo effect
  • Identifiable victim effect
  • In-group bias
  • Reactive devaluation
  • Selective perception
  • Semmelweis reflex

Suggested use in training

  • Present the bias to your learners and ask them to come up with examples from around them
  • Challenge your learners to report a situation where they were personally affected by Dunning-Kruger and acted in a biased manner