Attacking the Source: Establishment Loyalists’ Favorite Online Tactic

The demand that only mainstream establishment media sources be used to argue against establishment narratives is inherently contradictory, says Caitlin Johnstone.

By Caitlin Johnstone

If you’re skeptical of Western power structures and you’ve ever engaged in online political debate for any length of time, the following has definitely happened to you.

You find yourself going back and forth with one of those high-confidence, low-information establishment types who’s promulgating a dubious mainstream narrative, whether that be about politics, war, Julian Assange, or whatever. At some point they make an assertion which you know to be false – publicly available information invalidates the claim they’re making.

“I’ve got them now!” you think to yourself, if you’re new to this sort of thing. Then you share a link to an article or video which makes a well-sourced, independently verifiable case for the point you are trying to make.

Then, the inevitable happens.

“LMAO! That outlet!” they scoff in response. “That outlet is propaganda/fake news/conspiracy theory trash!”

Or something to that effect. You’ll encounter this tactic over and over and over again if you continually engage in online political discourse with people who don’t agree with you. It doesn’t matter if you’re literally just linking to an interview featuring some public figure saying a thing you’d claimed they said. It doesn’t matter if you’re linking to a WikiLeaks publication of a verified authentic document. Unless you’re linking to CNN/Fox News (whichever fits the preferred ideology of the establishment loyalist you’re debating), they’ll bleat “fake news!” or “propaganda!” or “Russia!” as though that in and of itself magically invalidates the point you’re trying to make.

And of course, it doesn’t. What they are doing is called attacking the source, also known as an ad hominem, and it’s a very basic logical fallacy.

Most people are familiar with the term “ad hominem,” but they usually think about it in terms of merely hurling verbal insults at people. What it actually means is attacking the source of the argument rather than attacking the argument itself in a way that avoids dealing with the question of whether or not the argument itself is true. It’s a logical fallacy because it’s used to deliberately obfuscate the goal of a logical conclusion to the debate.

“An ad hominem is more than just an insult,” explains David Ferrer for The Quad. “It’s an insult used as if it were an argument or evidence in support of a conclusion. Verbally attacking people proves nothing about the truth or falsity of their claims.”

This can take the form of saying “Claim X is false because the person making it is an idiot.” But it can also take the form of “Claim X is false because the person making it is a propagandist,” or “Claim X is false because the person making it is a conspiracy theorist.”

Someone being an idiot, a propagandist or a conspiracy theorist is irrelevant to the question of whether or not what they’re saying is true. In my last article debunking a spin job on the OPCW scandal by the narrative management firm Bellingcat, I pointed out that Bellingcat is funded by imperialist regime change operations like the National Endowment for Democracy, which was worth highlighting because it shows the readers where that organization is coming from. But if I’d left my argument there it would still be an ad hominem attack, because it wouldn’t address whether or not what Bellingcat wrote about the OPCW scandal is true. It would be a logical fallacy; proving that they are propagandists doesn’t prove that what they are saying in this particular instance is false.

What I had to do in order to actually refute Bellingcat’s spin job was show that they were making a bad argument using bad logic, which I did by highlighting the way they used pedantic wordplay to make it seem as though the explosive leaks which have been emerging from the OPCW’s investigation of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria were insignificant. I had to show how Bellingcat actually never came anywhere close to addressing the actual concerns about a leaked internal OPCW email, such as extremely low chlorinated organic chemical levels on the scene and patients’ symptoms not matching up with chlorine gas poisoning, as well as the fact that the OPCW investigators plainly don’t feel as though their concerns were met since they’re blowing the whistle on the organisation now.

And, for the record, Bellingcat’s lead trainer/researcher guy responded to my arguments by saying I’m a conspiracy theorist. I personally count that as a win.

The correct response to someone who attacks the outlet or individual you’re citing instead of attacking the actual argument being made is, “You’re attacking the source instead of the argument. That’s a logical fallacy, and it’s only ever employed by people who can’t attack the argument.”

