Hillestad: Democracy rests on telling bad information from good

We just went through a really rough election. The amount of misleading, incorrect and outright false information sent your way reached what must be considered flood stage.

It’s bad enough that your fellow Americans inundated you with garbage, hoping to influence your vote, rouse your emotions and separate you from your cash. We know that foreign powers were — and no doubt will continue — pouring massive effort into seeking to disrupt and discredit our democracy.

Operating under false flags, the identical sources are often directing outrageous and inflammatory messages to both sides in a way designed to further hatred and chaos.

Expect even more in the future, now that they know how cheap and easy it is, thanks to the internet. It’s not just about elections.
So how can you possibly tell whether what you’re seeing has any validity? Here are some simple guidelines:

Charles Hillestad grew up in Ashland. He attended the University of Oregon and University of Michigan Law School, with an interruption to serve in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne. After earning his law degree, he clerked with the Colorado Supreme Court, then spent 42 years practicing, writing and lecturing on the law in Colorado and Oregon. Trained in debate and analysis, he used those skills in trials and negotiations, believing persuasion works better and lasts longer than obfuscation. He makes his home in McMinnville.

Anonymous: If the creator is unknown, the message is not to be trusted, no matter how much you want to believe it.

Anonymity, all by itself, is a giant red flag. It strongly suggests the gutless author either wants to avoid responsibility for a lie or has no faith in the strength of his arguments.

Insufficiently Corroborated: Even if a name purporting to be the creator is included, don’t trust it unless there is sufficient information to establish independent confirmation.

It’s easy to conscript someone else’s name without their knowledge or consent. In fact, it’s now possible to change videos and place totally different words into someone’s mouth.

Inflammatory: If the message contains inflammatory images, lots of ALL CAPS and lots of exclamation points!!! — or the video equivalent, such as raised voices and dramatic music — you are probably being conned.

Ask yourself why. Ask yourself what the actual agenda might be. 

Demanding Instant Action: If the message demands you tell absolutely everyone you know, and do so instantly, it’s most likely a con. That’s a standard device of a con, particularly a political one.

Decades of late night commercials hawking worthless products have taught us the “Don’t wait!” command is a marketing ploy. The pitch man is hoping you won’t stop long enough to use your brain.

Keep this in mind: There is almost nothing that wouldn’t benefit from waiting at least overnight on a decision. 

Sole Sourced: If no one else except “echo chambers” are repeating or re-tweeting the message, you should wonder why. Keep in mind that all media, regardless of type or orientation, jump on breaking news. If absolutely no credible outlet is carrying the message, it probably isn’t true, no matter how much you wish it were.

Violating Common Sense: The old wisdom, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t,” is widely acknowledged for a reason.

Does the message pass the “sniff test”? Even if you hope it’s true, check it out before acting on it or passing it on.

Never forget, if you pass on messages easily proven false by others, you will look silly at best. Confirm the facts from bona fide fact-checking sites, preferably those of academic or non-partisan orientation.

Try several in search of a consensus. As the Watergate investigators proved, a report is much stronger with multiple confirmations.

Violating Rules of Evidence: Think about whether the information would be allowed in a court of law as valid evidence for consideration by a jury of peers.

Why do you think our judicial system, honed over the centuries, refuses to allow hearsay to be permitted at trial — especially anonymous hearsay? Experience has shown anonymity cannot be trusted.

The rules of evidence aren’t perfect, but they serve us pretty well. It’s a darn sight better relying on evidence than unsubstantiated hate mail.

Relying on Dirty Tricks: Finally, even if you confirm the source, and the claim seems reasonable, the information might still be untrustworthy. Google “dirty debate tricks” and you will be surprised how many are being used on you every day.

There are too many to detail here, but here are a few examples:

Cherry Picking: It’s dangerous to extrapolate a generality from an anecdote, or even a collection of anecdotes.

Reductio Ad Absurdum: It is unfair to mischaracterize an opposing argument to make it seem utterly ridiculous, then pretend to act incredulous about it. Silly or false analogies might also fit into this category.

Attacking a Strawman: Misquoting what the opponent said to make it sound much worse, then launching an attack on this basis, is worse that merely cheating. It amounts to lying on its face. A related tactic is claiming the other side violated a non-existent or irrelevant norm, or repeating sarcasm without acknowledging it as such.

Loaded Questions: These are questions for which all possible answers are incriminating, such as the proverbial, “So, when did you stop beating your wife?”  The aim is to force the other side to respond to false accusations, thus putting them into play unfairly.

Treating Fact as Opinion: You have often heard the quote, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.” That is very applicable in a debate.  No matter what anyone says, 2+2 still equals 4, and the sun continues to rise in the east.

Ad Hominem Attacks: These are attempts to distract from an opponent’s arguments by focusing instead on their clothes, appearance or some other irrelevant trait having nothing to do with facts or logic. Name calling is usually part of that reprehensible tactic.

False Dichotomy: The aim here is to reduce the argument of the other side down to only two possibilities when there is a clear middle ground, a third alternative being deliberately and misleadingly ignored.

Assuming Facts not in Evidence: Asserting something has been proven when it hasn’t is always a red flag. No judge would let an attorney get away with attempting to enter such nonsense into evidence.

Argumentum Ad Antiquitatem: Claiming something is right merely because it’s always been done that way doesn’t actually make it right.

Representing Popularity as Truth: This is the old bandwagon argument. It’s easy — but wrong — to claim a premise must be true because it’s so widely applauded or believed.

Double Standard: When facts are negative only when applied to the other side, the speaker is creating a double standard — the height of hypocrisy.

