Identity-Defining Beliefs on Social Media
Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Sussex, email@example.com
ABSTRACT. When membership of a community depends on commitment to shared
beliefs, the community is a belief-based coalition, and the beliefs are identity-defining
beliefs. Belief-based coalitions are pervasive features of human social life and routinely
drive motivated cognition and epistemically dysfunctional group dynamics. Despite this,
they remain surprisingly undertheorized in social epistemology. This article (i) clarifies
the properties of belief-based coalitions and identity-defining beliefs, (ii) explains why
they often incentivize and coordinate epistemically dysfunctional forms of
communication and cognitive labor, and (iii) argues that they provide a better explanation
of many epistemic problems on social media than the concepts of epistemic bubbles, echo
chambers, and gamification.
“Have you considered not vaccinating your child?” The midwife’s question took Maranda by surprise.
She had not considered this. The possibility had never even crossed her mind. When the midwife
explained that one of her own children developed autism soon after being vaccinated, however, Maranda
was interested. The midwife seemed kind and reasonable. She simply invited Maranda to do her own
After the midwife left, Maranda typed into Google, “Why not vaccinate?” In addition to streams of
information answering her question, she came across a Facebook group, Great Mothers Questioning
Vaccines. Now concerned, she expressed her new vaccine hesitancy to the group. She was flooded with
responses: alarming anecdotes, links to credible-looking websites, evidence on the medical
establishment’s untrustworthiness, and more. The group struck Maranda as warm, intelligent, and even
courageous. Soon she was convinced. Then she became more than convinced; she became fanatical. She
began to evangelize on behalf of her new beliefs, bringing up the topic whenever possible in her offline
See Storr (2021, 277–88).
interactions. When she reported such evangelism back to the group, her new co-believers showered her
with praise, which energized her more. For Maranda, the online community became a real community,
and her new beliefs became a central part of who she was.
Maranda’s story seems to illustrate many phenomena often observed in the age of the internet and
social media: an online subculture united by unfounded beliefs, the subculture’s status as a source of
genuine meaning and belonging for its members, the ease with which such members acquire supporting
evidence for their convictions, the social praise and encouragement for those who affirm their
commitment to such convictions, and more. In the past decade, similar phenomena seem to have emerged
in many online subcultures, from the Manosphere to QAnon (Marwick and Partin 2022; Nagle 2017;
Sunstein 2017). Moreover, some have worried that less extreme versions of such dynamics increasingly
characterize and exacerbate more mainstream forms of political and cultural conflict (Bail 2021; Haidt
2022; Settle 2018; Van Bavel et al. 2021).
In trying to come to terms with some of the epistemic problems associated with social media,
theorists have developed various constructs, including epistemic bubbles (Sunstein 2017), echo chambers
(Nguyen 2020), and gamification (Nguyen 2021). This article argues that we will gain a better
explanatory purchase on many of these problems with two very different concepts: belief-based coalitions
and the identity-defining beliefs that form part of their membership criteria.
In posing a question on Great
Mothers Questioning Vaccines, Maranda Dynda was quickly recruited into such a coalition. Because this
community provided various benefits for its members, many within it—including Maranda herself—
acquired a practical stake in holding and affirming its defining beliefs. This drove much of the
individually biased reasoning in the community, but it also drove much of its epistemically dysfunctional
group dynamics as well: the praise showered on those who displayed their commitment to the beliefs, the
energy poured into constructing and sharing justifications of them, and—as Maranda would discover
The term ‘identity-defining belief’ comes from (Rauch 2021).
when she later abandoned her beliefs and left the group—the collective punishment of heretics and
apostates (Storr 2021, 277–88).
Once we understand the role of identity-defining beliefs in human social life, many features of the
case, and many epistemic problems that we observe on social media more broadly, fall into place—or so I
will argue in this article. After introducing belief-based coalitions and identity-defining beliefs (S2), I will
explain why they often incentivize distinctive forms of group-based epistemic dysfunction (S3) and then
apply these ideas to manifestations of such dysfunction on social media (S4).
2.BELIEF-BASED COALITIONS AND IDENTITY-DEFINING BELIEFS
Human beings are groupish (Boyer 2018; Pietraszewski et al. 2014; Tooby and Cosmides 2010). People
develop strong attachments to groups, draw ingroup/outgroup boundaries, internalize costs and benefits to
their communities, sacrifice to promote collective interests, and exhibit a suite of ingroup biases. When
groups compete, such tendencies often extend to prejudice toward outgroup members. Although extensive
research on “minimal group paradigm” experiments demonstrates that this groupishness can form
surprisingly easily (Tajfel 1974), it typically takes its most powerful form in more stable communities,
where similar tendencies often arise in groups of otherwise very different kinds.
Groupish tendencies are best understood in terms of motivations and capacities specialized for
navigating a world of coalitions (Boyer 2018; Simler and Hanson 2016; Tooby and Cosmides 2010). In
this section I describe the nature of coalitions and coalitional cooperation (2.1); I introduce the constructs
of belief-based coalitions and identity-defining beliefs (S2.2); and I distinguish these ideas from the
hypothesis that beliefs sometimes function as signals of group identity (S2.3).
2.1 COALITIONS AND COOPERATION
People typically join and stay within groups because they benefit from doing so. When these benefits
result from the cooperation and coordination of group members, the group is a coalition, a bounded group
that functions to promote the interests of its members. Because much of human cooperation occurs within
such coalitions, our social world largely consists of—and has long consisted of—complex and often
nested relationships between coalitions at multiple scales, from small-scale, fleeting alliances to larger
and more stable cooperative units such as bands, tribes, sects, gangs, religions, ethnic groups, unions,
subcultures, political parties, nation-states, and more (Boyer 2018; Storr 2021). These more enduring
communities often exploit within-group cooperation not to achieve narrow, predefined goals but to
promote the interests of group members in open-ended ways through social support, mutual aid, and
opportunities for collective action (Tooby and Cosmides 2010; Williams 2021a).
Coalitions are pervasive because they are so powerful. Their reliance on cooperation makes them
inherently fragile, however (Olson 1965; Tooby and Cosmides 2010). The source of this fragility is free
riding. Coalitional cooperation provides benefits. Free riders attempt to reap such benefits without paying
the costs required to sustain them for others. The problem is that this strategy is often instrumentally
rational: even if all members of the coalition benefit from cooperation, individuals often benefit from
letting other members pay the costs of cooperation for them.
