Do you know what a false equivalency is, and why every topic should not always be given a ‘both sides’ approach? There are points of view that people hold that either have no basis in empirical evidence, or have been derived from false information. Problems arise when these points of view are presented as legitimate counter-arguments to empirically established knowledge.
This is where a false equivalency arises. You have opposing sides of an argument, and the side that is based on conjecture, opinion, or false information is presented as if it holds equal weight, when in fact, it really doesn’t.
These things are not the same…
False equivalences happen frequently in the news cycle and have a detrimental effect on real journalism and the dissemination of factual information. Producing professional quality videos on YouTube is well within the ability of many people, as is the design of websites that mimic a legitimate news outlet.
There’s a lot that needs to happen in a legitimate news agency before a story is released. Sources need to be identified, doubled, then tripled for consistency and corroboration. Facts must be checked and double checked. Those involved in the story need to be vetted. In short, to present a news story takes time, effort, ethics, accountability, and integrity.
It is during this time when legitimate news outlets are developing their stories that false information is propagated. Sometimes the motivation to spread misinformation is nefarious. Mostly, it is not. It is generally borne out of a growing mistrust of the mainstream media, which I will get to in a minute.
Suffice to say, many of these individuals genuinely believe that their information is valid and helpful, and they have a sense of urgency to get that information out to as many people as possible. So they add to or create corresponding social media posts. They create or link to existing and very polished websites that share similar information. They create or link to professional looking YouTube videos that feature presenters who have academic or military titles because this achieves a sense of legitimacy. Then their misinformation spreads like a pandemic. Thus, a new false equivalency is born and thrust into the mainstream media as if it is on equal footing with facts.
Where the mainstream media fails many times is the presentation of this false information along side the legitimate news, as if it has equal weight. Because of the nature of how the Internet and social media works, this false information becomes so popular that legitimate news outlets are drawn into inviting a representative for the purpose of providing opposing sides for a debate. The problem here is that only one side relies on research, facts, empirical evidence, vetted sources, etc.
Both ‘sides’ should never be given equal time, because this gives viewers and listeners a false impression of equivalence, that the argument for illegitimacy is somehow on the same level as the legitimate. Imagine arguing with a meteorologist that clouds are made of cotton candy? All the information that you bring to the table to argue your point doesn’t matter, because the comparison of cotton candy to the science behind cloud formation is moot.
At this point, even when the false information is debunked, it’s usually too late. Minds are made up. The result is that the mainstream media has not only given credibility to the incredible, but are now seen as the purveyor of fake news. By catering to false equivalencies in their attempt to achieve credibility, the mainstream media, who are the ones responsible for bringing real, factual, vetted and verified news to the public, are now mistrusted.
This leads to an entirely different problem, the redefining of skepticism and critical thinking as tools for confirmation bias, instead of using these skills to ferreting out the falsehoods, conjecture, opinion, and otherwise building an argument from facts and empiricism. That’s another topic for a later date, though.
We all really need to understand that just because someone wearing a suit and tie appears on a television program, in a YouTube video, or on a website that mimics a real, legitimate news outlet, they are not necessarily bringing you factual information.
Knowledge isn’t a bad thing…
It is important to always check the sources of what you are reading. Know what research (if any) is being cited, and does it come from well-regarded academic or journalistic institutions? It the website, itself, legitimate? Most importantly, check your own biases and make sure you are using your skepticism and critical thinking skills to challenge what you are reading or watching, instead of confirming it.
It’s easier than ever these days to be deceived by false information, and as we advance in technology, it will become increasingly harder to separate fact from fiction. It is up to us, as individuals, to make sure that the information we are ingesting is reliable, and not the rantings of the tin-foil hat brigade, or an agency, individual, or even foreign nation that has a more sinister agenda.
Note: This article is not referencing any specific topic, current event, political party, or world crisis. The problem of false equivalencies in the news cycle has been prevalent for almost a generation, and is extant regardless of political party, world view, or religious ideology