Before this academic year I have been working in the European Commission, the European Union institution with a prerogative for policy initiatives. In 2017, when a new Bulgarian Commissioner, Maryah Gabriel, was nominated, my unit’s world changed overnight from a tranquil unit funding European media and social media research into a policy unit in charge of the European Commission’s disinformation policy.
This move threw us right into the heart of a tornado, as the interest in disinformation was peaking everywhere. We were required to act fast and generate interesting outcomes, with high visibility and results to be advertised as political success stories asap. We were asked to come up with a “Communication” in June 2018, about how to tackle disinformation in Europe.
Notably: For the European Commission, an official “Communication” is addressed to at least one institution - most often to the European Parliament and the Council - and is generally used to set out the Commission’s position. Whilst assigned no direct legal power, Communications are essential and also powerful for European policy making.
To draft the Communication, we were also to do a public consultation. I did at that point a quick calculation taking into account the standard process times of the European Union’s internal processes, and concluded that the very earliest we can deliver would be in November 2018. June 2018 would be impossible. So, a new deadline was set – for April 2018. Yes, there was a huge political need to show results...
So we jumped right into it, published a public consultation, assembled at lightning speed together a High Level Expert Group on Disinformation, which, with us very much helping, drafted this report on disinformation in Europe: A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation: Report of the independent High level Group on fake news and online disinformation.
Then we published in April 2018 the Communication on Tackling online disinformation: a European approach, which set out the views of the Commission on the challenges associated with disinformation online. (Impossible had become possible.) We had worked hard, long hours, juggled political sensitivities and jumped a few bureaucratic hurdles and there it was.
The results were really not bad, all things considering. Action was suggested in four areas: collaboration with the platforms (Google, Facebook and Twitter), creation of a European fact checkers network, improving European media literacy and more focused research on disinformation. Since then, there have been further Communications on various aspects of disinformation, and we are progressing in all these fields.
Then came COVID, which, of course, brought the challenge of disinformation again very much to the forefront of all discussion. Now disinformation is not only a question of creating an aware citizen, so as not to be prone to believe all nonsense online – the world is clearly not flat and aliens have not, at least yet, taken over, now it is serious. Believing online disinformation might, this time for real, kill someone like the grandparents, if you don’t vaccinate yourself or your children. Yes, this time it's for real.
Whilst we have been producing documents, upgrading media literacy and negotiating with platforms and getting quite a few things done, obviously we have not eradicated disinformation.
There are a number of reasons for this. One comes from the heart of the European Union itself: The importance of Freedom of Expression. The European Convention on Human Rights lists a number of rights, such as Rights to life, Rights to liberty and security, Prohibition of torture and Freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Its Article 10 is about freedom of expression. It says that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” It goes on to indicate some responsibilities: The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society… for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, …
In practice, concerning the online this means that what is illegal can be ordered to be taken down. Disinformation is however problematic. We must retain our freedom of expression. If I feel absolutely sure that the earth is flat, I should be allowed to say it, respecting my right of freedom of speech, as undeserving of that right I might be. However, if I am convinced that Bill Gates wants to insert microchips into our bodies and that is why governments want to vaccinate us, that is different. Freedom of expression, as Article 10.2 says, comes with responsibility and that may be, when necessary for the protection of health, subject to penalties. But this is complicated.
There are several different kinds of disinformation. The European Commission considers in its policy documents disinformation to be content which is false, harmful and intentional, with the aim to gain political or financial or other advantages. Even in cases when disinformation is clearly harmful, its takedown from online platforms has proven very difficult, often the referral is to freedom of expression. One of the reasons is of course the dissemination: even if it originally is harmful and to gain money, I may share it out of ignorance and fun and not perceive that a responsibility of its appropriateness would transfer on my shoulders when I act on the text.
The concrete approach taken by the European Institutions, for example, as well as main platforms, has greatly been to inform people about the dubious sources of information they see and / or are about to share. In big letters, warning that the content may not be correct. In some elaboration, explaining what may be wrong with it. Pointing to appropriate sources where correct information about the issue at hand can for sure be found. For example in any Google search on COVID you would find first the appropriate official information sources and health authorities, even if you were doubting COVID exists.
But this approach is not really working. People keep posting, liking, sharing, and believing disinformation. Why?
Because I think this is about something completely different. People do not post, like, etc., because they want to inform their followers or friends. They share to belong.
When I came to Berkeley, I saw around me all kinds of interesting names, giving ideas of different angles and approaches going on at Cal in Berkeley. Fascinating: Institute of European Studies, Center for Human Compatible Artificial Intelligence, Berkeley Institute for Data Science, Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Group! Amongst them, one name woke me up: The Othering & Belonging Institute! I realised that here was an angle which we in Europe, in drafting our social media policies, were greatly missing. We do things because we want to, need to belong. That’s it! We believe people we belong with. We don’t necessarily believe the others we do not belong with. It is so simple. And rather unscientific, of course.