Coalitions solve this problem in two basic ways: through identification and incentivization.
former case, coalitions only accept members that they identify as being committed to the group and its
cooperative goals, overcoming the difficulty that individuals often benefit from exaggerating such
Thus, groups of otherwise very different kinds often require initiation rites, behavioral
restrictions, and rituals that function as costly and so credible signals of group commitment (Xygalatas
2022). Similarly, just as invading armies can burn the bridges behind them to commit—and so credibly
signal a commitment—to fight on, coalitions often require members to act in ways that metaphorically
burn their bridges to competing coalitions by selectively harming their reputation in the eyes of outsiders
(Boyer 2018; Mercier 2020). Importantly, even behaviors that seem purely assortative—for example,
These correspond to
solutions in the cooperation literature
Importantly, some signals of group identity are merely
and so do not confront this
problem (Smaldino 2022).
wearing group-distinctive clothing or taking a public stand in favor of a group—can perform the same
function if they are viewed unfavorably by those outside of the coalition (Iannaccone 1992).
In addition, coalitions also implement incentive structures—systems of social reward and
punishment—that motivate cooperation (Boyd 2017). In this case, free riding is sanctioned either directly
or reputationally, up to and including expulsion from the group, and those who pay their cooperative
share are rewarded with greater reputations and status (Henrich and Muthukrishna 2021; Simpson and
Willer 2015). One important feature of such reward systems involves prestige, an extremely motivating
form of status rooted in respect, admiration, and deference (Ridgeway 2019; Storr 2021). Although there
are different theories about why prestige hierarchies evolved in our species, one common function that
they serve is motivating individuals to pay costs to advance the interests of a group, either through the
carrot of enhanced status or the stick of its decline (Simpson and Willer 2015; Willer 2009). This process
is often implemented explicitly in formal contexts, such as in nations that give medals to military heroes,
but the underlying logic of competitive altruism—that is, competing to win status by sacrificing for
others—is pervasive and often emerges spontaneously (Ridgeway 2019; Storr 2021; Willer 2009).
2.2 BELIEF-BASED COALITIONS
Coalitions have membership criteria, although such criteria are often implicit. As noted, commitment to
the group and its cooperative goals are likely universal preconditions of coalitional membership. Beyond
such requirements, however, membership criteria vary enormously. Belief-based coalitions can be
understood as coalitions in which commitment to a group-specific (henceforth identity-defining) set of
beliefs is a condition of entry.
Identity-defining beliefs can be loosely divided into two categories. First, because coalitional
membership depends on group commitment, believing that one’s group has sufficiently positive qualities
to warrant such commitment is likely necessary for most coalitions. When groups compete, this often
means believing that one’s own group is more deserving of status and power than alternative groups.
Such group-serving and group-enhancing beliefs constitute generic identity-defining beliefs that recur in a
similar form across many coalitions (Tajfel 1974; Williams 2022).
Second, some coalitions have specific identity-defining beliefs that concern the nature of reality
beyond the group itself. Most religions are belief-based coalitions in this sense. They are coalitions in that
religions typically leverage within-group networks of trust, mutual aid, and social support to promote the
interests of their members (Norenzayan 2015). They are belief-based coalitions because commitment to a
set of core convictions is normally a condition of membership. Political parties and activist groups are
belief-based coalitions for similar reasons, as are communities organized around political ideologies or
conspiracy theories. Of course, there is often some imprecision in which beliefs are identity defining, and
identity-defining beliefs often evolve over time in response to external pressures and internal group
dynamics, but these observations do not undermine the obvious fact that acceptance of specific beliefs at
specific times is a condition of membership for many communities.
2.3 IDENTITY-DEFINING BELIEFS AND SIGNALING
Funkhouser (2017, 2022) argues that beliefs sometimes function as signals of group identity and
commitment and draws on this framework to explain certain irrational group beliefs, such as some
religious beliefs, scientific misperceptions, and unfounded political convictions (see also Bergamaschi
Ganapini 2021; Simler and Hanson 2016; Williams 2021a). Although this hypothesis is consistent and
complementary with the concept of identity-defining beliefs, it is important to note several differences.
First, because identity-defining beliefs often drive a form of motivated cognition in which people
unconsciously subordinate the pursuit of truth to the goal of maintaining their group identity, they do
frequently produce epistemic irrationality (Kahan et al. 2017; Williams 2021c). Nevertheless, we need not
understand this process of identity-protective cognition in terms of signaling. Most of the appeal to
signaling below (S3.2), for example, explores how people signal commitment to identity-defining beliefs,
not how the beliefs themselves function as signals of group identity.
Second, although identity-defining beliefs often drive motivated cognition, they need not do so. For
example, an individual might join a belief-based coalition because they formed its beliefs through purely
epistemic means, and they might stay in that coalition only insofar as they can maintain such beliefs on
epistemic grounds alone. Of course, as the emotional, social, or material benefits that this community
provides to the individual increase, so will tendencies toward identity-protective cognition. It is difficult
to get a person to understand something when their position and status within a valued community
depends on them not understanding it. There are several forces that can counteract these tendencies,
however. For example, people also typically care about accuracy and appearing reasonable; a group’s
success frequently depends on being responsive to reality; and many people belong to numerous cross-
cutting communities, which constrains the degree to which any one group’s beliefs can dominate
cognition (Sen 2006). Further, some communities uphold norms that actively encourage within-group
disagreement and reward epistemic virtue.
Finally, although Funkhouser’s work focuses primarily on how identity-defining beliefs drive
individual irrationality, they also often drive epistemically dysfunctional group dynamics, which is the
main focus of this article.
3.THE SOCIAL EPISTEMOLOGY OF IDENTITY-DEFINING BELIEFS
Whenever beliefs are identity defining within communities that people are motivated to belong to, there
are strong tendencies for their members to communicate in ways consistent with such beliefs (S3.1), to
propagate and enforce them (S3.2), and to perform cognitive labor dedicated to rationalizing them (S3.3).
3.1 COMMUNICATIVE ADJUSTMENT
On an idealistic model of testimony, people communicate primarily to transmit accurate and relevant
information of a sort that benefits others in shared projects of understanding and truth discovery (Nguyen
2021). This model is often simplistic and distortive. Even setting aside deliberate deception, in
communicating we are frequently just as concerned with advertising or hiding traits of ourselves than
with transmitting in-demand information, and such aims routinely come into conflict with the goal of
simply informing others of what we know. That is, human communication is tailored in many ways and at
multiple scales to make the communicator look good and to achieve strategic objectives (Boyer 2018;
Dessalles and Grieve 2009; Joshi 2021; Kuran 1997; Loury 1994; Mercier 2020; Noelle-Neumann 1974;
Simler and Hanson 2016). Thus, although we are an epistemically interdependent species reliant on social
information, which information we receive often depends on the payoffs associated with communication,
which are shaped in profound ways by incentives irrelevant to the truth of expressed viewpoints.
