How the Kremlin and its disinformation networks use logical fallacies to dismiss, dismay, distract, and distort
The Kremlin and the pro-Kremlin media have a comprehensive toolkit when it comes to the creation and dissemination of disinformation, including logical fallacies to construct seemingly compelling arguments.
Logical fallacies are flaws in reasoning that create an illusion of a logically sound argument. Defined by Purdue’s Online Writing Lab:
Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Fallacies can be either illegitimate arguments or irrelevant points, and are often identified because they lack evidence that supports their claim. Avoid these common fallacies in your own arguments and watch for them in the arguments of others.
They exploit our mental shortcuts and require critical analysis to spot. The Kremlin and its media have exploited a wide variety of logical fallacies to attack critics, change the subject, and deepen divisions in the Western societies.
1. Ad Hominem Fallacy
Ad hominem fallacy refers to an attack on person’s character, as opposed to their argument. The pro-Kremlin disinformation networks frequently use this fallacy to dismiss the work of journalists, policy makers, and researchers who contradict the Kremlin’s statements or chosen narratives.
A noteworthy example of this tactic was the onslaught of attacks against Bellingcat’s founder and @DFRLab Nonresident Senior Fellow Eliot Higgins.
For his research confirming the Russian-led separatist forces’ involvement in the downing of the MH17, as well as Russian troop presence in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, Eliot has become a target of hundreds of ad hominem attacks. His personal and professional background was used to undermine the substance of his work.
Below is an example of a pro-Kremlin blogger with close connections to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Graham Philips, who attacked Eliot’s work based on the ad hominem fallacy.
Another notable example was a smear campaign against Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, who was accused of being the granddaughter of a Nazi after she announced the extension of Canada’s training mission in Ukraine back in 2017.
2. Straw Man
The Straw Man tactic refers to attacking an argument by first mischaracterizing it to make it easier to negate.
A prime example of this fallacy used in the pro-Kremlin disinformation is the “Gayropa” narrative. “Gayropa” is a blend of words Gay and Europe and is often used to portray European societies as hedonistic and morally corrupt juxtapositioning them with the traditional “family values” that Russia prides itself in promoting. This argument clearly mischaracterizes liberal democracies and their values to make them less attractive to the Russians and “family value-minded” Europeans.
3. Appeal to emotion
Appeal to emotion has been a common fallacy in the pro-Kremlin media’s reporting. One of the most notable examples was the “Lisa case” when Russian media and high-ranking political figures accused the German authorities of failing to investigate the rape of an underage Russian-German girl called Lisa, who was allegedly raped by “migrants”. It was found that the underage girl fabricated the story.
During the course of the police investigation, Russian TV channel “First Chanel”, “Vesti”, and other outlets produced video reports that used highly emotional language to report unconfirmed information, such as “she was raped and beaten for 30 hours and then thrown out”, “sexually frustrated refugees” to anger the Russian-speaking communities in Germany.
The reports were watched over a million times on Facebook and Youtube alone and sparked protests in Berlin.
4. Appeal to hypocrisy
Appeal to hypocrisy, also known as “whataboutism” is one of the most common logical fallacies in the pro-Kremlin disinformation. It was used extensively after the investigation into the Russia’s meddling in the American presidential elections was launched.
Shortly after Special Counsel Mueller and his team released an indictment against thirteen Russian nationals and three organizations on February 16, Kremlin-funded Sputnik News published at least four articles accusing the United States of meddling in other nations’ elections, citing examples of U.S. involvement in foreign elections during the Cold War.
This was done to lessen the Russian crimes and change the subject of the discussion.
5. Slippery slope
Slippery slope fallacy suggests that a minor action will lead to a more significant event. Pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets have used this fallacy when reporting on the language laws in the post-Soviet countries with significant populations of native Russian speakers, like Latvia and Ukraine.
A good example was Latvia’s decision to gradually transition Russian language schools more required instruction in the national language — Latvian. This sparked a disinformation campaign against the Latvian government, led by pro-Kremlin media outlets in Latvia.
Vesti.lv, a pro-Kremlin media outlet, published several articles in response to the aforementioned effort with inflammatory headlines such as: “Latvian Russians are facing a regime of totalitarian xenophobia”, “Life for Russians in Latvia is ‘catastrophic’”, and “For speaking Russian — fines!”
The slippery slope argument escalated to such an extent that pro-Kremlin media outlets started arguing that teaching Latvian in Russian schools will lead to Latvia’s native Russian speakers having to pay fines every time they speak Russian in Latvia.
6. Either/Or fallacy
False dilemma fallacy refers to limiting the options to only two options, when there might be more options to choose from.
A recent example of how this fallacy was used by the Kremlin is Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement on the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom on March 21. It read:
“Logic suggests that there are only two possible things. Either the British authorities are not able to provide protection for such a, let’s say, terrorist attack on their soil, or they, whether directly or indirectly, I am not accusing anyone, have orchestrated an attack on a Russian citizen”
The statement presented two options, neither one of which included the likeliest possibility established, which is that the Russian government was behind the attack.
7. Hasty generalization
Hasty generalization fallacy refers to generalizing without sufficient evidence. An example of that were Russia’s accusations that the United States is supporting ISIS terrorists in Syria.
Kremlin-funded media frequently publishes articles accusing the U.S. of supporting ISIS. The articles provide no evidence, except for “anonymous sources” who often “speak directly” with Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
These stories get reported by dozens of pro-Kremlin outlets, generating thousands of impressions and clicks without a shred of evidence to support any of the conclusions.
8. Red Herring
Red herring is a popular diversion tactic in political communication, where the attention is intentionally shifted to another subject when an unflattering topic is brought up. The red herring fallacy was used by the Kremlin excessively following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
For example, when a journalist questioned Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, President Putin responded by saying that U.S. took Texas from Mexico, shifting the topic of the discussion from Russia’s illegal actions to the American history.
The Kremlin disinformation network has weaponized flaws in human reasoning by exploiting our mental shortcuts to seed Kremlin-friendly narratives. As a result, logical fallacies are one of the most often used tactics in Kremlin’s disinformation efforts.
The extensive use of logical fallacies reveals the importance of critical thinking and analytical skills in building resilience to disinformation and manipulation. Only by learning to examine arguments critically, will we move on from discourse able to sway away from fact, towards a more fact-based debate. Media literacy, although a long-term endeavor, is one of the best ways to promote the much-needed critical engagement with news and information.
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Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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