2 December, 2020

How to spot BS being used to manipulate public opinion

icon Calling Bullshit,covid-19 disinformation,disinformation,media manipulation

Disinformation often comes as Bullshit (BS) packaged to trick readers with impressive language, graphics and bogus logic. Spot and push back with tips from Calling Bullshit. How good is your BS-meter? Consider these claims:

  • Eight times as many people watched Trump's inauguration on streaming video
  • The richest Americans pay the most federal tax
  • FOX News claim that food stamps cause poverty
  • List of the most dangerous cities in America
  • Pope Francis endorsed Trump for President
  • Computer programs aren't racist nor sexist
  • Hip hop artists are likely to die young
  • Trump's claim that vaccinations cause autism


"The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. We're sick of it. It's time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument." Calling Bullshit - Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West.

"Instead of trying to combat each leak directly, we should teach the public to tell when they are being manipulated. Americans should be taught the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, from how to fact-check news articles to how pictures can lie." Mark Galeotti's on the best defense against information warfare (NYT)

Bogus claim that more people watched Trump's inauguration by video stream than President Obama's inauguration.

1. Eight times more people watched Trump's inauguration by video stream
Watch for apples to oranges comparisons. This argument falls apart when you consider that streaming video was hardly available in 2009. It's like saying there are 10,000% more car accidents than 1850. Of course there are, considering what is being compared. Video tutorial.

Graphs and visual tricks can be used to distort reality.

2. The rich pay more taxes
Graphs can be deceptive and distort reality. The pyramid graph uses visual tricks and colors to make the taxes paid by the top 1% appear bigger. Video tutorial.

The histogram on the right shows income inequity much better. "In the United States, the income gap between the rich and everyone else has been growing markedly, by every major statistical measure, for more than 30 years." (

Faulty logic being used to claim that food stamps cause poverty.

3. Food stamps cause poverty
Spot the faulty logic used to make this claim. Two things can be correlated when they often occur together, but it is not necessary that one causes the other. People living in poverty may need help in food stamps. But the claim that providing food stamps causes people to choose poverty as a lifestyle is utter nonsense. People may eat more ice cream when the weather is hot, but claiming that eating ice cream makes the weather hot is pure BS. Video tutorial.

FOX ran a story about food stamp fraud in the US, and framed this as a possible reason to eliminate the food stamp program (now known as SNAP). There are about 300 million people in the US of which about 30 million people are on food stamps. The amount of fraud reported was $70m which amounts to 0.2% of the total program. Hardly a reason to shut down a program that helps so many families. The Washington Post called them out on it. "Fox News wonders whether we should cancel food stamps because 0.09% of spending is fraudulent." Case Study

Such claims are as nonsensical as a claim that FOX should shut down its news division because it paid $90 million to settle a sexual harassment claim against Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly when the FOX News Channel's annual income was $821 million or 11%.

Where you draw the boundaries determines the results you get.

4. List of most dangerous cities in America
How you choose the area to analyze will skew the results. Atlanta, GA for instance, is geographically smaller than Jacksonville, FL. As a result it has a more concentrated urban core with more people living there. Comparing two cities of different sizes with different urban/rural composition is an exercise in BS. It's like saying there are more surfers per square mile in Los Angeles than in Anchorage. Video tutorial.

5. Pope Francis endorsed Trump for President
BS often comes in the form of doctored images distributed through websites designed to look like real news sites. Check the author and source fo such claims against independent sources such Snopes and FactCheck. Video tutorial.

Computer programs are only as good as their programmer and the learning data they were given.

6. Computer programs aren't racist nor sexist
Computer programs are only as good as the person who programmed them. Programs based on artificial intelligence rely on learning data to train the program to analyze pictures on their own. For example, a program given only pictures of brown cows as learning data would have a hard time identifying a cow with patches. Do not accept arguments based on computer results as the gospel truth. Video tutorial.

Algorithms can be sexist. Do a Google Image search for 'CEOs'. 27% of American CEOs are women, but Google only shows a small number of women CEO's photos.

Amazon offers facial recognition but the results are spotty - probably as a result of the test data used to develop their software. "Amazon facial recognition mistakenly confused 28 Congressmen with known criminals".

Using a small data set to analyze will result in faulty conclusions.

7. Hip hop artists are likely to die young
Check to see how valid a data set was used to make a conclusion. A bad dataset will give a faulty conclusion. The fallacy in this survey is that new music genres will obviously have more younger artists. The survey should include both young and old rap artists for instance to get a more accurate result. Video tutorial.

"That is, there's a strong correlation between the (age of) genre and the age of performers, and there's a strong correlation between the ages of performers (alive or dead) and the ages at death of those already dead. Together, these correlations create a correlative link between genre and age at death. If not careful, one might attribute that correlation to causal influences of lifestyle when it in fact is a consequence of each genre's age structure." - Case study.

Watch for arguments based on pseudo science.

8. Trump's claim that vaccinations cause autism
Check on the source of a statement. Are they qualified to make that claim? What's in it for them? Two events are co-related in this example. Children go to doctors to get vaccinated. Some children have autism. But one does not cause the other? Video tutorial

Take Away

Calling Bullshit is a book for today full of practical insights. Here are three of my favorites:
- "The amount of effort necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it." - Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle
- Use Fermi Estimation to quickly check the claims being made. e.g. $70m of wastage in the Food Stamp (SNAP) program is only 0.09% of the total budget.
- Use the 'Reduce To Absurd' method to counter bogus Food Stamp argument with the example of closing FOX News above.
Watch the 'Calling Bullshit' video series and buy the book.


Image credit: Pete Linforth on Pixabay

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