This dynamic characterizes many belief-based coalitions. Once communities have identity-defining
beliefs, motivations to signal group commitment often incentivize those who care about their acceptance
and status within the community to communicate in ways that are consistent with such beliefs (Loury
1994; Wolff 2021).
One might object that individuals who belong to belief-based coalitions must hold the relevant
beliefs anyway and so will have no reason to adjust their communications. This intuition is misguided,
however. The public acceptance of a group’s identity-defining beliefs often masks significant
heterogeneity in its members’ private thoughts and attitudes (Joshi 2021; Noelle-Neumann 1974). People
might secretly have contrary ideas, difficult questions, doubts, worries, potential counterevidence, and so
on. If communicating these thoughts threatens their perceived commitment to the community’s defining
beliefs, however, they will be discouraged from expressing them (Loury 1994). In this way the evidence
that group members are exposed to often becomes highly skewed toward confirming such beliefs. Of
course, this process is dynamic and can easily spiral: as fewer group members dissent, the appearance of
uniformity and so the costs of questioning or challenging identity-defining beliefs increases as well,
leading more people to remain silent (Noelle-Neumann 1974).
One might also object that people will not join a belief-based coalition if they hold doubts about its
defining beliefs, and that existing members of such coalitions can simply leave the group if they come to
judge that its beliefs are unfounded. This objection is naïve, however: belief-based coalitions of many
kinds—including sects, religions, social movements, activist groups, political parties, and more—are
often a source of significant social and material benefits for people, and it is very easy to accrue
significant non-fungible social capital within them. Given this, people routinely join and stay within
belief-based coalitions for reasons independent of the truth of their beliefs, and the strength of these
motivations will often easily outweigh the subjective costs of self-censorship.
Importantly, these social pressures can and do exist in the absence of identity-protective cognition.
Even if I am in no way attached to a group’s defining convictions, I will still often be motivated to adjust
my communication if I am sufficiently attached to—or dependent on—the group itself. As noted above
(S2.3), however, in many belief-based coalitions identity-protective cognition is pervasive: motivations to
belong to such coalitions and win approval within them often produce corresponding motivations to form
and maintain their defining beliefs (Williams 2021b). When this happens, the incentives deterring
communications at odds with identity-defining beliefs are much stronger. Dissent is no longer merely a
cue of disloyalty: by communicating evidence against group beliefs, it also frustrates the practical
interests of others in believing what they want to believe.
3.2 ACTIVE BELIEF
Much behavior within belief-based coalitions goes beyond this communicative adjustment. In an
insightful analysis, Storr (2021) points out that belief-based communities also often incentivize what he
calls “active belief,” a form of belief associated with a kind of zealous dogmatism. As the story of
Maranda Dynda illustrates, this sometimes manifests as evangelism in which true believers seek to
propagate group beliefs through persuasion, proselytizing, and arguing with—and sometimes attacking—
outsiders who disagree. It is also often turned inward via the punishment of heretics and apostates,
however, which can include everything from verbal attacks and attempts at reputational destruction all the
way to imprisonment or murder (Loury 1994; Noelle-Neumann 1974).
From a self-interested perspective, active belief can seem puzzling. Even if one strongly believes
something, why would one pay costs to propagate this belief or impose it on others? Of course, in some
cases one also believes that the relevant beliefs should be propagated. Even here, however, there is a free
rider problem: when beliefs are shared by one’s community, why not let one’s co-believers do the hard
work required to transmit and enforce them?
In the framework developed here, active belief can sometimes be understood as a way of signaling
commitment to identity-defining beliefs. Such signals are incentivized because—as Durkheim (
2008) observed in discussing ritual sacrifice in religions—signaling commitment to a group’s ideas and
values is a way of signaling commitment to the group itself (Storr 2021). This behavior can therefore arise
even if nobody in the group independently desires to spread its beliefs. When propagating group beliefs
constitutes a coalition’s explicit goal, however, as it often does in political, cultural, and religious groups,
active belief can be underpinned by reward systems that underlie any other form of within-group
cooperation. In these cases, active believers are epistemic enforcers and warriors, motivated—as with
those who enforce group norms and sacrifice to promote group interests more broadly (Boyd 2017;
Ridgeway 2019)—by reputational and status rewards.
3.3 COGNITIVE LABOR
Like almost all sharing among non-kin, information sharing is regulated by social rewards and
punishments (Boyer 2018; Dessalles and Grieve 2009; Mercier 2020; Simler and Hanson 2016).
Although such rewards and punishments can be direct—the anger directed at a liar, for example, or the
gratitude one feels for someone who provides helpful advice—they are often indirect, regulated by norms,
reputations, and gossip (Boyer 2018; Dessalles and Grieve 2009; Mercier 2020). Importantly, such
incentive structures—I will call them epistemic reward systems—do not merely motivate the transmission
of preexisting information; they sometimes motivate individuals to expend time, energy, and resources
producing or acquiring information for the purpose of sharing. Such cognitive labor can take many
different forms—thinking hard, collecting data, infiltrating gossip networks, and so on—but it is unified
in its function of producing or extracting socially valued information.
This epistemic reward system is clear and in part explicitly institutionalized in modern science,
within which intellectual contributions are rewarded with—and so motivated by—recognition and status
(Merton 1979), but the basic incentive structure is foundational to almost all communication and
cognitive labor and underlies the unique forms of epistemic cooperation that human beings achieve.
Because people typically strive to form true beliefs relevant to their interests, epistemic reward
systems tend to reward those who share information conducive to forming such beliefs and punish those
who share irrelevant, inaccurate, or deceptive information (Mercier 2020). People do not always seek to
build an accurate model of reality, however. In some cases, people seek information to rationalize
predetermined conclusions. When this happens, the result is rationalization markets, information
economies in which agents compete for social and sometimes financial rewards by producing and
disseminating information tailored to justifying favored beliefs (Mercier 2020; Williams 2022). Such
rationalization markets arise in belief-based coalitions whenever their members engage in identity-
protective cognition and so seek out evidence and arguments that rationalize identity-defining
Just as competitive markets generally reward those who produce high-quality, low-cost goods and
services, rationalization markets delegate the task of producing group-favored rationalizations to the
minority of group members most effective at this activity. As with skillful defense lawyers who spin the
truth to justify predetermined conclusions, such rationalization producers do not simply spread
misinformation but frame and interpret reality in ways that rationalize group-favored beliefs. These
rationalizations can therefore take many forms—empirical evidence, structured arguments, connections of
favored narratives to preexisting knowledge, and so on—and they are often specialized not just for
directly justifying favored conclusions but for neutralizing epistemic threats to them (see S4.2 below).
