In a democracy, large corporations selling harmful products are faced with a problem. The political parties that run the public relations campaigns for these large corporations have a similar challenge. How to get people to buy products that harm them? How to get people to vote against their own interests?
People usually need to be persuaded to buy products that harm them, to get them to vote against their own interests. I’ve already covered some of the persuasion tactics used by the political parties that have been ‘corporate captured’.
Another important persuasion tactic is false equivalence.
What is false equivalence?
False equivalence is also known as ‘false balance’ or the ‘two-sides fallacy’. It’s when an issue is presented to make it seem it has two sides of equal weight, when in fact the evidence or expert argument supports just one side.
In the British media, it’s a way of ensuring Conservative, evidence-free, views are given the same prominence in the media as those of experts.
Examples of false equivalence
- When ‘Partygate’ emerged, damaging Boris Johnson (he received a fixed penalty notice from the Police), Conservative politicians concocted ‘Beergate’ in an attempt to draw false equivalence.
“Partygate became a scandal for No 10 because it involved multiple allegations of law-breaking at Downing Street. Despite the best efforts of the Tory media, this is the only incident that has come to light in which Starmer has been accused of breaking lockdown rules.”
- BBC Radio 4 inviting a climate change denier to express their views unchallenged, even though the scientific consensus is that climate change is real.
- The Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – paying climate change sceptics to appear on local TV and radio stations.
And… Musk’s false equivalence machine
Elon Musk says he bought Twitter “to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner”.
Which suggests that, before he bought it, Musk felt a wide range of beliefs could not be debated. Any beliefs in particular?
Journalist Matt Binder says Musk bought Twitter to amplify right wing voices:
“all the why Elon Musk bought Twitter theories are overthinking it. it’s simple. Musk is in a right wing filter bubble. he bought Twitter believing their problems were real & that others felt the same this is what happens when you have a lot of money & live in fantasy land”
One of Musk’s first innovations was to make the Twitter’s blue verification tick available to anyone who spends $8, tweeting: “current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit. Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.”
I saw the impact of these changes (screengrab, top of page) when watching digital product expert Tom Coates patiently debate an “entrepreneur” called Sean on Twitter. Tom was awarded his Twitter Blue Tick, as verification of his identity / expertise.
Sean had purchased his ‘Blue Tick’. It gives him the appearance of being an expert. In the Twitter notifications tab there’s a verified option, that only shows tweets from ‘Blue Tick-ers’. In that section, Tom and (the more conservative?) Sean appear as equals. But they are not.
In effect, consciously or not, Musk is building a dangerous false equivalence machine.
Why is false equivalence used? Why does it matter?
As already mentioned, in the British media, false equivalence is used to ensure Conservative, evidence-free, views are given the same prominence in the media as those of experts. It ensures Conservative politicians are given a platform, even when they have little to add, and to help them win votes.
Often, one of the goals of political false equivalence is voter apathy, to encourage voters to think politicians “are all the same”, and therefore deter them from looking for alternatives to the incumbent politicians.
Corporations use false equivalence to combat criticism of their products, to change the narrative, to neutralise voter opinion – which then deters politicians from legislating.
The Global Climate Coalition’s (GCC) – which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries – use of the false equivalence tactic helped them to delay legislation against their industries.
In August 1993, GCC PR man E Bruce Harrison wrote:
“The rising awareness of the scientific uncertainty has caused some in Congress to pause on advocating new initiatives,”
“Activists sounding the alarm over ‘global warming’ have publicly conceded that they lost ground in the communications arena over the past year.”