Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?

The country has been gripped with the aftermath of the Presidential election, marred with accusations of massive voter fraud altering the outcome of the election. As contributing factors emerge to paint a clearer picture of what led up to the historic second impeachment of the 45th President, we should recognize that all of us as citizens have a responsibility to contribute to a truth-based culture in the United States.

As a public official responsible for conducting elections in Inyo County, California, I experienced firsthand how manipulated facts fueled a national crisis that culminated at the Capitol on January 6th. For many citizens, this was the first time experiencing the damage that false accusations can cause.

Having been directly exposed to a conspiracy prior to this election, I view misinformation and disinformation as much more menacing to our culture than this single tragic incident. A few years ago, I found myself at the heart of a small conspiracy when I agreed to help a local family in crisis after their child went missing. Many people who volunteered to help were doxxed, maliciously reported to law enforcement, had their private conversations shared publicly without permission, had false reports made to their jobs, all of which pales in comparison to the stalking and harassment the family continues to endure. It was very emotional and confusing since I had never experienced anything like it before.

I am not a mental health professional, but I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my own experiences. In my opinion, we need to invest much more research into how the Internet is contributing to a less stable society. In the meantime, as individuals, we should develop strategies to deal with harassing behaviors online, and to protect ourselves from unintentionally participating in it. I would encourage readers to do their own research and seek professional support if they find themselves involved in conspiratorial thinking.

According to medical hypotheses, delusions are mistaken and unfounded personal beliefs, when there is superior evidence to the contrary. Once in a delusion, depending on how convinced the person is of the fictitious reality, they will cling to their false beliefs even when presented with conflicting evidence. We see this in politics where officials blame each other for problems, ignoring their own actions leading to current events.

In the situations that I experienced, only parts of relevant information were widely shared. Other evidence was misrepresented, with attempts to set the record straight either ignored or further twisted to feed false narratives.

People often see patterns and connections that are simply not there. We have all likely experienced a form of this at some point in our life – whether it be an insecurity, a paranoia or leaps in logic that do not add up but play into our biases. In the digital world, these tendencies can increase if they are reinforced by others that have similar beliefs. If gone unchallenged, these delusions can feed into a mass hysteria. This is a circumstance where many people in a group believe in a delusion, reinforcing each other in their false convictions.

When I found myself mistreated because of rumors and lies, it sometimes felt like nothing that I could do or say could dispel the fabrications. In large part, this was true. Once someone has made up their mind, it can be difficult to convince them otherwise. In the case of elections, I can show public evidence, but people may still choose not to believe it. In the sensitive case of a missing person, there are many things unknown, so the truth is much harder to discern.

In both cases, I chose to approach the skeptics with compassion and empathy. It is easy to take false accusations personally. After all, most of us are not used to being lied about by strangers. In any case, the perceptions of the accusers are real, even if the facts do not support their conclusions. Learning to recognize that many abusive behaviors online are complex and could be the result of underlying mental health disorders might help you refrain from the impulse to participate in the collective trauma. I asked gentle, logical, and clarifying questions when I felt that someone was acting in good faith and tried to be non-confrontational with those who did not seem to be acting rationally. It is important to be able to recognize real threats and separate that from critical or hurtful comments.

Having people publicly accuse me of motives that I did not possess or thoughts I never considered is likely a result of the perplexing phenomenon known as psychological projection.

According to everydayhealth.com: “Psychological projection is a defense mechanism people subconsciously employ in order to cope with difficult feelings or emotions. Psychological projection involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings. Have you ever disliked someone only to become convinced that the person had a vendetta against you? This is a common example of psychological projection.”

No one can know what another person is thinking unless they explicitly tell you. Even then, it may only be what the person believes at that moment in time, if they are even being truthful in the first place. Just because someone said something in the past, we should not assume that they are incapable of changing their minds, especially if more information materializes. An example is the current health crisis, where it would be illogical to rely on reports from 11 months ago, prior to the emergence of more recent scientific studies.

All of us should make conscious efforts not to assign motives to others or share deceptive information. If you have, it is okay to seek forgiveness if the situation warrants it. We all make mistakes. However, if we fail to recognize our own responsibility to be honest, instead placing the blame at the feet of others, we lose our opportunity to promote a more genuine humanity. Simple things, like taking the ProTruth Pledge, can remind others that speaking the truth matters. It may seem like such a monumental problem that one person’s actions could never make a difference. But, like a pebble dropped into a pond, although the catalyst of dropping the pebble may seem like one small act, collectively the ripple effect can create powerful waves with significant impacts. If we all commit to this simple philosophy – to hold ourselves responsible for telling the truth – my hope is that we can collectively manifest a more positive and truthful world.

Photo Credit: ocean.flynn, licenced under Creative Commons

About the author: Kammi Foote is currently serving her third term as the elected Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters, responsible for overseeing elections in Inyo County, California. She is a frequent invited speaker regarding election integrity and has testified on measures to improve the administration of elections before the California Senate and the Little Hoover Commission. In addition, she is a board member of several nonprofits that focus on civil rights, sustainable water and environmental policies, and leadership development.