In summary, belief-based coalitions are cooperative communities in which public commitment to group-
specific beliefs is a condition of membership. I have argued that there are strong tendencies for such
coalitions to interact with distinctive characteristics of human sociality in ways that incentivize and
coordinate epistemically dysfunctional forms of communication, cooperation, and cognitive labor.
Of course, this explanatory framework is speculative in many ways, and like any framework its
basic structure is highly idealized and neglects much psychological and social complexity. People have
diverse and competing motives; they vary in important ways in temperament and cognitive ability; and
people often belong to many communities, which can counteract the processes described here (S2.3).
Moreover, groups obviously differ enormously in their goals and structure, and some groups have
practices and norms designed to prevent the emergence of orthodoxies and encourage within-group
disagreement. Nevertheless, I will now argue that—even bearing these important qualifications in mind—
the schematic framework in this section provides a helpful explanatory purchase on some of the epistemic
problems found on social media.
4. BUBBLES, CHAMBERS, AND GAMES
Belief-based coalitions and identity-defining beliefs are much older than social media. They feature in
everything from the shared ancestor myths of tribal groups to the convictions of religious communities,
self-serving ideologies of elite classes, and bizarre conspiracy theories affirmed by certain subcultures.
Nevertheless, they also seem highly relevant to understanding social media. In recent years, many have
worried about the epistemic behavior of online groups (Nagle 2017; Sunstein 2017). This includes online
subcultures that exist in explicit opposition to mainstream beliefs, including groups organized around
conspiratorial narratives (e.g., QAnon), misogyny (e.g., the Manosphere), racism (e.g., the alt-right),
extremist religious views, and more. According to some, however, it also includes society’s more
mainstream political and cultural coalitions. On this view, the informational and incentive architecture of
social media platforms encourages forms of communication and interaction that increase polarization and
exacerbate intergroup conflict in society at large (Bail 2021; Haidt 2022; Settle 2018; Sunstein 2017).
The characteristics of belief-based coalitions seem relevant to many of the phenomena identified in
support of such worries, including the existence of online groups and subcultures united by unfounded
worldviews, the role of communication in signaling group identity and allegiance, the manifestations of
active belief in evangelism and punishment of within-group dissent, the energy poured into justifying and
protecting group-favored narratives, and more (Haidt 2022; Nagle 2017; Storr 2021). My aim in this final
section is to develop this suggestion by favorably contrasting the framework outlined in this article with
three alternative frameworks that focus on epistemic bubbles (S4.1), echo chambers (S4.2), and
gamification (S4.3). Although the reflections here are tentative and speculative, I will present an initial
case that belief-based coalitions provide a deeper and more flexible analysis of group-based epistemic
dysfunction online than these more popular explanations.
Before this, however, three clarifications are important. First, my focus is on epistemically
dysfunctional group dynamics on social media, not on all epistemic problems associated with social
media. Second, many popular narratives about the epistemic costs of social media appear to be
empirically unsupported. It is difficult to identify causal relations between social media and many of the
trends that such narratives point to (e.g., political polarization), and in some cases the trends themselves—
such as an allegedly unprecedent explosion of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing—are illusory
(Altay 2022; Mercier 2020). Thus, my claim is not that belief-based coalitions illuminate a mythical
epistemic catastrophe ushered in by social media, but that they provide a helpful lens for exploring how
social media platforms interact with specific belief-based coalitions operating in specific contexts.
Finally, although my focus is on certain forms of epistemic dysfunction, I do not mean to imply that
social media only bring epistemic costs or even that such costs outweigh their benefits, of which there are
One influential framework for understanding group-based epistemic dysfunction on social media appeals
to epistemic bubbles, networks of like-minded people disproportionately exposed to evidence and
arguments that confirm what they already believe. Although such bubbles are often called “echo
chambers,” I will follow Nguyen (2020) in avoiding that terminology (see S4.2).
Whatever term we use, the basic worry is that the high-choice information environment of the
digital age encourages us to enclose ourselves in networks in which we rarely encounter disagreement
with our beliefs (Pariser 2017; Sunstein 2017). Such opportunities are exacerbated by both natural
psychological tendencies—for example, tendencies to congregate with like-minded others and seek out
confirmatory evidence—and the architecture of online platforms themselves, which often seem to
algorithmically filter our information diet to match our beliefs and values. According to proponents of this
perspective, once we are enclosed in epistemic bubbles of this kind, we typically succumb to processes
such as conformity, groupthink, and group polarization, and it is these bubble-driven dynamics that
contribute to the epistemic fragmentation, polarization, and extremism allegedly observed today (Pariser
2017; Sunstein 2017).
There are two important things that this explanatory framework gets right. First, it draws attention
to the role of social media and the digital age more broadly in facilitating belief-based coalition
formation. To take just one example, the Incel (“Involuntarily Celibate”) community, an online subculture
that disproportionately attracts males with certain characteristics and attitudes (e.g., self-perceived low
social status and misogyny), could probably not have emerged without the ways in which social media
connects geographically distant individuals with similar traits and interests (Nagle 2017).
Second, online epistemic bubbles do exist at least to some degree in some contexts, especially when
it comes to certain fringe subcultures and that segment of the population high in political engagement, as
do certain characteristics such as conformity and group polarization often thought to be associated with
them (Halberstam and Knight 2016; Sunstein 2017; Wojcieszak et al. 2022). Moreover, we should expect
some degree of bubble formation whenever groups hold identity-defining beliefs, not just because people
preferentially interact with ingroup members but also because identity-protective cognition drives
individuals to insulate beliefs from disconfirmation and seek out rationalizations of them. From this
perspective, then, extreme forms of online bubble construction can simply be viewed as one way in which
certain belief-based coalitions protect identity-defining worldviews with offline parallels in how cults and
sects sometimes live in isolated communes.
