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7 Keys to Sensemaking in a Time of Fake News

“Sensemaking…refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding—a map—of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning, the map depending on how credible it is.” — Deborah Ancona, from her essay “Sensemaking

Over the past few years, truth has been hard to come by. Whether the “news” is coming from the government, the president, the news media, corporate marketers, or your own social media feeds, it’s become increasingly difficult for people of good conscience to distinguish fact from fiction. The level of spin has become so extreme that it’s actually threatening to fracture the country. We all know friends and loved ones who have slipped into specialized “reality bubbles” where their perception of what’s going on in the world diverges radically from your own. We may all be occupying the same geography, but we’re living in very different worlds.

Of course, Americans have always argued, from the founding of the nation. This is not new, and is, in fact, part of what has made America great—our rich diversity of thought and perspective. But lately, something has changed. It’s one thing to argue over ideas and principles. But why has it become increasingly hard to agree on basic facts?

There’s a war that’s already begun in our midst—a war that’s being fought not with guns or bombs, but with compelling stories and tightly-spun propaganda. It’s narrative warfare, and whether we want this war or not, we all now find ourselves standing exposed on its front lines.

In this narrative war, you are both the target and the prize. Corporations, media conglomerates (including news media), special-interest groups, and governments (both domestic and foreign) are spending millions everyday to get you to believe their particular narrative about “what’s really going on in the world”—not because their narrative is true, but because getting you to believe it serves their interests.

“Bad actors with multiple, overlapping motivations pollute the information ecology for political and financial gain. In the market of attention, we are playing zero-sum games that have a few winners and a lot of losers.” — Andrew Sweeney

In this chaotic landscape of competing narratives—each with their own set of “alternative facts”—how do you even begin to discern what’s actually true? Well, as you already know, it’s far from easy. But there are steps you can take to greatly decrease the chances of getting duped. Here are seven:

1. Assume you are being expertly manipulated. It’s easy to spot how other people are being deceived by external players who want them to “buy in” to a particular narrative. But it’s much harder to recognize the same deception operating in yourself. That’s why we all need to remain actively wary of our own capacity to be fooled. There’s nothing quite so enticing as hearing a “news story” that not only confirms your pre-existing biases, but also makes you out to be the hero or the smart one who “gets it,” while all those other people are either deceived or downright sinister. If those elements figure prominently in the story you believe, you’ve almost certainly been manipulated into buying into a narrative that isn’t completely true.

2. Stop outsourcing your sensemaking. The information ecology is caught up in a cyclone of disinformation at the moment. Competing narratives are flitting around us like debris in a hurricane. In times like these, none of us can afford to outsource our sensemaking to any one person or organization or government. This includes the news media—especially those that align with your own political beliefs. Remember that almost all news media—whether it’s delivered via television, video, print, radio or podcast—are for-profit enterprises, and that their ultimate aim is to make money for their stakeholders, not necessarily to tell the whole truth about anything. It’s not enough anymore to passively consume information—even from a “trusted source.” We must regularly be asking skeptical questions of the information that comes to us. Questions like:

  • Where is this information coming from? Can it be independently verified?

  • How is this information impacting me? How might this impact be intentional on the part of the messenger?

  • What’s the narrative I’m being asked to believe?

  • Who ultimately benefits if I believe it?

3. Be ruthlessly suspicious of your biases. Certainly there are many external voices trying to influence you right now, but perhaps an even greater danger is your formidable capacity for self-deception. “Wait a minute!” you say. “Everyone else is getting fooled, but not me. I can see through the lies!” If that’s what you think then you are especially in danger. All of us have entrenched biases that create blind spots in our reasoning. We tend to see what our biases want us to see. We tend to pay more attention to information that reinforces our biases, and to deny or minimize information that contradicts it. Ignoring this fact about your perceptions makes you an easy mark for the armies of story-spinners out there spending millions to seduce you into their “reality bubble.” With so many wildly-divergent narratives competing for our allegiance, we have to assume we’re getting at least some—and probably a lot—of the actual story wrong.

4. Don’t add to the misinformation. Think of misinformation as pollution. The more of it that gets spread around, the more polluted our shared information ecology becomes. Reposting pithy memes or liking things you haven’t personally researched and verified only adds to the “smog” of our collective sensemaking, making it even harder for any of us to discern the truth. As tempting as it can be, don’t repost or spread “information” to anyone else unless you have personally done the work to verify that the information is true. If that’s not possible or you don’t have time, then don’t share it.

5. Abandon your echo chamber. Here’s a bit of tough love for you: Your echo chamber is making you dumb. No one there is challenging your ideas. No one is offering a different (but equally valid) perspective. No one is inviting you to consider additional information that may change your mind. Echo chambers are good for only two things: Making you feel self righteous, and increasing the divisiveness in our common life. If you really want to know the whole truth, you have to engage (with openness and curiosity) people who don’t see things the same way you do. When coaching teams and organizations through divisive situations, we challenge team members to agree on this foundational truth: “Nobody gets to be right…entirely.” None of us has the corner on the market of all truth. None of us has all the relevant data, or all of the important facts. We can only come close to the truth about what’s really happening in the world by working together, sharing our perspectives, and debating our ideas in good faith, until from that synergy the deeper, truer story of our current reality emerges.

6. Build a diverse circle of sensemakers. The fact is, you cannot do sensemaking effectively by yourself. No matter how hard you try, your own biases will inevitably get in the way of you seeing the whole truth. The most effective way to work around this is to create circles of relationship with people who have different biases but are committed to do the honest work of sensemaking in partnership with one another. Start to create relationships with people of differing perspectives where one of the highest values is uncovering the truth together.

“Truthful communication is not created ex nihilo, or in a bubble, but in the context of real, good faith, learning. And learning contexts are the opposite of information bubbles: they require that we stress our system, challenge our assumptions, and learn to go beyond the obvious and the mechanical — to go beyond bullshit.” — Andrew Sweeney, “The War on Sensemaking

7. Practice humility. Finally, and above all, you must stay humble. We each have a strong internal drive to believe that we are right. We want—almost desperately—to see ourselves as righteous and good. If this prideful drive is left unchecked, we will go to drastic extremes to defend our “rightness.” We will even kill another human being to protect it. But the truth is that all of us are wrong—at least in part—about what we believe. None of us has the whole picture of “what’s really going on,” and we need one another if we ever hope to piece it together. So be humble. Be willing to listen—really listen. Stay curious. Refuse to hate. We can get through this, but only if we go together.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.” ― Abraham Lincoln
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