Never Be Afraid to Speak the Truth

When you hold public office, it is common for citizens to question your motives and actions. Having a healthy skepticism of government officials is an essential element of public oversight. Serving the last decade as the elected Registrar of Voters responsible for overseeing elections in a rural California county, I know what it feels like to be falsely accused of rigging election outcomes. In the past, I have not spent much time trying to challenge misconceptions; instead, I have allowed my actions to speak for themselves over time. However, this election cycle required election officials to aggressively combat misinformation and disinformation, while also adapting to the challenges of conducting an election during a global pandemic.

The nation is now trying to recover from the monumental consequences of losing its faith in the electoral system. For months, conspiracies – ranging from sabotaging the postal system to votes being counted overseas – were amplified by social and mainstream media, politicians, and thoughts leaders. Never was it so clearly obvious that widespread misinformation and disinformation campaigns can have devastating consequences to society. We should give the benefit of the doubt to the general population who merely believe election conspiracies, because they are simply misinformed. It is easy to dismiss people’s concerns when they do not seem rational, but it is important to understand the mechanisms manipulating the flow of information, leading to these views.

In the pre-Internet world, thought bubbles could form in our social circles, but we were less prone to fully immerse ourselves in one-sided thinking. This is because our neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends all have access to several sources of information that challenge our beliefs. Social media thought bubbles are much more dangerous because they use tools that manipulate opinions. These tools include blocking, muting members, bots, trolling, artificial intelligence microtargeting individuals, and deleting comments that do not support the viewpoint of the group moderators. Ever more common is complete de-platforming of users who hold unpopular opinions.

Over the past few years, it has become evident how dangerous thought bubbles can be in a culture based on debate and compromise. In the US, our society is structured to protect unpopular speech. However, it was never envisioned that we would have a digital world that silences all opposing viewpoints, creating manufactured appearances of popular consensus. We often think of mob rule in terms of political outcomes, but tyranny of the majority can affect all aspects of our personal lives, including losing jobs, declining mental health, and strained relationships with our loved ones.

The guiding principle of “groupthink” is that everyone is required to think and act the same as the group leaders. These leaders may be politicians, paid influencers, or even nation-states hiding behind false identities that intend to cause civil unrest. The goal is to squash any dissenting opinions quickly before they have a chance to contradict the narratives created for the group. Opinions on what is good or bad are often based on personal agendas, not on facts. When anyone dares to challenge the prevailing opinion, they can be alienated from the group as punishment. This creates a chilling effect on other people’s willingness to openly participate in conversations. This is dangerous because we can only discover the truth if people feel comfortable expressing their genuine opinions. When voices are silenced, it hurts everyone’s ability to understand reality and correct errors in judgments.

The importance of keeping an open mind in today’s society cannot be underestimated. Once a person or group has made up their mind about a situation, all new information is processed through a biased filter. All new evidence that supports the prevailing theory is given great weight, and all new data that contradicts the theory is dismissed. We should always pursue becoming more informed about a topic, especially when it challenges our own beliefs, rather than cling to our incorrect perceptions.

More nefarious is the intentional smear campaign. When a group or individual knowingly spreads disinformation with the intent to cause harm, it not only damages the targets of the smear campaign, but it can be damaging to everyone who believes the lies. Supporters may only want to keep up with the latest information, but having been denied access to the truth, they become unwitting pawns of leaders with malicious intentions. Anyone that displays closed-minded behaviors should cause others to be concerned that the individual is neither credible nor acting in good faith.

If you find yourself participating in social media groups that use silencing tactics, you may want to consider whether staying a part of the group is healthy. You should also ask yourself if the news that you are consuming is reliable. Seek out several sources of information to challenge what you have been led to believe about a set of circumstances. I would encourage you not to dismiss contradictory information, just because of who is reporting the facts. You might be surprised at what you learn when you venture out of your own thought bubble. If things do not make sense, or seem very unlikely, question whether they are truthful. If you are blocked, ridiculed, or silenced for questioning things in sincerity, then you may have been an unwitting pawn in someone else’s strategy of manipulation.

Remain skeptical, always question and never be afraid to speak the truth. Encourage a more truth-based society by taking the Pro-Truth Pledge, like I did last summer to re- affirm to my constituents that I would always tell them the truth. It is also important not to let online interactions affect your mental well-being. Assess whether you are letting online interaction harm your real-world relationships or causing you stress. If they are, turn off the computer or television, put down your phone and go for a walk outside.

The truth is that thought bubbles are only as influential as you let them be. If you turn off your devices, they have no power over you whatsoever.

Photo Credit: Diego Sideburns, licenced under Creative Commons

About the author: Kammi Foote is currently serving her third term as the elected Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters, responsible for overseeing elections in Inyo County, California. She is a frequent invited speaker regarding election integrity and has testified on measures to improve the administration of elections before the California Senate and the Little Hoover Commission. In addition, she is a board member of several nonprofits that focus on civil rights, sustainable water and environmental policies, and leadership development.