Nevertheless, understood as a general framework for understanding group-based epistemic
dysfunction on social media, the concept of epistemic bubbles is inadequate for two reasons. First,
although people do disproportionately consume information congenial to their political and cultural
identities, for most people social media use seems to broaden the variety of viewpoints that they are
exposed to (Acerbi 2019; Törnberg 2022). Thus, scientific research and commonsense observation align
in noting that social media often features not isolated epistemic communities but constant intergroup
contact and conflict. Second, contrary to the assumption that exposure to alternative viewpoints online
will have beneficial epistemic consequences, such exposure often exacerbates dogmatism and division
(Bail 2021; Garrett et al. 2014). For example, in an influential field experiment in which Democrats and
Republicans were exposed to the tweets of politicians and opinion leaders from the other side, Bail et al.
(2018) found that Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative viewpoints after
such exposure and Democrat participants expressed slightly more liberal ones (see also Garrett et al.
This aligns with a significant body of research demonstrating that exposure to alternative beliefs
online is often highly aversive for people and interpreted as “an attack upon their identity” (Bail 2021,
The framework of belief-based coalitions helps to illuminate this situation. Society’s mainstream
political and cultural coalitions are in active competition for power and status. For such groups, epistemic
isolation is therefore neither possible nor desirable, and the primary effect of social media is the exact
opposite of epistemic bubbles: the provision of a public forum on which instant and spatially
The effect was not statistically significant for liberals, however.
unconstrained communication facilitates a rate of exposure to different belief-based communities with no
precedent in the offline world (Törnberg 2022). Moreover, it should not be surprising that exposure to
contrary viewpoints under such conditions is often subjectively aversive and socially divisive. Belief-
based coalitions often produce incentive structures—incentives rendered explicit and hyper-salient on
social media (S4.3)—that motivate forms of communication and interaction antithetical to persuading
outsiders. There are at least three primary manifestations of this, all of which are neglected by research on
First, the appearance of uniform opinion within belief-based communities online is rarely simply a
consequence of constricted information exposure and connection with like-minded others; it is often
actively sustained by motivations to signal group identity and punish heretics.
Thus, Bail (2021) reviews
evidence demonstrating that political moderates in the USA often self-censor and withdraw from online
discourse primarily to avoid the wrath of activists and extremists from within their own political parties
(see Haidt 2022; Hawkins et al. 2019). When combined with the fact that those highest in political
engagement are the most partisan and by far the most likely to communicate about politics on social
media, online exposure to the viewpoints of belief-based communities typically involves exposure to a
degree of group consensus that does not reflect the real distribution of private beliefs and attitudes among
the relevant group members (Törnberg 2022). This creates both a false perception of the degree of
polarization and a heightened sense of outgroup homogeneity, thus increasing intergroup animosity (Bail
2021; Settle 2018). Of course, this process can easily spiral: as moderates self-censor and extremists
become emboldened, the costs of internal dissent increase further (Wojcieszak et al. 2022).
Second, belief-based coalitions encourage signals of group commitment, which—under conditions
of sharp intergroup conflict—often means selectively harming the communicator’s reputation among
Research on epistemic bubbles recognizes
influences on communication in
addition to constricted information exposure (Sunstein 2017), but the generic and typically
weak reputational pressures on conformity described in most research on belief polarization are
different from the incentives for active punishment of heretics and apostates encouraged by
belief-based coalitions. I am grateful to Elizabeth Edenberg for raising this objection.
outgroup members by demonizing them or expressing viewpoints that they will regard as outrageous
(Funkhouser 2022; Mercier 2020; Williams 2021a; see S2.1 above). Such status-seeking antagonistic
ingroup signaling appears to be ubiquitous on social media (Bail 2021; Bergamaschi Ganapini 2021;
Brady et al. 2021; Grubbs et al. 2019; Osmundsen et al. 2021; Rathje et al. 2021; Settle 2018). Given this,
it is not surprising that exposure to contrary viewpoints online is frequently aversive: it often involves
encountering communication aimed at winning social approval within communities that are in active
conflict with one’s own (Suhay et al. 2018). In this way social media platforms often function not as
“arenas for rational deliberation and political debate but as spaces for social identity formation and for
symbolic displays of solidarity with allies and difference from outgroups” (Törnberg 2022, 10). As
Tufekci (2018) puts it,
[W]hen we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s … like
hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football
stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our
like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.
Finally, the concept of epistemic bubbles neglects how belief-based coalitions often produce
rationalization markets that incentivize forms of cognitive labor dedicated to justifying identity-defining
beliefs. Such rationalization markets are widespread and conspicuous on social media, however. From
Twitter micro-influencers who cleverly affirm and rationalize group-favored narratives to popular
Youtube videos showcasing a group’s ideological critics being “destroyed,” rationalization production is
pervasive and crucial for understanding how many online communities protect unfounded worldviews
and neutralize epistemic threats to them (Williams 2022). Once again, it should not be surprising that
encountering communication of this kind does not have salutary epistemic consequences on those outside
of the community. For such outsiders, the communication often appears—accurately—in the form of
highly selective arguments in favor of conclusions that they do not agree with, which likely increases the
perception that competing groups are highly biased.
In summary, then, the framework of epistemic bubbles rests on two mistakes: by neglecting the fact
that most belief-based coalitions do not seek epistemic isolation, it ignores the ways in which social
media often increases exposure to contrary viewpoints; and by neglecting the forms of communication
incentivized by belief-based coalitions, it ignores how viewpoints on social media are often filtered and
packaged in ways that are aversive and unpersuasive to those who do not already agree.
Nevertheless, it is important to qualify this analysis. We should only expect these dynamics in
societies in which people come to social media platforms already attached to belief-based coalitions
involved in acrimonious intergroup conflict. This is true in countries such as the USA, within which
strong forms of partisan identification and affective polarization long predate the emergence of social
media (Bail 2021; Finkel et al. 2020). In societies without sharp intergroup conflict, however, the
incentives for ingroup signaling, active belief, and rationalization markets will be much weaker and so
easily trumped by other motivations, such as appearing reasonable to audiences with heterogeneous
views. This reflects a broader point: because people interpret the reward systems on social media through
the lens of what they independently care about (S4.3), the effects of social media platforms depend on the
nature of and relations between existing belief-based coalitions in the societies within which they exist
(Benkler et al. 2018).
In an influential discussion, Nguyen (2020) argues that the social-epistemic structure most responsible for
group-based epistemic dysfunction today—both on social media but also more broadly—is what he calls
(in opposition to standard uses of this term) “echo chambers” (see also Jamieson and Cappella 2010).