Non Sequitur: Assuming rather than proving, “If this, then that,” is a red herring. A related lazy fallacy is assuming correlation implies causation. That cannot simply be assumed.

Childish Behavior: Mocking, laughter, deep sighs, eye rolls, sneers, disrespectful body language, sarcasm, interruption, badgering, stares and intimidation amount to nothing more than diversions designed to avoid the actual issue. They suggest weakness, not strength.

There’s an old saw in law: “If you have the facts, argue the facts. If you don’t, pound the table.” But the latter is intellectually dishonest.

Rude, passive-aggressive behavior is a reprehensible tactic. It’s being carried out for a reason — to avoid having to offer a legitimate argument.

Scapegoating: Scapegoating plays on widely held fantasies or fears in order to deflect blame. It is utterly unacceptable in legitimate debate.

Sadly, there are many more ways to cheat or lie in order to avoid engaging in issue-oriented discussion.

Alerts as to dirty debating tactics should be taught in grade school. Maybe then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Please recognize them for what they are.

These are not just unfair tactics, serving to limit our ability to communicate with each other. In many ways, their growing popularity, especially in social media, threatens democracy itself.

Those who resort to such tactics are attempting to suppress the airing of honest information. But we need honest information, or at least the ability to recognize when it is not being provided.

Elections are too important to be swayed by bad information.

So are other important life decisions. You don’t ever want to become a pawn to an agent of ill intent. 



President Trump was the victim of countless of these the past four years from the mainstream media. Many of them during the 2020 campaign.

Anonymous: The Atlantic 'story' that Trump mocked World War I veterans while in Europe based on 'anonymous' sources and refuted by several dozen who went on record and a contemporaneous email showing the helicopter was grounded in 2018 because of bad weather causing the president to miss the ceremony that day. Do I really need to go into the many anonymous, oft single-source, Trump-Russia Collusion stories?

Attacking a Strawman: The Charlottesville "both-sides" lie. The president made it very clear at that news conference on that day who he wasn't talking about - the exact quote is "And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally." This one made it into the first presidential debate and Biden cited it as the reason he entered the 2020 race.

Loaded Questions: How many horrendous questions from the press were thrown Trump's way clearly violating this? Just a recent one below.



Seems to me that every president has been hit with difficult and slanted questions from the media...it’s part of the job.
Wouldn’t you agree that trump and his administration have also used the same tactics you listed and more? (Ad hominem attacks, double standards and scapegoating quickly come to mind.)
Describing trump as a victim seems a bit one sided when he is actively using the same tactics.


Trump is a politician, not a professional 'journalist'. Every example I gave came from people who cite journalism as their profession.


I guess that explains how Hannity & Carlson get a pass.....


Great information on how to research and think about the messages, memes, YouTube reporters, and 'news from left & right' coming at us. Robs seems to be paying attention and can even point out some examples as a way to turn the conversation to politics of the moment. Thanks for the helpful information.


> Seems to me that every president has been hit with difficult and slanted questions from the media...it’s part of the job.

I don't agree given what I've seen these past four years. The difference between the way most in the media treats one with whom it is politically aligned (e.g. Obama/Biden) and Trump is profound. Have you ever compared or contrasted the exchanges? They fawn all over Obama/Biden while with Trump, or even his press secretaries, its like a boxing announcer should start off with a 'Let's get ready to rumble!' pronouncement. I still remember the striking contrast between the last one with Obama's press secretary and the first one with Shawn Spicer. It was like night and day.


One important point to make is that journalists can be sued for libel if they report on anything that isn't true. Hannity is not a journalist.

From the the DailyKOS:
"There is a unique rule of tort injury law that protects news entertainers Rush Limbaugh, Bill O' Reilly and Sean Hannity from liability from nearly any slanderous remark they make about any private citizen or public figure.

In tort law a plaintiff cannot bring a libel lawsuit against a defendant with a public reputation as a liar. The legal reasoning is that a known liar cannot damage the reputation of anybody, because nobody will believe the slanderous remarks of a known public liar!

That means that Limbaugh, Hannity and O' Reilly have made so many inaccurate, misleading and untruthful remarks about various people that they cannot be sued for libel because any reasonable person would never believe anything they said. So goes the precedent of law.

Therefore Limbaugh, Hannity and O'Reilly are practically exempt from tort actions and the more they slander people the harder it becomes to bring a lawsuit against them.

It's a complicated legal precedent that gives Limbaugh or O' Reilly the legal protection from libel lawsuits. Under the First Amendment, entertainers or satirists enjoy the protection of free speech.. Limbaugh, O' Reilly, Stewart and Stern present themselves as entertainers, not journalists, therefore nobody has the expectation of accuracy in their statements.

But if Dan Rather, Brian Williams or Mike Wallace presented an inaccurate story about a public figure, they are journalists and as journalists they are held to a different standard of liability by both a court of law and their employers. They are required to retract libelous statement, or they will be sued and their employers will fire them.


It depends - in regard to public officials our libel laws are rather loose. You have to actually prove malice (wrongful intention) which is a rather high bar [see from MTSU]. That's why Nicholas Sandmann (the teen in a MAGA hat that was waiting for his bus with other students from his school when approached by drummer protestor) was able to collect damages from the WASH Post and CNN [suits against the ABC, CBS, NBC, NYT, The Rolling Stone in progress] but public officials usually don't bother to sue.

From MTSU - "In libel cases, plaintiffs who are public figures or officials have to meet a more stringent standard (actual malice) than do private citizens (negligence) if they are to collect damages. Courts balance First Amendment freedoms against individuals' reputations in libel cases"

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable