The Spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically generalizes based on the amount of attention or coverage something receives in the media (including social media). A common instance of this fallacy involves erroneously inferring that the instances focused on by the media represent the qualities of the general population. This reasoning has this form:
Premise 1: Xs with quality Q receive extensive attention or coverage in the media.
Conclusion: Therefore, all or most Xs have quality Q.
This line of reasoning is fallacious since the mere fact that someone or something attracts the most attention or coverage in the media does not mean that it must represent the general population of which it is a member. For example, suppose a mass murderer from Old Town, Maine received a great deal of attention in the media. It would hardly follow that the town has a significant population of mass murderers.
This fallacy can also involve drawing an inference about the likelihood of something occurring based on the extent of the attention or coverage it receives in the media. The flaw in the inference is to conflate the amount of attention something receives with the probability that something will occur. It has this form:
Premise 1: X receives extensive attention or coverage in the media.
Conclusion: Therefore, X is likely to occur.
This is fallacious reasoning because the amount of coverage or attention something receives in the media is distinct from how likely something is to occur. To use a silly example, if a person won two major lotteries, got hit by lightning and bit by a shark on the same day, they would get a lot of media attention. But no one would think that the coverage indicates how likely it is all those things would occur. But in other cases, people do fall for this fallacy.
One reason is that the availability heuristic cognitive bias fuels this fallacy. This bias is the tendency to confuse the availability of information with its importance or significance. If people already know that an event is improbable or its improbability is emphasized in the coverage, then this bias can be overcome. But if people are unaware of the likelihood of an event or the coverage tries to create the impression that it is likely, then people can easily fall for it.
The Spotlight fallacy derives its name from the fact that receiving a great deal of attention or coverage is often referred to as being in the spotlight. It is like Hasty Generalization, Biased Sample and Misleading Vividness because the error being made involves generalizing about a population based on an inadequate or flawed sample. In many cases, the Spotlight Fallacy will combine all three of these other fallacies: the sample will be too small to warrant the conclusion, the sample will be biased because of how (social) media attention is directed, and the focus will be on things that are vivid or extreme. For brief discussions of adequate samples and generalizations, see the entries for Hasty Generalization and Biased Sample.
This fallacy can also be fueled by bias. If someone is biased against a group, they will be inclined to think that those who receive the most negative media attention represent that group. For example, if someone dislikes those who oppose abortion, they might be inclined to think, based on media coverage, that many anti-abortion activists are willing to kill for their cause. The bias can also be positive, so that a person will infer that positive media coverage of a group they like is representative of that group.
While this fallacy is self-inflicted, people can encourage others to fall for it by using various other fallacies, rhetorical techniques or simply by lying to enhance the psychological force of the fallacy. One particularly insidious way this fallacy is used is when someone releases bad faith information through the media and then uses the coverage to “prove” their bad faith claims by referring to how much media coverage it is getting. Attempting to intentionally inflict this fallacy is a common practice in the media and it is often done to advance a bad faith narrative. For example, it would be easy to create the impression that shoplifting is a major threat by getting media to shine the spotlight on the matter and thus encourage people to fall for this fallacy.
While less common than the standard version of this fallacy, a person can also fall for a Reverse Spotlight. This occurs when someone uncritically infers that something must be unlikely or that a sample is not representative because it is getting extensive coverage. This fallacy is often fueled by a distrust of the media source. For example, someone might infer that school shootings are less likely to occur than they are because they think the media is pushing an anti-gun agenda and hence focusing on such stories. While it is wise to be rationally critical of all media, it is also wise to avoid falling for this fallacy.
Defense: The main defense against this fallacy is being aware that the extent of media coverage or attention is not a reliable indicator of how likely it is that something will happen. It is also not the basis for a good sample from which to generalize. One way to help defend against this is to remember that it is usually unusual, rare, or extreme cases that get the most media coverage. But you should be careful to avoid “reversing” this fallacy and inferring that something is unlikely or that a sample must not be representative just because the media is covering it.
As with defending against Misleading Vividness, knowledge of the subject is also useful. For example, being aware of crime statistics can provide the foundation of a defense against falling for this fallacy when there is a campaign to create the impression that there is an epidemic of shoplifting.
Bill: “Jane, you say you are a feminist, but you can’t be.”
Jane: “What! What do you mean? Is this one of your stupid jokes or something?”
Bill: “No, I’m serious. Over the summer I saw feminists appear on several talk shows and news shows and I read about them in the papers. The women were bitter and said that women were victims of men and needed to be given special compensation. You are always talking about equal rights and forging your own place in the world. So, you can’t be a feminist.”
Jane: “Bill, there are many types of feminism, not just the brands that get media attention.”
Bill: “Oh. Sorry.”
Joe: “Man, I’d never want to go to New York. It is all concrete and pollution.”
Sam: “Not all of it.”
Joe: “Sure it is. Every time I watch the news, they are always showing concrete, skyscrapers, and lots of pollution.”
Sam: “Sure, that is what the news shows, but a lot of New York is farmlands and forest. It is not all New York City; it just receives most of the attention.”
Ann: “I’m not letting little Jimmy go online anymore!”
Sasha: “Why not? Did he hack into the Pentagon and try to start World War three?”
Ann: “No. Haven’t you been watching the news and reading the papers? There are perverts online just waiting to molest kids! You should keep your daughter off the internet. Why, there must be hundreds of thousands of sickos out there!”
Sasha: “Really? I know we should monitor our kids’ online activities, but that seems like a huge number.”
Ann: “I’m not sure of the exact number, but if the media is covering it so much, then most people who are online must be dangerous predators.”
Melinda: “They are closing that Walgreens this week.”
Melinda: “Well, shoplifting has been a big problem. For months I’ve been seeing all these stories and posts about how shoplifting is running rampant. Have you seen those videos of people just looting stores?”
Jackie: “I have; usually the same few videos over and over. I was curious, so I looked up the crime statistics.”
Melinda: “Boring! Look, if shoplifting is making the news so much, it must be a real problem.”
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