Unlike epistemic bubbles, in which relevant outside voices are simply omitted, Nguyen defines echo
chambers as epistemic communities in which members share beliefs which include reasons to distrust
those outside of the community, who are viewed as either dishonest or unreliable. Such communities can
thus withstand exposure to contrary viewpoints precisely because they distrust their source. He illustrates
this framework by appeal to conservative groups in the USA who share and consume the worldview of
right-wing figures and media such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and Breitbart, although he argues that
echo chambers in general also thrive on social media (Nguyen 2021).
This analysis is correct to draw attention to the role of trust disparities between ingroup members
and outsiders in sustaining many unfounded group-based worldviews. Although such disparities can be
rational and arise in epistemically healthy groups (Levy 2021)—think of an epistemic community of
scientific experts—Nguyen is right that such disparities are strongly antithetical to knowledge acquisition
in many communities, either because of the degree of the disparity or because of the targets of trust and
distrust. To take an extreme example, proponents of the conspiracy theory QAnon, which holds that the
United States is secretly run by a ring of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles, appear to place
greater trust in the posts of an anonymous user “Q” onto the unregulated 8chan message board than in all
mainstream sources of information.
Moreover, in some respects Nguyen’s analysis superficially resembles the framework developed in
this article, especially in the idea that holding certain beliefs constitutes part of the membership criteria
for access to certain epistemic communities. Nevertheless, there are several important differences
between the frameworks, and belief-based coalitions and identity-defining beliefs provide a superior
explanation of group-based epistemic dysfunction.
First, as I have tried to show in this article, communities of co-believers often sustain internal
reward systems that motivate and coordinate epistemically destructive forms of communication,
cooperation, and cognitive labor. By focusing exclusively on the allocation of trust, the concept of echo
chambers ignores this rich social fabric and its participatory dynamics, including motivations to signal
group identity and commitment to identity-defining beliefs, to enforce and propagate such beliefs, and to
perform cognitive labor dedicated to rationalizing them. Such phenomena are all crucial for understanding
most forms of group-based epistemic dysfunction in general and on social media specifically, however.
We see this in the case of Maranda Dynda with which I began this article. Although the distrust of
scientific authorities among members of anti-vaccination communities such as Great Mothers
Questioning Vaccines is clearly relevant for understanding their beliefs, the group also featured numerous
other phenomena that went far beyond this. For example, Maranda describes how “warm and cosy” it felt
to join a community of “strong, confident women,” how you were “socially rewarded for going with the
group,” how the more you reported offline evangelism back to the group “the higher you moved up
socially” within it, and how those who dissented or left the group experienced its collective wrath, insults,
and hatred (Storr 2021, 280–86).
One sees similar dynamics in QAnon (Marwick and Partin 2022). For those who participate in the
group, the motto of which is—tellingly—“Where we go one, we go all,” it functions not just as an
abstract epistemic community united by shared beliefs but as a real community that functions as a source
of friendship and status for its members. Although the systematic distrust of mainstream authorities
within this mostly online community is clearly relevant for understanding its beliefs, this distrust is
combined with an incentive structure of social rewards and punishments that encourages various forms of
active community participation, including extensive ingroup signaling, active belief, and rationalization
markets (Berkowitz 2021). Drawing on qualitative fieldwork on the 8chan imageboard onto which “Q”
posts, Marwick and Partin (2022) thus describe QAnon’s community dynamics as a “collective,
knowledge-making activity … designed to construct specific facts and theories that maintain QAnon’s
cohesion over time.” And such participatory practices are not unique to QAnon. In a rich study of
numerous online subcultures, including the misogynistic communities of the Manosphere, “alt-right”
movements that initially emerged to prominence online, and extremely moralistic, hyper-progressive
millennial subcultures on Tumblr, Nagle (2017) documents how all such communities manifest the
dynamics of belief-based coalitions, including costly displays of allegiance to the group and its
orthodoxies, the punishment of heretics, the encouragement of active belief, and the prestige conferred on
those who affirm and cleverly rationalize shared convictions.
Thus, one problem with the concept of echo chambers is that its exclusive focus on trust ignores
much of the epistemically relevant social fabric of many belief-based communities. In addition, however,
it also misses how this fabric interacts with and supports the selective allocation of trust. For one thing, it
is precisely because people tend to exhibit greater trust in ingroup members than outsiders that the ways
in which belief-based coalitions often punish ingroup dissent can be so epistemically toxic. More
importantly, however, by treating distrust of outsiders as merely a property of shared belief systems, the
concept of echo chambers obscures how this distrust is often scaffolded by the incentives and dynamics
within epistemic communities. Specifically, groups often actively seek out evidence and arguments that
discredit those who challenge or threaten their identity-defining beliefs, and it is this collective demand
for selective discrediting—and the associated willingness to attend to and admire those who satisfy this
demand—that often fuels the cognitive labor required to satisfy it (Williams 2022). Thus, the prestige
economies of online subcultures organized around identity-defining beliefs often select for the widespread
dissemination of social media posts designed to derogate and so discredit outgroup members (Osmundsen
et al. 2021; Rathje et al. 2021), but they also select for a class of cognitive laborers who achieve
community esteem by neutralizing epistemic threats to group beliefs, often by undermining their source
This perspective diverges radically from Nguyen’s. Specifically, although he concedes that echo
chambers sometimes emerge because people value the community that they provide, he argues that “the
most plausible explanation for the particular features of echo chambers is … [that they] are excellent tools
to maintain, reinforce, and expand power through epistemic control” (Nguyen 2020, 149). Thus, he
depicts people primarily as victims “trapped” within echo chambers manufactured by manipulative elites,
which “prey” on them and that operate through techniques like those allegedly involved in cult
“indoctrination” (Nguyen 2020).
Although this passive analysis of members of epistemically dysfunctional communities might be
applicable in some cases, in most cases it is misleading. At the most general level, Nguyen’s explanation
of echo chambers seems to be underpinned by an image of human beings as credulous and easily duped
into holding false beliefs by elite manipulation, which is at odds with a large body of empirical research
demonstrating that people are highly vigilant social learners and extremely resistant to attempts at
epistemic manipulation of this kind (Mercier 2020).