I have not found much scientific research on the impact of belonging in dissemination of disinformation, however I did find the dissertation by Kristen Lane, When Friends Don’t Care About Facts: Belonging Motivation Drives Untrustworthy Information Sharing, which recognises the power of belonging. It also has a great phrase which explains why our information based methodology to tackle disinformation does not fully work: “In sum, whereas information exchange has traditionally been considered a vehicle for accumulating and distributing normatively accurate knowledge, much work suggests that information sharing is simultaneously a vehicle for social bonding.” This means that sharing in social media is not about informing others, it is about maintaining and strengthening social contacts.
Now, take this and add to it the primary human need to belong somewhere. Some reflections below.
I pick up the concepts of “othering” and “belonging” and use them to indicate tribal online behaviour: You feel a belonging with someone or an affinity with a group of people. Something links you with them: a common hobby, common interest or tendency. You feel at home with that group. You feel belonging in it. Let's call it your tribe.
This “tribe” is defined loosely, by me. It matches nicely with e.g. Jeff Goins in his blog 3 Truths about Tribes and Why We Need Them, so I am happy to implement it.
On the other hand, you may feel very different from someone else, how they think, look or operate, what their interests are, or even where they exist in the world. For any number of reasons, you feel that they really are the “others”, not like you. This is “othering”. Let’s call them the warrior tribe (as we do not trust them, warriors or not, they may be dangerous, because we do not know them).
Notably, belonging and othering are in a sense opposite, however they normally do not encompass together the whole world of our contacts. Sometimes the warrior tribe comprises everyone who is not in our tribe. That can create a stressful life!
How do these concepts of othering and belonging relate to disinformation? I argue that there is good reason to believe they have a strong link to echo chambers and polarisation, and are partly the reason for individuals ending up locked into their own parallel realities.
I imagine why – I have not done evidence-based research on this, so I just imagine:
We have always had tribes, if they mean we belong somewhere. Only a few generations ago we lived in villages, where most of our extended families also lived. This was our tribe. Some of these tribes would have been cruel and kicked us out if we didn’t fit their standards – and that would have been an enormous punishment as that tribe, for better or worse, also provided for our social network, safety margins, in health care, shelter, economy, law and everything that mattered in life.
There were other tribes, perhaps different in colour, language, appearance, culture. They could realistically be a serious threat to well-being as we did not know them. They were the dangerous others, the warrior tribe, at least as long as we could not be sure of it being otherwise.
How all is this relevant?
I think we have an inbuilt need to belong somewhere, to be part of a tribe. It is linked to the need to be safe. It may be that in the same sense a need to divide, to consider some as others, is equally inbuilt. Why else are we so prone to prejudice against other tribes – groups of people whom we don’t know, who look different, have different languages, different skin colours, different ambition, or think differently about something that is important for us?
Today we have lost our initial tribes, but we have created new ones – online. Indeed, social media has brought unprecedented means to belong, to recreate our tribal belonging: we don’t even need to be physically close to belong. Our family tribe is transformed to an online tribe of like-minded. It can be a tribe liking Siberian cats, or insects, or old cars. It can now also be our extended family and friends. It can be as well a group with specific ideals, beliefs or tendencies. It is important that it is a tribe where we feel at home and safe, and it accepts us.
How does this relate to the spreading of disinformation? As Kristen Lane says, “information sharing is simultaneously a vehicle for social bonding”. I pay my tribe membership through shares, likes, forwards, supporting comments. My tribe, my self-chosen online tribe, becomes closer to me through these activities. The more I agree and share, the tighter I am in the tribe. Even better if the tribe likes my postings! Social media supports this: the more you like something, the more you get it!
These are the new tribes, and this is the new belonging. It can be good, and it can make us happy.
It is a great feature of the online world, that we are able to find globally other people interested in similar things. For example, entomology. You can learn a great deal, and you can share your findings with those who are genuinely interested in the topic (as your family and friends might not be fond of insects). The entomology tribe will increase knowledge and happiness of its members, and belonging to it is a richness to your life. It is not likely to create hostility towards non-entomologists, and your perception of trustworthiness of content may not change due to belonging to this tribe.
However, tribes do not come without risks especially when the tribe covers all or most areas in life.
Whilst it is beautiful to belong, the tribe can become harmful, not only to us but also to others and to the society. Once we have found our tribe, our interest in others outside it may decrease. If tribal belonging is based on strong ideals, the tribe may even become our self-sufficient information environment. External information is not really interesting, no matter how valid. We have our tribe and its truths, and that really is enough, especially if it caters for all areas of our information needs.
