Why Did You Vote The Way You Did?

Probably because you trust what your friends share on Facebook

For the last several months, I was honored to be the Scholar in Residence at Town Hall Seattle. I’d intended to focus on voter engagement, local elections, the role of information in voting—but between my first days there in September and my final engagement, the political landscape shifted dramatically. I became increasingly interested in the role of trust in voting. My final project there reflects this interest; I delivered a small lecture and took audience questions. Below is the text of the lecture.

In the month leading up to The Incident, my phone was warm to the touch; between my own compulsive checking of polls and data and the messages flooding in from every possible platform, that poor device spent late summer and fall working overtime.

What do you make of this race? What’s this candidate like? Where should I phone-bank? Where should I donate money?

So many people I knew — and some I didn’t, really — were searching for answers about that big ballot. I tried to do my best to answer truthfully and with nuance.

As the last drops came in that Tuesday, the questions didn’t stop, but they did change.

Is this real? Can you believe it? And of course, what do I do?

The election was was over a month ago and I still hear that last question every single day.

Maybe you experienced the same thing — maybe you’re the political friend, the comforting friend, the friend that serves as a touchstone for the people around you. Or maybe you were the one tossing out lifelines, looking for a light in the darkness.

I have become convinced that most of us fall into one of two camps; there are the people who are, as my friend eloquently put it recently during a conversation, anointed with the “sacred trust,” and there are the people who look to these sources. Or perhaps we all play both roles depending on the situation.

In my role as the Scholar in Residence of Town Hall I’ve learned several things. One is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find local community programming and journalism that directly addresses local politics and, specifically, down-ballot races that does not come directly from campaigns. Another is that, in this era of fake news and Facebook echo chambers, people want — and, I’d argue, need — those programs and outlets more than ever.

But perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that unless we personally prepare and educate ourselves, we are set up to fail when it comes to determining who to trust and how to vote—in large part because we don’t know where to turn to help us form our opinions and cast our ballots.

Voting is important and holy and necessary and righteous but it’s also tedious and time-consuming and tiresome and sometimes it is downright fucking boring.

We vote on the things that impact us but we also vote on the things that will impact people for generations. We vote on things that are so much bigger than we are. We vote for people we’ve never met and will never meet and can’t possibly know. And we do it based on a combination of second-hand information — what we can glean from dry voter guides, the news, and what we learn through the game of telephone that is social media.

When you pause for a moment and think about how much is tied up in a vote — how much it means to vote, how much trust is placed in the electorate — it should be apparent that there is a voracious appetite for answers. However, thanks to our human brains and survival instincts, we are hardwired to look for answers that are primarily validating, comforting, reassuring, and then, possibly, as a byproduct, informative.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know and, sometimes, we’re not sure we know what we think we know. Which makes it hard when our ballots come in the mail and we have to dig deep and find an opinion about every issue and person.

To make sense of it all, instead of turning to trusted news sources anymore, I’ve found in my Town Hall research an emerging pattern: I believe we’re turning more to trusted people and personalities.

As much as we wring our hands about our personal feedback loops, it seems to me that they are less constructed of outlets we trust and more a framework or web of people, or at least, personalities.

We all like to think of ourselves as smart — a YouGov poll found that 55% of respondents believe they’re smarter than the average American — and we especially like it when other people think we’re smart. Which means we’re more likely to trust people, information, and sources which make us feel and seem smart. And nothing makes you feel and seem more smart than selectively choosing listening to the voices which match the ideas you already possess.

But what is it that defines those people? Whose job is that and how can we ensure that we’re providing information that is, quite literally, trustworthy?

For starters, I think it’s impossible to talk about trust and voting and the media without talking about money. It is abundantly clear that funding is a major issue in journalism; journalists face layoffs constantly and newsrooms have been thinned out to a point of near extinction. It’s also an unfortunate reality that campaign season is what keeps many news stations on the air. Wealthy donors have a vested interest in keeping the coffers of PACs full and the commercial breaks of your favorite singing competition choked with hit pieces.

These are not unrelated circumstances.

There is, indeed, exponentially more money being pumped into messaging and coercing the story than there is reporting what is actually occurring — but it’s not just that so-called objective journalism has been silently, slowly asphyxiated by PACs.

It’s that we, as consumers, have not been clear in our own desires or expectations.

It can’t be overstated that the media does not drive itself. We drive the media that we see. If you have ever snarked at someone for sharing a Kardashian-related story on Facebook (to yourself or, perhaps more sanctimoniously, in the comments) only to go ahead and click through and read the entire thing, you’ve all but ensured that more Kardashian news will not only be produced and set free into the world, but that more of it will show up in your Facebook feed, because you’ve told both the purveyor of the story and Facebook itself that you do, in fact, enjoy Kardashian updates.

Clicks are also the driver behind the epidemic of fake news; one purveyor of fake news confirmed to NPR that that it was not uncommon to make five figures per month.

And as the stories spread, Coler makes money from the ads on his websites. He wouldn’t give exact figures, but he says stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him.