More importantly, when we turn to real-world cases of group-based epistemic dysfunction, the
analysis of group members as passive victims is often demonstrably mistaken. As already noted, online
subcultures organized around unfounded worldviews typically involve active participation in valued
communities within which shared beliefs are promoted and protected through internal reward systems and
group participation. Thus, against a popular narrative in which any unsuspecting individual in society can
be sucked into and “trapped” within such communities, a significant body of empirical research shows
that they cater to populations independently receptive to their worldviews and to the community benefits
that they provide (Marwick and Partin 2022; Phadke et al. 2021). Summarizing this research, Altay (2022,
10) therefore observes that people do not fall into online “rabbit holes” but “jump in and dig” (my
However, the same point also applies to Nguyen’s main example of an echo chamber in the
epistemic community that consumes media such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and primarily online
sources such as Breitbart and Infowars. In this case, the empirical literature strongly suggests that such
media has not arisen in a process by which elites have trapped and indoctrinated millions of people in an
externally imposed belief system. Instead, the extraordinary market success of such media is primarily
rooted in the ways in which it affirms and rationalizes the preexisting prejudices and attitudes of people
with distinctive characteristics, including sympathy with white identity politics, reactionary social
attitudes, and hostility to liberalizing social trends (Benkler et al. 2018; Iyengar and Hahn 2009; Williams
2022). Thus, although active community participation is much lower in these larger belief-based
In more recent work, Nguyen (2021) suggests that this manipulation occurs not primarily via
epistemic means but through the design of belief systems that seduce people with the
pleasures of certainty and clarity. This is also implausible, however. The number of possible
worldviews with such characteristics is infinite, so the characteristics themselves offer no
explanation of why people would opt for some such worldviews over others; further, for those
who hold the kinds of worldviews that Nguyen has in mind, including believers in QAnon and
right-wing populist narratives, their belief in pervasive conspiracy, decline, and threat is likely
communities than in more tight-knit and fringe subcultures, the successful pundits and opinion producers
are still much better thought of as rationalization producers than as elite manipulators. Rather than
trapping an unsuspecting audience in an externally imposed worldview through manipulating their trust,
the extensive arguments such producers give to distrust mainstream and liberal media constitute in-
demand intellectual ammunition designed to insulate the worldview of their audience from contact with
reality (Williams 2022).
Importantly, this analysis does not imply that the epistemically relevant characteristics of belief-
based coalitions are epiphenomena. As I have tried to show, such characteristics are often functional in
promoting, protecting, and rationalizing identity-defining beliefs. Moreover, once an informational
architecture optimized for protecting and rationalizing favored beliefs and narratives exists, it often has
independent effects. In the case of Fox News, for example, although it has achieved significant success by
catering to the independently existing prejudices and attitudes of white social conservatives, there is now
strong evidence that its profound conservative bias has independent effects on those who consume it
(DellaVigna and Kaplan 2007). Finally, I am also not claiming—absurdly—that elite manipulation of
public belief never occurs or is never successful. Nevertheless, if we understand the inhabitants of
dysfunctional belief-based communities as credulous victims of externally imposed belief systems, we
will lack the theoretical resources to identify the various causal pathways by which such manipulation
I will conclude by contrasting the framework developed here with one final explanation of epistemic
dysfunction on social media that focuses on gamification. Specifically, I will focus on Nguyen’s (2021)
argument that the architecture of Twitter “gamifies” communication and public discourse in ways that
have negative epistemic consequences, although Nguyen suggests that a similar argument applies to other
social media platforms as well. Moreover, the general idea of understanding epistemic dysfunction within
certain online communities such as QAnon in terms of their game-like properties is increasingly
influential (Berkowitz 2021), and the arguments here generalize to all such analyses.
Although Nguyen’s analysis of gamification is rich and subtle, the core idea can be understood by
contrasting his depiction of non-gamified “natural” communication with Twitter communication.
According to Nguyen (2021, 426), the “natural aim” of earnest discourse “is the collective pursuit of
truth”: “We aim to express what we think of as true, and to question and challenge each other’s
expressions, as part of our quest to understand the world.” The informational and incentive architecture of
Twitter corrupts these communicative aims by “inviting its users to change the goals of their
participation in discourse—to simplify those goals in exchange for pleasure” (Nguyen 2021, 416). The
source of these distorting pleasures, argues Nguyen (2021, 411), is the game-like character of Twitter,
which offers “immediate, vivid, and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success” in the form
of game-like “points” such as Likes, Retweets, and Follower Counts. Because maximizing such points is
“simpler, clearer, and easier to apply” than achieving our natural communicative goals (Nguyen 2021,
412), we replace such goals with the more pleasurable ones of gamified communication:
Pre-gamification, the aims of discourse are complex and many. Some of us want to
transmit information or to persuade; some of us want friendship. Some of us want to join
together in the pursuit of truth and understanding. Twitter gamifies discourse and, in so
doing, offers us re-engineered goals for our communicative acts. Twitter invites us to
shift our values along its pre-fabricated lines. We start to chase higher Likes and
Retweets and Follower counts—and those are very different targets. (Nguyen 2021, 412;
This analysis is correct to draw attention to the effects of social media’s reward systems on
communication, which are undoubtedly psychologically powerful and epistemically consequential (Bail
2021; Storr 2021). Nevertheless, the concept of gamification does not provide the right framework for
understanding these effects.
First, offline communication is just as regulated by social rewards and punishments as
communication on Twitter. From an introspective point of view, it no doubt seems like the “natural aim”
of discourse and conversation is the pursuit of truth and understanding, not least because human self-
understanding is strongly biased toward presenting motives as noble in this way (Simler and Hanson
2016). As described above (S3.3), however, human communication is a form of social interaction
scaffolded and regulated in almost all cases by social incentives rooted in phenomena such as reputations,
norms, alliance formation, signaling, social pressures, and prestige (Boyer 2018; Dessalles and Grieve
2009; Mercier 2020; Simler and Hanson 2016; Storr 2021). Thus, outside of social media platforms,
people are also highly sensitive to the distribution and strength of other people’s attitudes and regulate
their communication in many ways and at multiple scales in response to social feedback (Kuran 1997;
Loury 1994; Noelle-Neumann 1974).
Of course, because people typically seek to form true beliefs relevant to their interests, epistemic
reward systems do often favor and so facilitate the dissemination of accurate information that promotes
knowledge and understanding (see S3.3). This is true on social media platforms as well, however,
including Twitter (Altay 2022; Mercier 2020). Nguyen is correct that it is not always true on Twitter, but
it is not always true in offline life either (Boyer 2018; Loury 1994; Mercier 2020; Noelle-Neumann 1974).
