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Fake News is More Than Just Fabricated Content

Deceptive rhetorical devices used in public and medial discourse can influence general opinion—and often go undetected

Sven Beisecker / Christian Schlereth - November 15, 2022

Tips for practitioners

Fake news is in its golden age, and its underlying deceptive rhetorical devices became particularly prevalent during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Two of these devices can be explained with the help of concrete examples: the ad hominem fallacy and the false dilemma fallacy.

The ad hominem fallacy

During the height of the pandemic, many virologists did not always agree on how the situation should be handled. Criticism from the public and the media did not always target their arguments directly. Instead, it focused on ways to personally discredit these scientists, for instance, by attacking the scientists through personal insults or by downplaying their role in the scientific community. This is an example of the ad hominem fallacy, i.e., an attack on the person instead of the argument. Here, rather than engaging with the other party in a conversation about the facts, critics target a supposed lack of competence.

The false dilemma fallacy

The false dilemma fallacy is the second example of deceptive rhetorical devices. This term refers to a complex situation, which restricts decisions to two possible extremes. This was the case during the height of the pandemic, when politicians from different sides of the fence pitted public safety against economic development as two completely opposing ideas—and only one path could be pursued supposedly. The same was true when it came to lockdowns or mandatory mask requirements. It was said that such measures would have to apply either to all citizens or to none of them. Nuanced decisions, compromising, and finding a middle ground were options completely ignored in the discourse. When a person uses this tactic, they do so in the hope that their own position will be considered the better option and the one to gain majority support.

Uncertain times are incubators for fake news

The two aforementioned deceptive rhetorical devices have existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, they’re part of a list by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that documents over 200 other such devices that can be classified as fake news. News outlets use such devices to some extent in their reporting, presenting factually correct content in ways that influence their readers’ opinion. This works particularly well when, as was the case during the early stages of the pandemic, there is hardly any solid scientific evidence to go by. The discourse is, therefore, compromised and conducted on an emotional rather than an objective level, as, due to a lack of information, there is no sound basis for evaluation.

Deceptive rhetorical devices are often difficult to detect as fake news

The Chair of Digital Marketing recruited 416 participants through a professional German survey panel provider for a best-worst scaling study. The study results show that readers do recognize these different devices as fake news, albeit in nuanced, gradual levels. The study investigated the extent to which readers are able to do so based on article headlines. This gives merit to the idea that these devices are suitable to shed light on the gray area of fake news.

Still, there is always the danger that these devices will go unrecognized as fake news. While certain devices are easy for readers to detect, the manipulative character of others can often only be seen after readers are explicitly made aware of them.

Readers also showed a variety of different reactions when confronted with fake news within their own networks on social media: they react much more strongly when it is a company that has spread fake news than when a personal contact has done the same. When users of social media come across fake news shared by a company, they are more likely to stop following its account or even leave the platform altogether. Therefore, it is recommended that companies avoid employing these deceptive rhetorical devices altogether.

Tips for practitioners

  • Be skeptical when others suggest that there are only two possible options for a complex decision.
  • Be just as skeptical when you realize that an argument appeals to you more on an emotional level and less on an objective one.
  • Pay attention to how an argument is framed in the news. Remember that some deceptive rhetorical devices are more difficult to detect than others!
  • Avoid consuming too much information too quickly. On social media, shared opinions can easily be adopted without further reflection.
  • Refrain from using deceptive rhetorical devices in your own company. Fake news can cause significantly more damage to a company than it can to a personal contact.

Literature reference and methodology

Co-authors of the study

Sven Beisecker

Sven Beisecker is a doctoral student at the Chair of Digital Marketing at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. In his research, he is primarily concerned with measuring future consumer behavior in areas where there is still little or no empirical data. In addition to fake news, examples include the willingness of people to implement various environmental protection measures and the acceptance of new technologies in customer interactions.

Professor Christian Schlereth

Christian Schlereth is holder of the Chair of Digital Marketing at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. His research primarily focuses on various questions concerning the digitalization in everyday life. Among other things, he conducts research on topics such as preference measurement for digital goods by means of discrete choice experiments, deriving actionable recommendations for better targeting, and online marketing for NGOs. For this purpose, he closely collaborates with leading companies in the digital industry. His publications appear in high-ranking journals in the fields of marketing, information systems, and operation research.

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