Category Archives: Logical Fallacy

Polar bears, social media, and how our emotional response may have helped a PR stunt

(This item – featuring a polar bear – emotionally hooked many people – and for some, any discussion is controversial. However, this post is not about polar bears or climate change but about successful propaganda messaging.)

Here is the original dying polar bear photo and post from photographer Paul Nicklen. Read carefully. He – and his associate – never say this polar bear is dying due to climate change but he does link climate change to polar bear habitat and asks readers to join Sea Legacy (of which he is the founder). His co-photographer Cristina Mittermeier acknowledged they had no way to know the cause of this bear’s starvation. At time of this blog post, her photo had received over 1 million likes just on Instagram. Nicklen has nearly 4 million followers of his own on Instagram.

The photos – and video – use the method of emotional engagement to capture the viewer’s quick acting System 1 thinking style. There is no question that this polar bear is starving and its life is endangered.

Again, per Mittermeier, they acknowledge they had no way of knowing the cause of this bear’s starvation.

National Geographic (for whom Nicklen has worked as a photographer), without evidence, links this bear and this photo to climate change.

Many media outlets picked up the story – emotional stories engage readers and viewers and tacked on the claim that the bear was dying due to climate change.

The photographers said, In the end, I did the only thing I could: I used my camera to make sure we would be able to share this tragedy with the world.”

The photo and videos were taken in August and published on December 5th, days before a global climate change conference in France.

Literally millions, if not tens of millions of people, saw this photo in media reports and shared posts on social media.

In the week that followed, we learned more:

Ultimately we learned that all of us were led, through a likely propaganda campaign, heavily reinforced on social media, to believe something that was not supported by evidence.

As the Toronto Sun notes, this photographer used similar photos in the past as PR for his group Sea Legacy. In this case, the photo was released months after it was taken, but days before a 50 nation climate summit in France.

Sea Legacy responded to some of the criticisms suggesting that the Inuit want to profit from polar bear hunting.

Higdon responded (and also noted that Inuit earn little from this activity):

The irony is that Sea Legacy is itself using this as a fundraiser while saying the Inuits’ interest is just money. Sea Legacy encouraged readers to join Sea Legacy and also provides licensing information for use of the video.

From a PR standpoint, this was an overwhelmingly success propaganda campaign. This story consumed social media Likes and Shares for days.

This campaign successfully delivered the message that polar bears are starving to death because of climate change – and you could make a difference by contributing to the Sea Legacy organization.

How it Worked

The photo tugs at our emotions and quickly puts our brain into an emotional response, rather than a rational response. Pre-propaganda campaigns have already established  images of polar bears as the sign of climate change; before climate change, we called it “global warming”, hence, a connection to Arctic ice.

The photographers added commentary, saying we found a starving bear, experts say climate change will cause melting ice and will lead to food shortages for bears … leaving the conclusion to the viewer –> this bear’s death is due to climate change. Much of the professional media took the bait – and immediately drew that conclusion in their reporting. This method of using a sequence of true statements to direct the target to a false conclusion is common in propaganda. See The most spectacular example of social media propaganda – so far! for another example of this method.

The message was distorted at best and possibly wrong at worst as no supporting evidence was provided as to the cause of starvation. Some suggested that Sea Legacy had a duty (because the polar bear is a protected species) to notify the Canadian government who likely would have euthanized the bear and performed a necropsy to learn more.

Bottom Line

As always, in propaganda messaging, the first message is the one that sticks, even when subsequently shown as false. We can be sure that millions of people got the messages: polar bears are already dying due to starvation caused by climate change. Young children in schools are likely brought to tears by these images and this message will stick with them perhaps for life.

In the end, this is not a story about polar bears or climate change – but a story about propaganda methods. The evidence that this was a PR stunt is greater than the evidence provided that this bear’s death is due to climate change.

This is possibly one of the most successful propaganda messaging campaigns of the modern era. Although as more people learn they were taken for a ride on this PR stunt express, this could cause long term harm to other environmental organizations attempting to legitimately raise awareness of serious issues, as we all tune out “yet another PR stunt”.

Note – This post is not about polar bears or climate change but about how a successful social media meme appears to have been launched in the media and social media days before a major international climate conference. Clearly, the pictured polar bear is starving. I have linked to respected and relevant sources (BBC, CBC, Polar Bear International’s Chief Scientist, National Post, Slate Magazine, Dr. Higdon, Andy Revkin and others) that question the accuracy of the messaging. This story, as noted by many (see links) has the appearance of a successful propaganda messaging campaign. This post makes no assertion as to the health of polar bear populations, the certainty or uncertainty of climate change or the future – and should not be interpreted as supporting or not supporting any position on those topics.)

“Deluge” of information makes it difficult for social media users to recognize true and false statements

Mark Zuckerberg argues that more information reaching more people enhances democracy. But, as the adage goes, quantity does not equal quality.

Source: Facebook Built Its Vision of Democracy on Bad Math | WIRED

The linked article says social media users are under a deluge of information overload – there is now so much information in our news feeds – much of it fake or false – that we are unable to distinguish between the real and the false.

This concept also applies to comments at the end of online newspaper articles where anyone can write what they want, even if untrue. To illustrate, our local paper had an item somewhat related to the topic of climate change. A commenter provided the (logical fallacy) argument that since sea levels were 400 feet lower 15,000 years ago, we had best be worried! That sounds like a compelling argument – until you learn of the context.

