False equivalence is a logical fallacy where two opposing arguments are presented as equally valid or comparable despite their differences, and it seems to me to be particularly prolific and, dare I say it, an infantile tactic to (try to) win arguments on Twitter. Partly this post was inspired by the frankly brilliant “Jews Don’t Count” documentary I watched recently on Ch4 (I confess I haven’t yet read the book) which returned to the topic a few times in trying to understand why antisemitism and other forms of racism are often incorrectly compared and contrasted with different standards applied.
On the surface of it, false equivalence just seems tiresome and lazy, but I wanted to dust off some of the psychology books and dig into why it’s so often used, and perhaps to see if there’s anything we can do to limit the tendency to turn to it.
The Allure of False Equivalence (FE):
The prevalence of false equivalence on Twitter could be chalked up to it being a low-effort cognitive strategy used to score a ‘quick win’ against opponents in a debate. Our cognitive biases may lead us to reach for seemingly comparable examples that, upon closer examination, aren’t equivalent at all. This behaviour could be driven by the desire to appear clever, the need to simplify convoluted issues, or the influence of confirmation bias (a tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs). Cognitive psychology identifies various other heuristics and biases that may contribute to the use of false equivalence. For example, the availability heuristic suggests that people rely on readily available information, even if it’s not representative of the broader context. This could lead individuals to draw on superficially similar examples to support their arguments, without considering the nuances that make them different. Moreover, the anchoring bias – the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered – can further contribute to false equivalence as it over-weights the importance of that first bit of information.
Let’s take a look at some typical examples of FE
Comparing the use of Nitrous Oxide to Class A drug use.
It should be perfectly possible to acknowledge that these things are wildly different with different prevention strategies whilst acknowledging that both are evidently harmful to people and society.
Comparing British imperialism with the rise of Communist imperialism in China and Soviet Russia.
British imperialism was characterised by colonisation, exploitation of resources, and the heavy-handed application of British culture and governance structures in colonised territories. In contrast, Communist imperialism focused on the spread of communism, in the Soviet case through the establishment of satellite states and the widespread use of military force to maintain control. Using historic examples to justify the context of modern imperialism is patently flawed.
Comparing refugees fleeing persecution, war and abuse with undocumented economic migrants seeking to cross a border.
One is a humanitarian catastrophe for which the vast majority of people have a huge amount of compassion and would support efforts to resolve, the other has an entirely different context of pull factors and perhaps public perception. Even if they end up paying the same people trafficker to end up in the same dinghy on the same stretch of water.
Comparing mass shootings to road traffic deaths.
Ignoring the context of how cars are typically used and how road traffic accidents occur to make the argument that ‘banning cars’ is a comparable action to removing guns from society is a classic fallacy seen repeatedly online.
Comparing vaccination to wearing a bike helmet or mandated seatbelt.
Vaccination protects the individual and wider society through herd immunity with varying levels of scientific consensus, a seatbelt protects an individual but is a mandated requirement based on irrefutable scientific evidence of efficacy, and a bike helmet is an unregulated recommendation for an individual based on overwhelming scientific evidence.
What is it about Twitter that exacerbates FE?
Unsurprisingly, deploying FE can lead to misunderstandings and misrepresentations, making it rather challenging to engage in productive conversations and the character limit and fast-paced nature of Twitter exacerbate the issue. User may unintentionally or intentionally oversimplify complex arguments to fit within the physical constraints or pressure to respond at speed, most likely on a mobile device having done little to no research.
In the tumultuous world of Twitter, it’s not uncommon to find users chiming in on topics beyond their realm of expertise. While everyone should have the right to share their opinions, this tendency introduces a conundrum: subject matter experts (SMEs) often have less visibility than influencers who are popular in unrelated domains, resulting in an inversion of perceived value in their opinions.
As we navigate the choppy waters of Twitter debates, it’s essential to recognise that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. Distinguishing between the voices of SMEs and those of influential figures whose expertise lies elsewhere can help to ensure that we’re engaging with informed opinions and fostering a more accurate and insightful discourse.
To avoid drowning in the sea of false equivalence, it’s crucial to
- Be mindful of the context and specific details of each argument.
- Compare the severity, consequences, and evidence supporting each side.
- Beware of oversimplifications or distortions.
All this means is taking a little longer to respond, and a little more time to think and consider.
To constructively challenge false equivalence, it’s best to ask for clarification or provide additional information that highlights the differences between the two arguments. Encourage open and respectful dialogue, focusing on the nuances and complexities of each situation.
False equivalence is a pervasive problem on Twitter, often leading to misconstrued arguments and unproductive discussions. By understanding the cognitive biases and heuristics that contribute to this fallacy, we can become more aware of our thought processes and foster a healthier discourse on the platform.
“False equivalence: how ‘balance’ makes the media dangerously dumb“, Bob Garfield, The Guardian
“False Equivalence: The Problem with Unreasonable Comparisons“, Dr. Itamar Shatz, Effectiviology
This post was originally created and shared on LinkedIn 31st March 2023.