In the months leading up to the 2020 election, the news cycle was filled with stories about potential voter fraud and how to handle mail-in ballots. One of these was about how mailboxes were being removed in an effort to suppress mail-in votes. Social media was filled with photos of mailboxes being placed on trucks, and media outlets everywhere were writing stories about how this could be the downfall of the United States Post Office.

According to Professor Joshua Introne, this is a common and dangerous form of misinformation. The facts (mailboxes being removed) were true, but the story (this was an effort to suppress votes) was not. In fact the post office removes mail boxes every year, often to paint or refurbish them, or adapt to reductions in mail volume. But against the backdrop of political polarization and rhetoric attempting to delegitimize mail-in ballots, the narrative that emerged was too compelling for many, including mainstream media outlets, to ignore. 

“People of all stripes are highly susceptible to this kind of misinformation,” said Introne. “Different people may observe the same empirical facts, but the stories they feel best explain the facts are judged against what they already believe. Once accepted, stories become part of a growing knowledge base that in turn biases future beliefs. These beliefs can become so compelling that they lead people to become suspicious of proven facts that don’t fit the pattern. This is how confirmation bias can lead us to embrace misinformation.”

Introne says that sets of beliefs tend to hang together in interconnected systems that are shared by people with common social identities. This is because people often look to their friends, family, and others who are like them to help them figure out the stories that make sense of the world they see. 

“Belief systems are cultural objects, in the sense that they are best described as a set of beliefs with a high probability of co-occurrence within a sub-population that shares a cultural identity,” said Introne. 

Many such belief systems are commonly understood within a given cultural context. In the US, for example, Introne says that if someone tells you that “the affordable care act was an important step in improving our health care system,” it seems likely that person will also believe that there is a problem of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, that food assistance programs are critical support for people below the poverty line, and that increased regulation of firearms could address problems with gun violence. 

On the other hand, if someone tells you that “the government is trying to take their guns away,” it seems likely that the same person also believes that Hillary Clinton is a liar, that concerns about climate change are overblown, and that social programs are bloated and should be cut.

Because belief systems are socially maintained, social media plays a huge role in how they develop and change. 

“The outsized influence of social identity is a part of the problem in our modern media ecosystem. Social media is designed to make it easier for us to dwell in our social networks, and the people that tell the ‘best’ stories, regardless of how true they are, tend to amass larger social networks,” said Introne. “This sets up a dangerous cycle, because stories and the beliefs they embody become tightly bound with increasingly insular and divisive social identities. Social groups can build entirely separate realities which become, in some sense, sacred and therefore unassailable.”  

Introne warns that this process, if unchecked, will become increasingly dangerous for our democracy. 

“This increasing tribalism leads to a breakdown in the deliberative processes that undergird democracy. The positions we adopt, and the truths we promote are used to reinforce our tribal identities, rather than advance the common interest,” said Introne.   

Introne says that these problems are not fundamentally new; human civilization has always been plagued by tribalism, propaganda, and misinformation. 

“The internet just makes it easier for these kinds of dynamics to spin out of control,” he said.

Introne says that while technology and policy changes are necessary, there are a few things we can all do. First, it is important to recognize that we are all susceptible to misinformation that fits our belief systems, no matter how shrewd, well-educated, or observant we are. However he thinks that “it is unreasonable to ask people to constantly re-evaluate their belief systems and be hyper vigilant all of the time.” Instead, it may be enough to remind yourself that, like a scientific theory, the story you find most likely might actually turn out to be false. He recommends that we should be “stingy with belief.”  

The other thing we can do, according to Introne, is remind ourselves to practice empathy online. He acknowledges that this is not easy because “we are evolutionarily wired to respond to others with empathy in face-to-face interaction, and this can be a powerful foil against tribalism. But when communication is squeezed through text-based channels, this natural empathic response is muted.” 

Therefore it is important to remind ourselves that there may be a human on the other end of a tweet trying, as we are, to navigate a sea of information with few reliable signposts, according to Introne. He reminds us that “recognizing the humanity in people you thought were your enemy can be cathartic.” Practicing empathy can open the doors to dialog and the healthy deliberation we so desperately need.