"AMA" - Why do people believe online posts at first glance? - Symbolic Cues

In my last post, I discussed Four Questions we should keep in mind when we try to figure out if something is true or not and how those questions can be complicated on the internet. This post is going to look at another reason why people see a post online and say, "sure, I can buy that" and then immediately liking or sharing without checking if it's credible or not. I'm going to give you a head's up that this post is getting a bit nerdy, but hang in there because the nerd I'm going to showcase had a lot of good stuff to say.

Symbolic Cues

In the 1970s, Professional Communications Nerd* Ernest Bormann came up with an idea called Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT). In his words:

“Symbolic Convergence also explains how people come to have an emotional investment and commitment to the symbols they live by – and how it is that people can sympathize, empathize, and identify with one another” (1982).

Bormann had lots of ideas on lots of topics and if you studied him, you might buy some and not others. He covered a lot of ground. But for this topic, I want to narrow in on one of his ideas about communication that applies really well to social media and why information "goes viral" (almost eerily, since he came up with SCT almost a decade before Mark Zuckerberg was born) - Symbolic Cues. If we think about how we use the internet, it's all on screens (of course). Because of that, the information is really driven by what we see and how we interpret those symbols. With the internet being primarily visual media, SCT is a helpful framework for how to think about online information because it focuses on how we communicate through our use of symbols.

In short (trust me, this can go deep fast and I'm only touching one aspect of SCT), symbolic cues are images, symbols, and phrases that trigger a response in a person (Bormann et. al, 2001). They're things we recognize and associate with some part of our identity and use to identify "our people." To illustrate this, I'm going to tell the story of how I met my friend Natalee**.

When we first moved to Wyoming, my husband told me he met a guy at work who grew up in our hometown, graduated the same year I did, and went to high school with our kids' godmother. Naturally, my husband said I should meet his wife, who I eventually ran into at a squadron picnic. Even though I never even saw a picture of Natalee, I knew she grew up in the Northwest, spent time in the Portland area, and was about my age. So when I saw the gal with a Bob Ross t-shirt, Converse, and purple streaks in her hair, I bet that was probably the wife of my husband's new friend who was from the Pacific Northwest. Of course, other people in the world dye their hair and like Bob Ross, but for the sake of this conversation, I recognized the symbols around her as things I would have seen back home - and I was right. As we got to know each other, we realized we "spoke the same language" because we had so many odd things in common - I mean, how many people spend time in the Pacific Northwest Evangelical youth subculture around the turn of the 21st century, and then marry a guy who enlists in the Air Force and ends up commissioning into ICBM program and living in Wyoming? Well, probably just Natalee and me. We even worked at the same mall in my hometown.

The point is that Natalee and I communicate easily because we understand so many of the same things the same way because of our shared experiences. I can say "I totally walked the aisle to a Switchfoot song" or "David is on alert" or "Of course it's not weird to have 7 kinds of mustard in the fridge. Why would you just have one?" and she knows what I'm talking about without needing any background or context. So related to this post, when we realize someone uses language the same way we do and that we understand symbols the same way, we tend to see them as "our people" and that tends to be a pretty big stepping stone to trust and credibility.

Of course, we make friends with people who have very different backgrounds with us, but it's more challenging because they might speak differently, or see things in a way we haven't thought about before. Our familiar symbols might mean something different to them; we might not recognize theirs. When we're processing new information, we have to keep that part of our brain that tries to translate and understand others working during the conversation. That's a good thing, but for this topic, think about situations that are familiar and you know exactly what's going on, where everyone "speaks the same language." Obviously, we feel more comfortable and at home in these situations because we can ease off that part of our brains that has to work so hard to translate when people communicate differently than we do.

Now to the internet and symbolic cues. Symbolic cues are pretty much to describe those things we recognize immediately as signs of "our people." Like if I'm in another country and I can't speak a word of anyone's language and I see an American flag, I know that if I go towards that flag, I might find someone I can communicate with. In fact, if I see a Bob Ross t-shirt in that country, I may have also found an English speaker. If I'm sitting at an airport and I see someone knitting a baby blanket or reading a book I like, those are the people I may strike up a conversation with because they're displaying interests similar to mine. When I read the introductory letter my son's kindergarten teacher sent out, I told my husband, "David, we have to pull Tom of this class! The teacher is a Sounders fan." (Just kidding. Miss M. was one of the best teacher's we've had and being an Major League Soccer fan is actually a sign someone is cool as far as we're concerned, even if they root for Seattle.). Once, my (Air Force) family was walking out of a museum in Bremerton, Washington and we heard some kids in the parking lot singing "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder..." and my kids were floored. "Mom, they know the Air Force song." That wasn't something they expected to see when we were no where near an Air Force base.

When we're on the internet, we also look for those cues that we share with people like us. It's just a natural way to make friends - "finding stuff in common." However, the problem with doing that online is that sketchy sources who spread sketchy information have figured out how to "hijack" symbols to get people to see them as a trustworthy source. A troll profile that's nothing but spam might set itself up with the symbolic cues of a very specific group. As an example, if a troll wanted to target the military, they'll use things like lines from the Air Force song or jargon only military members get and frame their message within those familiar terms. However, the message may be false or spun out of context but it'll still pass the first credibility test for someone who recognizes the symbols - "This person communicates in a way I understand." Then their brain has to mentally back peddle to figure out if the information is true or not.

Trolls are creative - they target a wide variety of groups for all sorts of reasons. Success in spreading the misinformation is simply determined when someone in the intended audience see that profile or post and think "Oh, this person seems like one of my people. I understand the way this person communicate, so I'll consider what they post credible." (This is a good time to share the "Spot the Troll" quiz to show examples of exactly what I'm talking about!)

All too often, people will share false information online because they recognize it as coming from "their people" and it's a message they understand in "their language." It's a mental shortcut that we tend to understand how to manage in the real world, as in when we can "coast" in our communication and when we need to work harder to understand what someone is trying to say. However, on the internet, we have to keep our brains active at all times and not assume a source is credible because we associate it with what's familiar to us. Symbolic cues are a valuable tool in spreading misinformation because they're so easily hijacked; if they figure out how to tailor and target a message to a specific group, they've just increased the likelihood someone will "like and share" without taking the time to make sure the information is true and of value. And back to my last post, it's another way we may end up with putting those bricks of untrue information on our knowledge houses.


*Not a real title, but sometimes we should just call a duck a duck.

** Name changed, not that I think she'll care, but it seemed like a courtesy because I didn't ask her if she wanted a cameo in this post.


Bormann, E. G. (1982). The Symbolic Convergence Theory of Communication: Applications For Teachers and Consultants. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 50-61.

Bormann, E.G., Cragan, J.F., & Shields, D.C. (2001). Three Decades of Developing, Grounding, and Using Symbolic Convergence Theory. Communications Yearbook, 271-313.


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