Trust, but Verify

By Wayne Penello and Andrew P. Furman
trust

Information has become a commodity that is quickly disseminated and easily available via computers and the internet. One can search any topic, and information is provided at the speed of light. Clarity may be defined as the quality of being coherent and intelligible. Most of the information is delivered with clarity, but can it all be trusted? What if the information we receive is clear but is incomplete or incorrect?

Social media adds to the confusion. Every user can contribute content, whether they are qualified or not. As the acceptance of social media grows, there is an ongoing risk that the information we are receiving is worthless or damaging. Some users have gone so far as to weaponize social media. They deliberately inject, and repeatedly reinject, inaccurate information. If the information is ever retracted, it’s often after the damage has already been done. Viewers of the original version are likely to have accepted it as fact, and never learn that they were misled.

Online technology has outrun our social intuitions in establishing what we can and can’t trust. Social media is the equivalent of a billion Guttenberg presses, capable of providing so many versions of the truth that we are left with a parade of guesses. With politics and journalism increasingly polarized, a consistent source of truth is becoming a rare commodity. Whatever your business or interest, you need to deliver clarity that can be trusted to meet the world’s needs.

What better lens to view the information vacuum through than the current COVID pandemic? Cynicism and distrust abound. Who do we believe? The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, two premier medical journals, put out papers on COVID which investigated Hydroxychloroquine and Cardiovascular Disease respectively. Both articles were retracted days later after the quality of the statistical methodology was quickly questioned. The authors of the NEJM paper were “unable to validate the primary data sources underlying” the study. The Pulitzer Center noted that The Lancet “authors couldn’t prove the underlying patient data even existed.” Many argued for one side when the papers were released, while others were quick to seize the opposing argument when the papers were pulled. The facts? Lost. No one won because the public was confused by conflicting reports. Worse, The Lancet’s and NEJM’s authority was blemished.

Sloppy or biased journalism undermines everyone. In January 2019, Buzzfeed reported that Robert Mueller possessed emails and witness interviews proving that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Major news outlets ran with the story and discussed the possibility of impeachment if Trump indeed suborned perjury. In a rare move, Mueller’s office denied all parts of the story one day later. The damage was done and the retraction was just a footnote.

In August 2020, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nominated Bernie Sanders for President at the Democratic convention. NBC News tweeted AOC’s inability to support Joe Biden but failed to note that the nomination of Sanders was procedural, honorary, and symbolic. Before NBC News could retract their story, the damage done was evidenced by “all the hate-clicks responding to a pre-recorded routine procedural motion.”

The need for information that can be trusted, or independently verified, has never been greater. This means (1) using reliable sources that properly fact check, (2) citing the data and the source, and (3) using accurate data to draw a defensible conclusion, independent of any narrative. If your narrative is never questioned, it may mean you are cherry-picking the information & data to suit your ends. We see this with media franchises (on both the Left and Right) that consistently argue one side without providing balanced views from the other side.

Established media sources and prominent individuals have a far greater responsibility in the age of social media. Twitter hands out “verified” checkmarks to those individuals and groups. Along with greater respect, those who are “verified” must be held to a far higher threshold of accountability. If such a source retracts a story, there should be consequences to that checkmark from an independent board. Creating accurate content and redistributing only accurate content is the responsibility of every system participant. Clarity is not enough. Information must be accurate to be useful. Are we retweeting a reliable source? Is there a counter-argument to that message? What are we doing to reduce noise within our circle of influence? In business, we must strive for accountability in everything. Just because a politician or journalist is truthful only when it is convenient does not mean that we should tolerate or perpetuate their lies. We should vigilantly seek and promote the truth. Our clients and colleagues will settle for nothing less. It is our responsibility to be part of the solution. If we are not, then we are part of the problem.