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How Mainstream Media Creates Dangerous Echo Chambers with Flawed Arguments

By: José Azel - Nov 3, 2017, 9:45 am
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We must hold media commentators to a much higher standard. If we do not, we end up with an inadvertent political echo chamber not unlike that of the intentional echo chamber created by authoritarian regimes.

EspañolIn news media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by repetition inside a defined system such as newscasts, editorials, opinion pages or online forums. In a media echo chamber, competing points of view are disallowed or underrepresented. Echo chambers work to reinforce a given worldview, making it seem more predominant.

This is what we find in regimes with government-controlled media. A quick glance at Cuba’s official newspaper Granma illustrates the point. Our American variety of political echo chambers is more subtle but just as effective, particularly online. In the online environment, which many young people use as their only source of political information, unsubstantiated, exaggerated or distorted claims are made and repeated by like-minded people until most assume that the claim must be true.

The problem is not restricted to the online world. Mainstream media also reinforces the beliefs of their audiences by echoing back arguments lacking in logical soundness. Philosophers call these flawed argumentations informal fallacies. The list of informal fallacies is extensive, but let’s see if you can spot any of these in recent media political coverage.

A favorite is the onus probandi fallacy in which commentators shift the burden of proof from the person making the claim to the person denying it. The burden of proof is always with the person making a claim. We should not have the burden of having to disproof others.

In 1952, philosopher Bertrand Russell, in an article titled “Is There a God?” made this point by introducing his “celestial teapot” example. The article, never published because it was deemed too controversial, noted that: If we assert, without offering proof, that a teapot orbits the Sun, the assertion can not be disproven. But, that does not mean it is true. There is no burden to show that no teapot is orbiting the sun.

Another favorite is the slippery slope argument. This is a consequentialist argument in which it is claimed that a relatively small first step inevitably leads to a chain of events culminating in some significant undesirable event. A slippery slope argument can be valid if evidence is offered to substantiate that the initial action will result in the predicted consequences. But, as usually offered, the presenter ignores other possibilities.

Pundits are also fond of the “correlation proves causation” fallacy where they offer that a correlation between two events means that one is the cause of the other. It is known that there is a strong correlation between ice-cream sales and homicide rates. But do rising ice-cream sales cause homicide rates to increase? Of course not. The correlation is real, but the events are unrelated. Both patterns are caused by hot summer temperatures that boost ice-cream sales and homicide rates.

Some commentators favor “arguments from incredulity” where they simply posit that “I cannot imagine how this could be true; therefore it must be false.” Others prefer “appeal to the stone” (argumentum ad lapidem) where they dismiss a claim as absurd without demonstrating its absurdity. And many “beg the question,” concluding something by assuming it.

Yet others continuously move the goalpost dismissing evidence presented in response to a claim and demanding other evidence. Or, engage in the “Nirvana” fallacy rejecting solutions to problems because they are not perfect. Some commentators are skilled in ignoratio elenchi, offering arguments that are valid, but totally irrelevant to their conclusions.

We should be particularly careful of the “false dilemma” fallacy where two alternatives are offered as the only possible options; often there are other options. Also, look out for the “argumentum ad temperatiam” that claims that a compromise between two positions is always correct. And when all else fails, there is the ad hominem fallacy of attacking the arguer instead of the argument.

I could go on, but the point is that we must hold media commentators to a much higher standard. If we do not, we end up with an inadvertent political echo chamber not unlike that of the intentional echo chamber created by authoritarian regimes.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.