Not every topic warrants a “both sides” approach. Some viewpoints are simply not backed by empirical evidence or are based on false information. And journalists have to be careful not to present them as legit debates. If they do, they are creating a “false equivalence.”

TEACHERS: Learn more about this topic and how you might teach it with your students via one of our free summer PD courses: https://teach.kqed.org/misinformation-course-collection/

What is false equivalence?

It’s when you set up two opposing sides of an argument, and make it look like they hold equal weight, when really, they don’t. And presenting both of these views as valid is a logical fallacy, or a “false equivalence.”

Why do false equivalences happen in journalism?

When news is breaking, journalists are often faced with making decisions quickly, without much time for fact-checking. Propagandists — people who want to use the media to spread a particular cause or belief — often take advantage of the chaos of breaking news to spread rumors and conspiracy theories. They often create false social media accounts, and then use other false accounts to comments and like a post. Even trained journalists can fall for false posts when they are shared widely by real-looking accounts on places like Twitter or Facebook. False equivalences also happen when news outlets will invite two opposing “sides” on an issue to debate one another, but one side doesn’t rely on solid evidence to back their argument. Both sides are given equal air time and equal weight — creating a false impression of equivalence. The false argument will often spread on social media before it can be de-bunked.

What role do social media companies play in spreading misinformation?

This is a hotly debated question, and companies like Facebook distribute more information than any other institution in history. While they are constantly changing their policies and algorithms in an attempt to slow down the spread of fake posts from dubious sources, they have yet to develop a consistent or effective way to combat the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

What can I do to avoid falling for false equivalence?

Be skeptical — just because someone is on TV, or appears in a social media post doesn’t always mean that they are legitimate experts on a topic. Always check the sources they are citing. Are they citing research from well-regarded academic or journalistic institutions? Do their websites look legit? And check your own biases. Are you being critical of the information you’re consuming, or are you looking for something to prove what you already believe? Challenge yourself by reading an opposing point of view and analyzing their arguments.

SOURCES

Data Craft: The Manipulation of Social Media Metadata (Amelia Acker, Data & Society)

The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators (Whitney Phillips, Data & Society)

News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018 (Pew Research Center)

Watch Doctors Have Heated Debate Over Vaccination (CNN)

CNN’s ‘Information Warfare Expert’ Duped by Twitter Bot Pushing Dubious MAGA Hat Teen Vid

False Equivalence: Why It’s So Dangerous | Above the Noise 13 June,2019Annelise Wunderlich

Author

Annelise Wunderlich

Annelise is a documentary filmmaker, educator, and Youth Participation Manager at KQED. Her films have aired on national and regional public television outlets, and she teaches film studies at Diablo Valley College. She loves very spicy food, and traveling to places where people make it.

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