Degradation of Online Civility–Part 2

Paula LaBrot

As promised, this column will be devoted to the recognition of the more common soft fallacies you encounter in unpleasant online exchanges. Understanding fallacies helps you wade through the negativity of troll-generated posts. Hopefully, you will strengthen your ability to evaluate the kind of unsound, uncivil posts you encounter on sites like Facebook, Nextdoor, and Twitter. According to, “studying fallacies is an important part of logic and one that can immediately enrich your life. It will help you develop the vocabulary and skills needed to better evaluate the arguments of politicians, neighbors, advertisers, authorities, and people in general.”

Ad Hominem Attacks. Probably the most recognized fallacy on social media is the ad hominem attack. A person’s physical or mental state is attacked, rather than their ideas, in an effort to undermine their argument or opinion. Jon Miltimore writes for “Though timelessly popular, the ad hominem has found particular prominence in the current age….” He calls out ad hominem attacks for shutting down civil conversation and for their cruelty. When you see someone personally attacking someone who has expressed an opinion, “it’s generally a sign that a healthy exchange of ideas is no longer possible.” I love that expression, “a healthy exchange of ideas.” I could write the whole article on this one fallacy. Hasty Generalization. This fallacy is used to form a conclusion based on a small sample…often used in stereotyping. For example, “All pit bulls are dangerous,” or “All Hippies are vegetarians.” Used for stereotyping and creating false deductions.

Red Herring. A red herring drives me crazy. It is inserted into an argument or discussion to distract from the central issue. says, “The term red herring literally refers to a kind of dried red fish, which has a pungent smell. In fox hunting, hounds are prevented from catching the fox by distracting them with the strong scent of red herring. Similarly, a person can be stopped from proving his point or discovering something important, in an argument by distracting him with an irrelevant issue.” No ad hominem offense meant, but anyone having teenagers is probably well acquainted with this fallacy.

Appeal to Authority. This fallacy is used a lot by advertisers. Someone makes a claim about an idea or product and proves their point by pointing out someone famous or powerful who supports it. It is just laughable sometimes. Remember the old “More Doctors smoke Camels than any other brand?” Marketers use celebrity and professional endorsements in TV commercials, magazine and newspaper advertisements to validate their products or ideas. Think about it. How do you trust a famous or powerful person to “know?” Come on.

Black-and-White Thinking. This is very important to yours truly, born a middle child. Black-and-White thinking is a technique of limiting available choices. It is crucial to understand, considering the manufactured polarization our country is experiencing now. We are constantly bombarded by binary choices that completely negate the concept of nuance. Black-and-White thinking—“Us and Them,” “Either/Or,”—forces you to choose by omitting any possibility of “grey.” Maybe the Republicans have a good idea on one thing and the Democrats have a good idea about something else, and maybe there’s even room for an Independent or Libertarian idea.

According to, “This is one of the favorite fallacies of extremists, and many public debates on political and moral issues are polarized by those who use it to try to force others to the extremes.” On social media, watch out for those who attack you using this fallacy, challenging your worth on many ad hominem levels if you show any interest in the “them” or the “or.”


Cherry Picking. When people only use evidence that supports their opinion, ignoring other information.

Ad Populum. Arguing that something is true because large numbers of others believe it to be true (“Everyone’s doing it.”) plays on people’s need to fit in.

Appeal to Pity. Trying to get people to agree to an idea because they feel sorry for someone, making them feel like a bad/mean/insensitive person or eliciting guilt if they don’t agree.

Appeal to Force. The bully’s argument, scare tactics, threatening harm to influence the beliefs of others. Politicians and people on social media use it a lot, threatening social ostracization, financial ruin, end of the world, etc. It’s one of the ugliest of the fallacies.

Two Wrongs Make a Right Fallacy. Justifying what one did by accusing someone else of doing the same.


I hope you enjoy these tools. Process the information you experience on social media with good logic and good critical thinking skills. Try to use healthy, mature, respectful language online. Lift your online life out of fallacious reasoning and emotion-driven blurts that can wound or provoke retaliation. You don’t have to react to everything. If someone inserts themselves into a post and seems unreasonable, don’t “scream” at them, insult them, or censor them…just “hide” their post and move on.

Finding common ground takes us all to higher ground.n

Vamos a ver!

Author’s Note: I am so hoping that readers will talk about this article, cut it out, share it at the dinner table, share it with their kids. If people can look at a post or a news story and tease out the fallacies, it makes for a much more savvy population. When I was in high school, Logic was a required course for graduation. I loved it…and it has been one of the top two most useful classes I have ever taken.


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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