The demand that you only ever use mainstream establishment media when arguing against establishment narratives is itself an inherently contradictory position, because establishment media by their very nature do not report facts against the establishment. It’s saying “You’re only allowed to criticise establishment power using outlets which never criticize establishment power.”

Good luck finding a compilation of Trump’s dangerous escalations against Moscow like the one I wrote the other day anywhere in the mainstream media, for example. Neither mainstream liberals nor mainstream conservatives are interested in promoting that narrative, so it simply doesn’t exist in the mainstream information bubble. Every item I listed in that article is independently verifiable and sourced from separate mainstream media reports, yet if you share that article in a debate with an establishment loyalist and they know who I am, nine times out of ten they’ll say something like “LOL Caitlin Johnstone?? She’s nuts!” With “nuts” of course meaning “Says things my TV doesn’t say”.

It’s possible to just click on all the hyperlinks in my article and share them separately to make your point, but you can also simply point out that they are committing a logical fallacy, and that they are doing so because they can’t actually attack the argument.

This will make them very upset, because for the last few years establishment loyalists have been told that it is perfectly normal and acceptable to attack the source instead of the argument. The mass hysteria about “fake news” and “Russian propaganda” has left consumers of mainstream media with the unquestioned assumption that if they ever so much as glance at an RT article their faces will begin to melt like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They’ve been trained to believe that it’s perfectly logical and acceptable to simply shriek “propaganda!” at a rational argument or well-sourced article which invalidates their position, or even to proactively go around calling people Russian agents who dissent from mainstream western power-serving narratives.

But it isn’t logical, and it isn’t acceptable. The best way to oppose their favorite logically fallacious tactic is to call it like it is, and let them deal with the cognitive dissonance that that brings up for them.

Of course, some nuance is needed here. Remember that alternative media is just like anything else: there’s good and bad, even within the same outlet, so make sure what you’re sharing is solid and not just some schmuck making a baseless claim. You can’t just post a link to some Youtuber making an unsubstantiated assertion and then accuse the person you’re debating of attacking the source when they dismiss it. That which has been presented without evidence may be dismissed without evidence, and if the link you’re citing consists of nothing other than unproven assertions by someone they’ve got no reason to take at their word, they can rightly dismiss it.

If, however, the claims in the link you’re citing are logically coherent arguments or well-documented facts presented in a way that people can independently fact-check, it doesn’t matter if you’re citing CNN or Sputnik. The only advantage to using CNN when possible would be that it allows you to skip the part where they perform the online equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and humming.

Don’t allow those who are still sleeping bully those who are not into silence. Insist on facts, evidence, and intellectually honest arguments, and if they refuse to provide them call it what it is: an admission that they have lost the debate.

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium. Follow her work on FacebookTwitter or her website. She has a podcast and a book, Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers.” 

This article was re-published with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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29 comments for “Attacking the Source: Establishment Loyalists’ Favorite Online Tactic

  1. Realist
    December 21, 2019 at 18:32

    Caitlin describes a pitfall, not just pervasive of debate on the internet, but even in conversation with family and/or friends about issues impinging on politics to any degree. Aside from the ad hominem attack she characterizes so well, another empty-headed knee-jerk response I seem to encounter all the time is the false attribution of belief, motive or sympathies to an entire cause extrapolated from a singular statement. For example, just because I proffer my opinion that the Democratic impeachment of Trump, based on no real evidence and grounded entirely in naked partisanship, will be to the detriment of this country, its constitution and the Democratic Party finds me accused of being a “Trumper,” I assume meaning someone who stands foursquare behind everything that the Donald and his party represents. I must then waste time outlining all the levels of detail with which Mr. Trump and I vehemently disagree. It’s as if no one in this country has ever heard of logical analysis or Sir Thomas More who argued that “I’d give the Devil the benefit of Law for my own safety’s sake!” That’s from my fourth grade history course back in 1957, and I still remember the words and their meaning. Alas, even great thinkers like More paid the price when they bucked authority.

