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.