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frames for collective sensemaking


Staff member
Feb 16, 2024
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“The communicative solution to pervasive misinformation is not better facts, but better frames”, concludes Kate Starbird (University of Washington) in Facts, frames, and (mis)interpretations: Understanding rumors as collective sensemaking. Starbird describes the case of a frame called ‘Sharpiegate’ during the 2020 US Presidential election.

We highlight how, prior to the election, elites in politics and media — including President Trump himself — set an expectation (or a frame) of a “rigged election.” As the election progressed, many of President Trump’s supporters went to the polls (or their mailboxes) and misinterpreted their own experiences through that lens. Later, they went online, sharing those experiences and seeing other “evidence” from around the country, which they interpreted through the same “rigged election” or “voter fraud” frame.

The entire post is worth reading. I want to highlight three insights Starbird found concerning rumors, conspiracy theorizing, and disinformation.

  1. Rumoring is collective sensemaking.
  2. Conspiracy theorizing is a patterned and constrained form of sensemaking where individuals and groups repeatedly anchor on a small number of “conspiracy” frames — one where government and media cannot be trusted, where things are not what they seem, and where events are put into motion by secret cabals of powerful actors.
  3. Disinformation is a manipulated form of sensemaking where motivated actors intentionally work to shape the outcomes of the sensemaking process to support their goals and objectives.

Frames are one way of prebunking the conspiracy theorists. In last year’s blog post on an understanding of my confusion I wrote that George Lakoff states that whoever frames the narrative first has an advantage and that negating a frame only activates and strengthens it. Learning how to create and use frames becomes an important part of individual and collective sensemaking.

Here is an example of starting with a frame for sensemaking.

When new information is presented that does not fit our understanding, start first with an assumption of confusion (see the Cynefin framework). Then, using evidence as it arrives, determine if our frame should be based on a state of chaos, complexity, complication, or clarity. For example:

To understand behaviours that do not make sense on the surface, follow the money, and see who stands to gain from these behaviors (complicated).

When a country is at war, be skeptical of all government communications (chaos and/or complexity).

cynefin martin berg

Image: Martin Berg
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