Why Everyone’s Passing Around Meaningless Election Day Rumors and Anecdotes

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Lines of voters wrap around the outside of PS198M The Straus School as they wait to cast their ballots in New York City.Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Earlier today, I tweeted out what felt like an important little nugget of information. Someone I’m on a listserv with who lives in Detroit said that when she went to vote this morning, there was a line — only the third time since 2007 she’d seen a line at her local polling place, and this time for an election without an African-American running for president.

Amidst the talk of Michigan, long seen as safe for Hillary Clinton, tightening in the final days (talk which may be overstating her actual risk of losing the state), it seemed noteworthy, if anecdotal, that lines would be so long in a heavily African-American city — so I tweeted it. Quickly, a couple people pointed out that it didn’t actually meaning anything. Since 2007, there have only been three presidential elections, today being the third. And lines are always longer, just about everywhere, during presidential election years than in off years. Whoops, my bad. (I deleted the tweet.)

If my Twitter feed is any indication, a lot of people are making the same mistake today — tweeting and retweeting and liking and sharing election-related information that seems meaningful at first glance, but simply isn’t. The reality is we’re not going to have any actual new hints about who will win the race for hours and hours (or, if you’re particularly anxious about the race, hours and hours and hours and hours).

A pet theory for why so many otherwise smart people are doing this: ambiguity overload. There’s tons and tons of evidence showing that people really can’t stand ambiguity and will often try to dispel it in various ways — check out my article about Jamie Holmes’s book Nonsense, or this excerpt, for more information about this fascinating psychological tendency and its ramifications. This could explain the eagerness to pass around Election Day rumors and anecdotes of questionable provenance or meaningfulness.

This isn’t an all-inclusive theory — people like and share stuff for a lot of reasons — but during a day like today, when the ambiguity feels unbearable, nuggets of information that seem to get us an inch or two closer to Knowing often feel like irresistible bowls of ice cream littering the online landscape. We’re drawn to them, even when we know we shouldn’t be. Worth keeping in mind if you’re active on social media today.