  2. Tony
    December 20, 2019 at 10:31

    “And, for the record, Bellingcat’s lead trainer/researcher guy responded to my arguments by saying I’m a conspiracy theorist. I personally count that as a win.”

    You should say: ‘No, I’m a conspiracy realist’.

    The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was used by the CIA to attack those in the 1960s who doubted the official narrative on the JFK assassination. This included those who thought that the most obvious person to benefit from it might have been behind it.

    Can anybody name the most obvious person to benefit from it? I’ll give you a clue–he was from Texas.

  3. December 19, 2019 at 16:54

    Strange to see Counterpunch in a collage of alternative media to illustrate a Caitlin story, given that they spent so much time trashing her.

    • Temporarily Sane
      December 20, 2019 at 18:57

      The vast majority of articles posted on Counterpunch are written by people who have no connection with the site’s editorial staff. It’s basically a news aggregator that runs a lot of articles, many of them quite informative, that are not printed anywhere else. There is some lame “original content” by the editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, the man who sh*t on Caitlin and outed himself as a hypocritical fool, but that is easy enough to ignore. Caitlin herself still references articles published there and it would be foolish to ignore such a valuable resource simply because the editor is an ass.

  4. December 19, 2019 at 10:30

    It’s a good try but half the coin is missing in this article: the appeal to authority.

    How it really works is the ad hominim is used to attack the credibility of anything one says. The usual “Pravda! Propaganda! Fake news!” regurgitation we are familiar with.

    And the appeal to authority is used to legitimize anything and everything the other says. As in “Rush is always right” or “”I only read the NY times.”

  5. michael
    December 19, 2019 at 00:59

    Great article sharing everyday frustrations on both sides of most political debates. More so than the usual infantile ad hominems “you are a doo-doo head” and demanding my sources to disparage as not credible, I increasingly run into the Appeal to Authority logical fallacy. “That has been debunked!” By whom, I ask. It seems mostly either by: 1) God or 2) John “I don’t do evidence” Brennan.
    The whole point of such discussions is to uncover facts (or lies) you are not aware of, and I have learned quite a bit in such discussions. But increasingly we live in a fact-free, post-truth world, or rather comfortable bubbles, where narratives are delivered from “official authorities” and spewed by main stream media talking heads as THE facts, not opinions, to be assailed at your own risk. As Bertrand Russel noted: “In a democracy it is necessary that people learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.” This is the basis of free speech and, in many cases, evaluating new ideas. Critical thinking.
    But as H.L. Mencken noted: “”Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That’s the way the mind of man operates.”…

  6. Drew Hunkins
    December 18, 2019 at 16:11

    Magnificent piece by Caitlin, as per usual.

    Just one very minor quibble. Instead of terming them “alternative media or sources” I think it’s more apt to refer to them as “independent media” since they’re typically outside the confines of the giant corporate media.

    “Independent” as opposed to “alternative” really rams the point home that what viewers, readers or listeners are getting is something not beholden to Wall Street, the Fortune 500 or the Defense [sic] Dept.

    • Godless Nihilist
      December 19, 2019 at 03:56

      Yet some, like RT, are not necessarily “independent” media nor does using Fox or MSDNC as a source mean it’s false or propaganda. When I pointed out on a faux progressive site that Tucker Carlson was one of the few MSM TV pundits doing follow up on the scandal at OPCW, I was attacked with vigor. Even racist, misogynistic, bigots can be a source if they occasionally hit the nail on the head.

    • Drew Hunkins
      December 19, 2019 at 12:15

      @ Godless Nihilist,

      RT is indeed independent from the Washington militarist-imperialist establishment.

