How to refute fake news (without the need to insult)

25, 2021

9 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

  • Interest groups have always existed that take advantage of the ignorance of others to inject wrong thoughts.
  • Mental frames, metaphors and narratives are designed, manufactured and disseminated so that many people believe in (or doubt) certain things.
  • You may be outraged to read biased and tortious information. Maybe you wanted to send an evangelist to error.

Today social networks allow us to express ourselves on any subject in the terms that we want. It does not matter if we know a lot or a little, we can give our opinion thinking that our criteria are equal to that of an expert person.

The democratization of content has given us an explosion of knowledge. But, also, the (false) perception that we can all be instant experts in cooking, trading , Bitcoins, atomic physics, politics, soccer, vaccines and a thousand other things.

Thus, obtuse and uncertain arguments proliferate on YouTube and social networks, such as, for example, fake news , flat Earth , conspiracy theories or various forms of denial (evolutionary, against climate change, anti-vaccination, 5G …).

Errors and ignorances have been a constant throughout history. The difference between the present and, say, the Classic Era is that there was no Twitter or TikTok then, and that what was criticized in agoras and forums was nothing more than temporary heat. But today citizens are connected with other citizenships and, like COVID, stupid things can go viral.

The problem

I see no malice in being wrong and defending the mistake. Even the wisest people admit that any theory can be refuted and exchanged for another. The bottom line is that there have always been interest groups that take advantage of the ignorance of others to inject wrong thoughts into society, knowing that they are wrong.

These groups design, manufacture and spread false mental frames, metaphors and narratives so that many other people believe in (or doubt about) certain things, depending on their interest at the time.

Nowadays, manipulators have it very easy thanks to social networks and the infodemic , which is that kind of avalanche of data that we receive at all hours. Furthermore, although they spend most of their time in hiding, they tend to manifest themselves more vigorously when, as now, discontent grows in the streets.

In your day-to-day life as an Internet surfer, surely you have come across one of these evangelists of error, with their biased and torturous comments. Maybe you wanted to send him to the club. But, before you get to that extreme, take good care of it.

The solution

When I meet someone who criticizes without having the slightest idea what he is saying, but who boasts an authority that he does not possess, I try not to lose my composure or disrespect him. The insult is rude and, furthermore, it is only practiced by those who lack real arguments to defend their position.

Rather, I use a system to decide whether the debate is worth entering and, if so, to ensure the quality of my arguments. It was invented in 2008 by entrepreneur and visionary Paul Graham .

In his article ” How to Disagree, ” Graham defined seven ways of arguing that range from gross to sophisticated. And, since stupidity seems more common than intelligence, the author imagined it in the shape of a pyramid.

Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement (2008)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The good thing about the scheme is that it helps you see what level you are on and move on to the higher level. From now on you can fight the obtuse stories without behaving like a madman.

Seven levels of discussion

Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement ranges from the most primitive to the most elaborate. And it is defined in the following steps:

1. The insult. Is the most brutal way of arguing of all. It appears when one disagrees with the opinion of another saying that he is a cretin or a fool (or something more serious). But disrespect does not change the course of any discussion and forever portrays whoever offends. And although some say that gossip is therapeutic , the truth is that when you have a business, the day could come when you regret having insulted someone .

2. The ad hominem criticism . It is the argument of those who want to attack an opinion by attacking the authority of the person who defends it. For example, in a discussion about whether the Earth is flat or round, a flat-earther tells an astronaut that he is wrong because he works for NASA and, of course, “ NASA is an agency of the American government designed to deceive people. ”. The problem with this argument is that it does not get to the heart of the matter and is therefore insubstantial.

3. The attack on tone . This shape is subtle. Imagine that a very wise person says something that is true, but because he speaks from an apparent arrogance, his opinion is criticized and he is belittled. It is like when we see a politician who doesn’t like us saying something in a speech, or like when the star of the rival soccer team pronounces on a result. We simply do not accept your opinion, not because of what you say, but because of how bad it is for us. It is a bad argument: it is based on prejudice, rather than analysis. I do not recommend it to refute opinions.

4. The contradiction. It consists of denying the opinion of the other in a systematic way, idea after idea. To each thing that the other says, the opposite option is presented just for the sake of it, without further argument. If one says that the Earth is round, the other will say that it is flat. If one says they can prove it, the other will say that too. If one says they have maps and math, the other will say they have them on the contrary. It is a form of endless discussion in which both parties want to have legitimacy on their own, but show no evidence. It is an exhausting way that I do not recommend either.

5. The counterargument. It is a more civilized position than the previous ones. It consists of taking a contradiction (link 4) and elaborating it with proofs (or pseudo proofs) that try to support it. The point, according to Graham, is that the counterargument provides inaccurate or adequate evidence to the case. For example: one discusses an idea to the other based on evidence that, in the past, he tried to lie to the other on a different matter. It is about invalidating the opponent with tests that have nothing to do with the ongoing discussion.

6. The rebuttal. This is a more sophisticated and efficient system. But, as it requires work, it is also less frequent. It is about identifying those arguments in which we disagree, analyze them and expose the reason for the error. Many times, if you find yourself at this level of the pyramid and expose the other, their counterattack will turn into insult or ad hominem criticism. This will try to disqualify you. But his derision will prove you right and you will know that you are right.

7. The refutation of the central point. Is the most evolved form of all. It involves expanding the previous link with greater richness and systematic forms. Again, it requires so much work that only people who are experts in a subject usually have the knowledge and ability to develop this rebuttal. For people like you and me, who are not, that depth of argument can help us detect who is right in a discussion we are not part of. So it’s a good idea to pay attention to elaborate arguments.


It is known that there are people who live convinced of wrong things, even knowing that the rest of the world warns them of their error. Psychologists say that this is a self-defense mechanism against the world, and that frees them from guilt.

But it is also known that there are political currents that seek to take advantage of these weaknesses. That is why idiocy abounds on the Internet and television debates. A poet from my land sang – more or less – that if assholes had wings, we would no longer see the sun.

It is up to you to inform yourself. It is up to you to build a criterion. No longer to avoid error, which will always be present in our lives. But to know when and how to buy a story and when and how to refute it in a civilized way.

And to avoid insults, although sometimes we believe that they are deserved.

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