News creators — whether fake or otherwise — know their audience, they know how to drive traffic and, by default, they know how to stay afloat financially. You may not like the content, but if you’re clicking on it, you’re telling them to keep making it because it’ll keep the lights on.

This is true of legacy outlets, it’s true of newcomers, it’s true of local blogs with ads, and it’s clear of sites that exist solely to spread incorrect information for a profit.

If you exist in a mostly lefty world, like I do, you may not have been exposed to the worst of the fake news wave that’s creating so many real news headlines — and that’s because of who clicks it and who shares it (and there’s also the not-insignificant fact that many fake news sites are run out of Russia).

The arbiters of fake news have admitted that they gain much more ground with conservative angles, telling an NPR reporter that liberals simply don’t take the bait as often. Pro-Trump articles seem to receive higher engagement rates—more comments, shares, and likes—which drives their visibility. An independent analysis from Buzzfeed found that while the most-shared real news stories of the 2016 election cycle were largely in favor of Hillary Clinton or, at least, against Donald Trump, the most viral fake news stories were nearly all — except for one — against the democratic nominee.

However, lefties like me ought not get too smug. We’re also guilty of looking for content which confirms our biases. Another independent analysis found that the Facebook pages of popular liberal-leaning websites were often spreading at least factually inaccurate information.

The investigation found that while 94% of CNN’s posts to Facebook were considered “mostly true,” just 49% of the news from Occupy Democrats was. Close to 18% of the Facebook posts from Addicting Info were a mix of true and false. On the Facebook page for The Other 98%, the posts which netted the highest engagement were those which were completely untrue. Overall, close to 20% of the content posted to left-leaning Facebook pages was either completely false or a mix of true and false.

The analysis looked only at Facebook posts by pages which, at a glance, may seem like an incomplete dataset — was the news article itself incorrect or false, or just the headline? Turns out, it doesn’t matter; an estimated six in 10 social media users will share a link without reading the article, meaning that the only information they have is what’s in the headline.

Conventional news is also, of course, not without its flaws. Arguably, the coverage of the 2016 election by mainstream media sites was such as detrimental to the pursuit of information (see: The Emails). The normalization of Donald Trump, the continued bias against Black and brown people, the breathless coverage of live events without all the information, and the unwillingness to fact-check guests who actively spew racism and misogyny are part of the reason why Americans are looking for new ways to get news.

Largely, they seem to be looking to social media — though they seem dubious of that, as well. A Pew study from this year found that 66% of people say they get their news from Facebook. But just 12% say they trust the news they find there.

Then again, only 32% say they trust the media at all.

Though, if you believe Breitbart, a “news” website who has actively sought to undermine the mainstream news at every turn, you’d see reporting that less than 6% of people trust the media.

That figure is incorrect, and it is indicative of a broader problem — the epidemic of hyper-partisan websites and misinformation campaigns have sought to both convince the masses of things that are untrue while also undermining the collective trust we put in media, generally.

It’s a one-two punch to democracy and to literacy and it’s one that has consequences.

The epidemic of hyper-partisan, sensationalist, and fake news (as well as the inclination to share without reading) is, in part, due to the money that stands to be made — the owners of those viral Facebook pages can easily charge thousands for one post, due to their huge audiences — but it’s also down to our own response to it. Which, I think, can be linked to oversaturation.

We, as a species, want to be in the know — which means often, we are trying to scoop up information on a lot of things at once from wherever we can get them. But between our myriad social media feeds, the email newsletters, and the constant churning of TV news, for a lot of us, there’s too much material flying at us on a given day to pause and be critical of the source.

So we trust what sounds right, or what comes from someone we know (or think) to be trustworthy. We trust our friends and family in life, we trust that they’re smart people — so surely, the things they share or engage with online must be trustworthy, right?

The human brain tends to place a great deal of trust in people and personalities, rather than actual knowledge. A 2012 study conducted by Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon found that a Tweet from a person you like or trust is more likely to lend credibility to a story you see on Twitter than the author’s demonstrated expertise.

…users are poor judges of truthfulness based on content alone, and instead are influenced by heuristics such as user name when making credibility assessments

Determinations of trustworthiness are also hopelessly bound up in physical appearance and attraction; a 2014 New York University study found that we decide if a person can be trusted or not within milliseconds, and that much of that trust is bound up in how conventionally attractive they are — high cheekbones, for example, make a person seem more trustworthy.

A litany of sexist jokes aside, the fact is that Fox News and its use of conventionally-attractive blonde women is actually incredibly clever from a sociological standpoint (particularly considering we tend to trust women slightly more, though not about their own experiences). This is also why you trust people on Twitter who have more attractive photos, and even news stories with stock images featuring better-looking people.

In short: What we say is “I don’t trust the media” or “I don’t trust news I get on Facebook,” but what we demonstrate is that we do trust some media and we definitely trust media that’s shared by our friends or personalities we like.

In a great many ways, we’re also wired to seek out echo chambers, as much as we may shun the idea of them verbally. And it’s why we tend to vote for candidates who confirm our beliefs about the world.