There are two cases where this is especially relevant: 1) when the tribe bases its existence on something sick, criminal or harmful, and 2) when the tribe is led by a strong, unpredictable personality.
The first problem is in the situations when people with harmful or sick tendencies or ideals such as paedophilia, interest in violence or in other cruelty, find each other online. They can talk with like-minded people and feel that in this tribe they are normal. Belonging to the tribe may become irreplaceable for them, in a society which does not accept their tendencies or ideals. Belonging to such a tribe can enforce the twisted notion of “normality”, accelerate and legitimize the actions or plans of its members. If indeed liking and sharing and other positive reactions strengthen your belonging to the tribe, a vicious cycle of crime or violence can eventually be formed. These very harmful “tribes” can result in extreme behaviour, because the norms of their tribe perceive such behaviour as part of tribal belonging, and outside norms no longer matter.
(Dis)information sharing, whilst potentially harmful, has the role of demonstrating belonging and “collegiality” within the tribe. Whether it is correct, is largely irrelevant.
The second problem is related to becoming a member of an online tribe where you are expected to obey, and there is no need to think for yourself. If we are insecure and lonely, our need to be accepted and to belong grows. These days it is easy to join, more or less loosely become part of an online group, a tribe, which can be religious, military, political. Once you become a member of such a tribe, as a reward you may gain a feeling of belonging. The tribe responds to your basic needs of camaraderie or family.
Added to the charm of belonging, a perceived online closeness to a strong leader may tie you very strongly to this new tribe. You will see posts from the tribe, perhaps especially by the leader. Your tribal role is simply to like, agree, and follow. It’s really very easy: likings, affirmative postings and sharings and so on are your tribal expressions, and the membership fee for the tribe. Content is largely irrelevant - as long as it is from the tribe.
Our tribe may also post disinformation. This will invite reactions from others, outside the tribe. Corrective postings may appear, including factual explanations, links to other, more reliable sources or warnings of unreliable information.
How will these comments be perceived by tribal members? That is decided through which need is stronger, the need for accuracy or the need to belong. When our need to belong to our tribe is very strong, we regard the world through who is sharing information, not through the content. We shall not care about comments from outside the tribe. The truth is within the tribe.
Conclusively, the joy of belonging, of being part of your tribe, influences your proneness to accept also disinformation from your tribal colleagues. The reason is simple: it is not the content that counts. Sharing and liking are tokens of affection and enforce belonging.
The world is now divided into two or three parts: your tribe, the warrior tribe (who is against your tribe) and others. Your attitude to messages depends on whom it is from, not on its contents.
- By accepting and sharing messages from your tribe you reconfirm your belonging, you are closer to your tribal family and the bonding strengthens. Whether the messages are disinformation may be quite irrelevant as their role is to be tokens of loyalty.
- By not accepting or believing messages from the warrior tribe, you again reconfirm your belonging to your tribe; you show loyalty to your own. Whether the messages would be corrective factual texts regarding shared disinformation, or other important factual information, it again is irrelevant.
- Messages from others who are neither friend nor enemy, may have the best possibility to be accepted as information. They may, however, be of reduced interest.
The challenging tribal cases are those where the whole population is either with you (your tribe) or against you (warrior tribe), such as in some fanatic religious, terrorist or extreme political movements. World is perceived as in the following table describing potential behaviour in a very strong, echo chambered tribe:
Your perception of the truth of a statement in relation to 1) whether it is in reality true or not, and 2) by whom it has been posted.
I think this is very interesting, and also very frightening to think that the content has become secondary. At worst information has lost the value of its content and has become solely a means for bonding with friends and opposing enemies – strengthening tribal ties in both.
My suggestion is that the role of the need to belong – tribalism – as a strong motivation for dissemination of (dis)information is a field which would benefit from further research.
Acknowledgements: I was not only inspired by the name of the Othering & Belonging Institute to write this little blog, but also by fascinating discussions and chats with Hany Farid, Marianne Riddervold, Katarina Linos, Marsha Fenner, my friend, author Mona Halaby, and my son, Elias Sajo.
A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation: Report of the independent High level Group on fake news and online disinformation
April 30, 3018 | EU Publications Office
Communication - Tackling online disinformation: a European approach
April 26, 2018 | European Commission
European Convention on Human Rights
August 1, 2021 | European Court of Human Rights
When Friends Don't Care About Facts: Belonging Motivation Drives Untrustworthy Information Sharing
2020 | Kristen Lane | The University of Arizona
3 Truths About Tribes & Why We Need Them
2021 | Jeff Goins | GoinsWriter.com