    • minecritter
      December 19, 2019 at 17:30

      I am in the habit of using the term “independent media”. I tried that argument on a CNN loyalist. I pointed to the ads, and said CNN won’t report against the interest of their advertisers. I said independent media has no ads. They asked me where their funding comes from then. I said from donations. They asked how I know all the donations are not from Russia? Ok, now I’m stumped. I only know for sure how much money was donated to Caitlin Johnstone by me. I can’t prove the rest didn’t come from Russia. Personally, I don’t care, since Caitlin is logical, well sourced, and right. If Russia supports that, maybe they are the good guys. But what do you say to the CNN loyalist?

    • Josep
      December 20, 2019 at 04:12

      RT is indeed independent from the Washington militarist-imperialist establishment.

      Not saying I disagree, but the editors of Veterans Today might argue otherwise:

      Editor’s note: We have watched Sputnik News and RT, both quickly turning into Murdoch tabloids, attack Pakistan over and over. Is it curious that as India’s Modi is Netanyahu’s handpuppet that these two Russian media giants, run by the same person…that kiss Israel’s ass every day even when Israel downs a Russian aircraft with 20 onboard….

      Make of it what you will.

  7. Mike from Jersey
    December 18, 2019 at 15:18

    @Richard Baker,

    Good point, Richard. However, I am talking of a situation where I put forth a proposition based up something that I know about. I may know about it either from personal experience or from sources which have been proven to be reliable. When someone then says that the “Times reports that…”, I simply don’t accept it as a legitimate source. Period.

    There are some things in the Times which are reliable. Weather reporting, sports scores, natural disasters, sometimes science reporting and so on. However, on politics or foreign policy, yes, you are correct I am saying that the The New York Times is a source which is almost completely without any credibility.

  8. Al Borrada
    December 18, 2019 at 12:00

    For what it’s worth, the only one thing I’m not comfortable with is preferring establishment media sources over other more independent sources. We might thus shelter ourselves from some of the ad hominem attacks, but a major drawback is that in doing so we both legitimize mainstream media and withdraw from publicity (even negative) other noteworthy outlets.

    • Guest
      December 20, 2019 at 10:15

      Yeah, but if you use a pro-war source, like MSNBC for instance, to make an anti-war point, you can shield yourself from accusations of bias. Since if they were biased they’d be biased in the opposite direction.

  9. robert e williamson jr
    December 18, 2019 at 11:57

    Right O’ Fran! Lead the peasants, the common people, into chaos. This is a conspiracy that is playing out.. No theory just fact!

    Be strong and fight like hell!

    • DH Fabian
      December 18, 2019 at 17:37

      Fight who and what, and for whom? Most people lack the time and interest to do the research/accumulate the knowledge necessary to root out fact from fiction. In the end, they rely on their media of choice, and nearly all media “sell” the narrative of one or the other of the ruling parties. In every discussion, expect a head to pop up reciting such lines as, “Russia stole the election!” or to reinforce the capitalist argument for maintaining our corporate state.

  10. robert e williamson jr
    December 18, 2019 at 11:46

    Chaos. If hillary was the queen of chaos then trump is the king. But not so fast. I’m pretty much convinced that this country has been a state that was thrown into chaos with the murder of john Kennedy.

    As man of my age at 70 I have come to realize that with JFK being murdered when I was 14, and at the same time having a mother who struggled with mental problems and who my father divorced shortly, 1965, after being gravely injured on the job in a traffic accident my life has been full of chaos.

    So much so that I’ve become a sort of expert on the chaotic condition and the U.S. started slipping down that slope around 1963.

    Thanks to the like of CIA standing idly by and allowing the murder of JFK the journey of apparently no return was started. We are now getting close the breaking point.

    What absolutely amazes me is Catlin Johnstone’s uncanny understanding of our current condition. So young but so correct.

    Catlin for whats it’s worth when you are called a conspiracy theorist believe me it’s a win for you and the rest of us.

    Now if the US can get about 70 million more of your age to feel the same way we might be able to regain control of the


    Keep up the good fight.