The human brain is conditioned to listen for information. At a neurological level, we just really like to hear other people — especially people we like or trust — talking about issues we care about, particularly when they echo our own beliefs. Research published in 2009 found that when your brain hears a good story, one that it can empathize with, it releases a burst of oxytocin. A story or a particularly engrossing conversation or article can also put more of the brain to work, which makes it more interesting.

This is why your voter’s guide is so ruthlessly boring, but a panel discussion is, at least, slightly less so. This is also why we’re drawn to magnanimous candidates like Barack Obama, but less wowed by more low-key orators.

Tuning things out that you don’t like or want to hear is actually a survival mechanism; your brain tries to conserve resources by not releasing oxytocin, which means it prizes information that seems important. And it’s much easier to find information important when it plays well with your existing neural pathways — the reason metaphors work so well is because they help your brain draw connections.

Additionally, your brain responds well and with pleasure when — and here’s something that will not surprise many people — you’re the subject of a conversation. Information that conflicts with your worldview is decidedly not about you, does not center you, and does not validate your existence — so you’re more likely to dislike it, because it’s not creating a joy or pleasure response.

When Donald Trump says America isn’t great, the brains of people who feel that it isn’t great are engaged. When he stokes the flames of xenophobia, it confirms the existing fears of voters. It doesn’t matter that he offers few other trust indicators — his platform, in many ways, speaks directly to the needs of the brains of his supporters.

This is also why the idea of “identity politics” is not only dismissive of large portions of the population, it also ignores the science; voters trust people who look like them, sure, but more than that, they vote for candidates who speak to their lived experience. When you can see your experience in a candidate or issues, you’re more likely to feel positively toward that candidate or issue and, as such, build trust.

This is also why I think we turn to actual humans, having actual conversations. Or at least, actual humans having digital conversations. This explains the draw toward TV news and it explains the demand for local programming.

In local elections, issues of trustworthiness are slightly mitigated; instead of relying on sensational national news, it’s easy to host debates and write editorials which contain primary information from people we personally know and trust.

I know talking politics is taboo but it’s become clear to me in my time at Town Hall that people really, really just want to talk and listen about local elections. If you’ve ever attended a panel where the Q&A devolved into a series of people giving their own opinions in the form of a question, you know that there is a deep desire for conversation and to be listened to.

This helps us sort out where to direct our caring, as well.

When everything is all-caps important, when it’s all flooding in so quickly, it’s incredibly difficult to determine the hierarchy of importance. Our time, attention, and resources are all finite. And honestly, it’s just easier a lot of the time to delegate some of the thinking to someone else. Someone we trust.

Yes, our vote is our sacred bond with democracy but good lord, have you seen how many things we’re expected to be somewhat of an expert on?

And I think that explains a lot of what we seek out, whether it’s a panel, a conversation among friends, or a direct connection over text or Facebook messenger. Sometimes we just need someone else to help us make sense of the complicated parts of the law and politics.

So that leaves us with that question: What do we do?

How do we, as voters, know where to place our trust? What do we do now and how do we ensure that the electorate is making its decisions — which is to say, instilling its trust — in the people and campaigns that will result in the most good for the most people? Because of course, that’s why we vote. We vote to influence the future. We vote to have our say in the collective next steps.

To start, we must expect more of our local service providers and give them the tools to do it. Whether it’s nonprofits, tech innovators, or media, I believe we’ve allowed, by voting with our clicks and our dollars, the vacuum of media space to be taken up by untrustworthy sources. It’s time to invest in the organizations and systems that we love — including democracy itself, and media as an extension.

This year, Southern California radio station KPCC created a Human Voter Guide program which included a hotline and call-in shows where people could directly ask their questions from a trusted source. This is what media outlets can do when they’re supported and they know people want it. Which I think they do.

We used to have something like that; For six years, the City of Seattle was blessed with the citizen-powered Living Voters Guide, a joint service of the UW and CityClub, which provided fact-checking from the public libraries. It was a valuable, information-rich resource that learned and acquired information. It was discontinued this year. I think this election cycle might have been different without it, at least locally.

But donating to public media and attending events and voting with your clicks and dollars may still not feel concrete enough. I suspect that’s why, on Election Night and beyond, I’ve received so many messages asking, simply: What can I do? Where do I go?

My answer has been — and remains — the following:

Find one thing to really care about. Then find a provider or an organization who focuses on that. Give them your time and energy and attention and money. Do it because warm bodies on the doors can make a huge difference, but do it, too, because it’s a public service to create an army of well-informed voters who can use their trust capital to combat false information.

Dedicate to one thing and become the expert on that thing in your circle. Be the trusted friend on that issue. In doing this, you become an essential part of our web of information in the city and in your online spheres. In the last few months, it’s become increasingly clear to me that this is essential. Attend panels. Volunteer. Read articles.

If you feel like you can’t trust anyone, it’s essential to become trustworthy yourself.

It’s not enough to simply mourn the death of the media or services or to wring our hands. We can only yell about fake news so much before we have to provide something real to replace it. We vote every year, several times each year, and we need to be prepared with information when we can. Much as we have put our trust into each other, we have to put our trust into providers and systems — or maybe, we have to begin building that trust ourselves.

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