For example, people frequently exaggerate, spread unfounded rumors and gossip, and self-censor in
response to social incentives offline, and—as I have argued in this article—belief-based coalitions often
motivate forms of communication antithetical to knowledge and understanding. Thus, it is misleading
when Nguyen (2021, 416) contrasts the gamified nature of Twitter communication with “natural”
communication by observing that “we have evidence aplenty that what makes something go viral [on
Twitter] is not its truth, or the degree to which it promotes understanding.” This is often just as true of
offline communication (Boyer 2018; Mercier 2020; Mills 1994; Noelle-Neumann 1974). Among
orthodoxies that went viral prior to the emergence of Twitter partly as a consequence of social goals and
social pressures, for example, one might include the divine right of kings to exercise arbitrary power, the
existence of evil Jewish conspiracies, the cognitive and moral superiority of dominant social groups, and
Given this, one way in which the concept of gamification leads us astray in understanding social
media is in its assumption that the influence on—and corruption of—communication by social feedback
and incentives is unique to social media. Nevertheless, one might concede this but argue that the specific
way in which such feedback shapes communication on social media is still usefully understood in terms
of gamification. This view is also mistaken, however.
For one thing, the analysis provided by gamification is incomplete. Even if communication on
Twitter were aimed solely at maximizing quantities such as Likes, Retweets, and Followers, this fact is
not informative without a supplementary account of what causes audiences to confer these rewards.
Although such causes are clearly diverse, ranging from liking tweets featuring amusing dog videos to
following accounts that produce good football commentary, the framework outlined in this article
provides a deeper explanation of what motivates the allocation of social rewards within many belief-based
communities. More importantly, however, communication on Twitter does not aim solely at the alleged
pleasures associated with maximizing Twitter quantities. Instead, such communication is influenced by
what the currency of Likes, Retweets, and Followers represent: namely, independently sought outcomes
such as social approval, coalitional support, and prestige, and—in the case of other common social media
events such as “pile-ons” and getting “ratioed”—independently feared outcomes such as reputational
destruction, ostracism, and collective punishment.
This simple observation undermines the gamification analysis in two ways. First, it suggests that
people do not fundamentally seek pleasure on Twitter. That is, although hedonic systems always play a
proximate causal role in regulating behavior toward the achievement of goals, what people seek to
achieve on Twitter is not pleasure itself but concrete social and material outcomes. As with goal pursuit
more broadly, the process of achieving such outcomes is often actively unpleasant. Although being high
status can be a source of pleasure, for example, achieving such status, especially in contexts of intense,
heated political and cultural disputes, is often anything but pleasurable.
Second, because people respond to what Twitter metrics represent, people’s interaction with and
engagement on the platform is much more sophisticated than the concept of gamification implies. People
do not exclusively seek to maximize Likes, Retweets, and Followers in the way that one might aim
monomaniacally at winning points in games. As with ordinary social life, people interpret and
contextualize social rewards and punishments on social media in sophisticated ways according to their
nature and source. For example, we care much more about social approval and disapproval from those
high in status and from ingroup members (Boyer 2018; Finkel et al. 2020; Ridgeway 2019), and we
regulate our behavior—both offline and online—accordingly. Thus, a thousand likes from strangers
online can be easily psychologically outweighed by a single passive-aggressive comment from a
respected member of one’s social network (trust me), and the likes that a tweet elicits from outgroup
members can be barely registered relative to the deafening silence from one’s co-believers.
In summary, then, the problem with the gamification analysis of Twitter is twofold: the social
regulation—and frequent corruption—of communication is not unique to social media, and the ways in
which this regulation occurs on social media is far more continuous with offline discourse than the
concept of gamification implies. Moreover, these points generalize to attempts at understanding epistemic
dysfunction on social media in terms of gamification more broadly: to the extent that online communities
feature psychologically consequential game-like elements, these elements are manifestations of the
incentive structure that underlies all human sociality and communication.
Crucially, this is not to deny that the specific incentive architecture of social media platforms such
as Twitter has epistemically consequential—and often destructive—effects. Rather, it is a call to
understand these consequences in ways that accommodate the distinctive character of all human sociality
and communication. To that end, I will conclude with three speculations on this topic consistent with the
framework and ideas outlined in this article.
First, although humans always evaluate other people’s cooperativeness and group commitments,
such evaluations likely work very differently on social media than in most offline contexts. Most
importantly, in communities with significant offline contact and interaction, people can acquire an
enormous amount of information about each other not mediated by deliberate impression management.
In fact, the benefits of impression management decrease in proportion to the degree of such scrutiny
precisely because it becomes more difficult to influence people’s assessment of you as their knowledge of
you increases. On social media, however, all the information that you can acquire about others is
mediated by deliberate attempts to communicate that information. This dramatically increases the
incentives for impression management and might explain a common observation that social media has
greatly amplified the performativity of much communication, including—in contexts of belief-based
coalitions—competitive displays of ingroup allegiance (Tosi and Warmke 2020).
Second, although we are always sensitive to social rewards and punishments in communication, the
fact that such incentives are so explicit, immediate, and hyper-salient on social media is no doubt
consequential. In general, human motivations are plural, responsive to environmental contingencies, and
must be traded off in complex ways. By adjusting the salience structure of the environment within which
communication occurs, social media platforms likely have dramatic effects on such trade-offs. For
example, the instant rewards you receive for a snarky Twitter post that cleverly affirms your ingroup’s
favored narrative might be outweighed by the reputational damage you incur among thoughtful
individuals outside of your community. If the former rewards are instant and highly salient whereas the
reputational damage is not explicitly signaled to you, however, you might opt for the former nevertheless,
a situation that is exacerbated by the fact that most social media platforms lack any quick, low-cost way
to express disapproval analogous to Likes.
Finally, the social feedback on communication in much offline discourse often arises in the context
of two-person or small-group discussion. Thus, even though communication is heavily influenced by
social feedback in such contexts, such feedback is often highly variable and idiosyncratic. When
communicating on most social media platforms, in contrast, the potential audience is often much larger.
Under such conditions, the benefits of tailoring communication in ways responsive to people’s
In technical terms, the information is mediated by cues, not signals.
idiosyncratic assessments are therefore smaller relative to the benefits of tapping into sources of positive
feedback shared by larger audiences. For this reason, many social media platforms are plausibly
specialized for emphasizing the rewards associated with affirming identities shared by large groups,
which might explain a common intuition that communication on social media is much more groupish than
most offline discourse.
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