    • DH Fabian
      December 18, 2019 at 17:53

      US history is a record of such chaos, and democracy is at its strongest when it allows the voices of more than the party loyalists to be heard. From my perspective (only a few years younger), the turning point was the “Reagan Revolution,” and the takeover of the party by the Reagan Democrats in the ’80s. They moved further to he right in the 1990s, to merge with the Clinton wing. Their key contribution was that of splitting apart the “masses” (us) who aren’t on the right, ironically by class — middle class vs. poor, workers vs. those left jobless.

    • Bob Van Noy
      December 18, 2019 at 18:05

      robert e williamson jr, I agree, especially about relating it all back to JFK but right or wrong I think most of us of that generation believed in our institutions and the press. It has taken me years to believe the extent and complicity of JFK’s Murder. The younger generation has lived and witnessed total corruption. This is especially true of Military families who have seen their loved ones sacrificed for false reasons. Time has caught up to the Real Evil Doers and many of them are related to the Original Evil Doers. They have discredited Themselves…

    • ML
      December 18, 2019 at 22:18

      Good post, robert e.williamson, jr. For a man who has had his share and then some, of suffering as a young child you have turned out great, fellow traveler. Happy Holidays and New Year to you, Robert.

  11. Guy
    December 18, 2019 at 11:17

    I have quit trying to argue with anyone that does not use critical thinking .It is a total waste of time and just raises the frustration level to stress me out .If a person has blinders on you can’t tell him or her anything different as it upsets their comfortable space.

    • DH Fabian
      December 18, 2019 at 17:56

      Yes, and that’s what nearly everyone says. Who doesn’t believe that he is among the few who actually “get” what’s going on? Yet, we all contradict each other.

  12. Jeff Harrison
    December 18, 2019 at 10:21

    Well said, Caitlin.

  13. Mike from Jersey
    December 18, 2019 at 08:22

    When people try that on me – such as quoting the New York Times. – I tell them, “the Times is not credible.”

    Then when they ask me to give examples as to why I don’t trust the Times. I say, “look would you ask that question about the National Enquirer, of course not. The Enquirer lost its credibility a long time ago. It is the same principle.”

    And it is.

    And if they don’t accept that, I walk away. There is no profit in arguing with fools.

    • December 18, 2019 at 10:40

      But, as CJ notes, you are only attacking the source with that. Just as one cannot say that everything in the NY Times is true, one cannot say that everything they print is false. I agree that the Times has printed an ocean of lies, but the fact that a Times article is sourced does not prove it to be a lie.

    • December 18, 2019 at 20:04

      Yes. With people who claim that “if it’s in the Times, it must be so” I remind them that the New York Times gave us the invasion of Iraq. If that isn’t enough to convince them, they’re fools. And yes, of course, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    • Eddie S
      December 21, 2019 at 14:17

      As ‘blessthebeasts’ notes above, the NYT’s uncritical support/cheerleading during the run-up to the Iraq War(crime) in 2003 should categorically disqualify it as an ‘unquestionable political source’ by any serious person. That wasn’t just a single person being wrong in one article, it was a repeated POV of the paper. Additionally, as the people at and others have shown, the NYT has virtually always approved of US military actions before & during their planning & execution, with the only significant exception being GH Bush’s attack on Panama. It’s only AFTER things go really wrong during some of these ‘adventures’ that they might criticize them…

      Personal note: I have to say that Bob Parry’s critical columns in CN *BEFORE* the Iraq War of 2003/4 were what solidified my belief in him as a VERY reliable source, since he was 100% right and the MSM was 100% wrong about the Iraq WMDs (which were used as the ostensible reason we ‘had’ to attack Iraq and kill 10’s or 100’s of thousands of people [conservative estimates] in the process).

  14. Fran Macadam
    December 17, 2019 at 20:30

    There’s a good reason Obama signed that last minute executive order legalizing propaganda aimed at the domestic public for the first time in history.

    • michael
      December 19, 2019 at 00:40

      Are you referring to the “modernization” of the anti-propaganda Smith Mundt Act in 2013? If so, Congress “helped” Obama get the Act passed, tagged along with the sacrosanct military budget.

Comments are closed.