Most such logical fallacy comments are left “as is”, and can turn into a “factoid meme” which is actually false. No one offers a correction or context to the stated item.

Another commenter pointed out it was 26,500 years ago, not 15,000 years ago, when the sea was 400 feet lower. During that period, we had an Ice Age and much of Europe and North America was buried under massive ice sheets. When you see the context, you see that the first comment is an invalid argument. Yet many people may see only the first comment and may then pass that idea along to others via social media. Almost no one cross checks and verifies claims made on social media!

And how can we? We are inundated with false claims and logical fallacies through the fire hose of social media content. More information is not making us better informed – instead it is making us dumber.

Disaster Propaganda Part 2: Is there anything it can’t do?

This is not the Part 2 I was planning to post. Guess there will be Part 3!

Earthquakes!

A 7.1 or 7.2 magnitude earthquake occurred near Mexico City. Mexico is the 7th most seismically active country due to the intersection of 3 tectonic plates. An 8.1 magnitude earthquake took place near there in 1985, causing massive destruction to Mexico City.

Big quakes in Mexico are not unusual and they cause enormous damage, deaths and injuries.

Fires!

The western U.S., and British Columbia, Canada, have seen an above normal wildland fire season. Many commenters think this is abnormal. It’s not.

2017 has been a bad fire year, to date. Yet 2 of the past ten years have burned more acreage, to date, and 4 of the past ten years have had more total fires than 2017 (to date) (from National Interagency Fire Center, as of September 15, 2017).

Going back even further, we can see that fires prior to 1950 burned vastly larger number of acres each year.

Chart from United States Forest Service

(Much of this has to do with how the U.S. did or did not fight fires at various times, and how fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. Aggressive fire suppression for decades has resulted in built up fuels.)

Hurricanes!

This year has seen the most hurricanes since  … 2005.  Then we had a 12 year drought of land falling large hurricanes. And people forgot that Florida has been hit by 119 hurricanes since 1850. Hurricanes, even large ones, are not unusual. For emphasis, here is what the scientists say.

The Solar Eclipse!

There was a solar eclipse visible in the United States, in August. Total solar eclipses occur somewhere about every two years, on average.

Pattern Matching!

People are constantly pattern matching their current experiences to create a model of how they think the world works. Not surprisingly, based on social media posts, people have concluded that

  • these events are unique and rare
  • they must be caused by something – there must be a cause so let’s find one that fits our limited world view!
  • their pattern matching has identified a pattern – that earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, the solar eclipse in August and climate change are linked together
  • Therefore, human behaviors are causing these disasters

Face palm moment.

Logical Nonsense

This illustrates how many are easily persuaded of logical nonsense.

Twitter is filled with bizarre tweets linking quakes, hurricanes, fires – and even the solar eclipse – to confirmation of human caused climate change. Yes, the eclipse caused fires! Hurricanes! Is there anything it can’t do?

I started to collect snapshots of the Tweets but there were far too many and I gave up.

Yet it is clear that many – including seemingly “smart” people – are drawing these correlations and have convinced themselves that quakes, hurricanes, fires, solar eclipses and climate change are all linked together!

Further, they believe it essential to share their nonsense propaganda with everyone on social media.

Never let a disaster go to waste!

Afterword

NBC News tried to push the “this must be unique” moment with the following:

If the problem with this silly statement is not obvious, consider the annual variance: “normal” varies between a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 28 named storms per year.

And then think about what “average” means.

Begging the question (fallacy) in propaganda messaging

“Begging the question, sometimes known by its Latin name petitio principii (meaning assuming the initial point), is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the statement under examination to be true. In other words, begging the question involves using a premise to support itself. If the premise is questionable, then the argument is bad.”

Source: Begging the question (fallacy) – Grammarist

This is explained by example at a conservative leaning blog:

This insidious process of begging the question is typical of totalitarian propaganda which made abundant use of expressions like “undeniably”, “unquestionably” or as “everyone knows” or their more modern equivalents like as “all decent people agree …”, “the science is settled” or “this is not who we are” to assume what must otherwise be proved. But it nevertheless compels obedience like a herd driving itself along.

This has the effect of positing a consensus which in fact may not exist.

This is the basic concept of asserting something to be true, followed by asserting that everyone already agrees (“Get on the Bandwagon” propaganda method).

This propaganda statement is extremely common as illustrated by the last item, above “this is not who we are” – this statement, often in exactly those words – was issued by United Airlines after they assaulted a paying customer, was used by Equifax after losing personal data on 143 million Americans, and is used in almost every press statement after a company has been caught doing something wrong or just plain stupid. Yet empirically, this is exactly who they are as illustrated by the event they are responding to!

Statements such as “everyone agrees” are intended to anchor you to the thought that the discussion on the topic is settled.

Update:In late 2017, numerous entertainment, media and political leaders have been accused, often with numerous accusers and witnesses, of using their position of power to sexually assault or harass women. In almost every case, the accused has used the “this is now who I am” defense even when admitting to the behavior.

Sen. Al Franken’s resignation announcement text using the now traditional “this is not who I am” phrasing:

“I am proud that during my time the senate I have used my power to be a champion of women and that I have earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside everyday. I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am,” Franken said on the U.S. Senate floor Thursday morning.