Misinformation in Business: Don’t Eradicate, Educate
By Steven Hunt and Stephanie Overby
There’s no shortage of forces imperiling the planet, but according to a Pew Research poll of 25,000 people in 19 countries, the spread of false information is near the top of the list – second only to global climate change.
The concern is warranted because misinformation, once a fringe threat, has gone mainstream – as shown by its role in recent attempts to bring down governments around the world. Its newfound power comes from its ability to ride digital networks with overwhelming speed and scale.
Meanwhile, minimal effort is needed to prime the misinformation pump. “An individual with Internet access can spread misinformation (whether it’s deliberately deceptive or not) at a high rate,” says Christian Unkelbach, a professor who studies evaluative judgment and decision-making at the University of Cologne’s Center for Social and Economic Behavior.
We know what you’re thinking: What does this have to do with business? Most companies discourage sharing personal passions, such as politics, at work, and employees tend to keep their opinions to themselves.
But consuming, creating, and sharing misinformation in one’s personal life is a great training ground for doing so at work. The techniques for fomenting fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the same. Even passive consumers of misinformation at home become more vulnerable to misinformation at work.
That has real consequences for businesses, potentially harming productivity, morale, engagement, and decision-making.
Online misinformation and disinformation cost the global economy an estimated $78 billion each year, according to a study by University of Baltimore economics professor Roberto Cavazos. The study found that most of the damage came through stock market losses stemming from financial disinformation campaigns. But the proliferation of misinformation has also caused companies to increase spending on reputation management, brand safety, employee health and wellness, and crisis communication efforts, says Cavazos.
Worse, we humans are especially vulnerable to misinformation. As it proliferates, so does our acceptance of it. Falsehoods are 70% more likely than the truth to be retweeted, according to a study by the MIT Media Lab, which found that misinformation spread significantly farther, faster, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.
So how to protect your employees and your company from misinformation? Simply stamping it all out, which is likely impossible, isn’t the answer. Instead, it’s important to first recognize how the mind processes information – and why misinformation is so appealing to the brain. Then there are concrete steps leaders can take to help employees sharpen their critical thinking skills and support them in situations where the likelihood of misinformation spread is highest.
Why we latch onto misinformation
Misinformation has been around as long as humans have. It refers to any inaccurate information, whether disseminated purposefully to mislead or spread unintentionally by those who believe it to be true. Misinformation in the workplace can take many forms, such as fake reviews, business myths, incorrect tweets, rumors among employees, and applicants who lie on job applications or during interviews, says Jonas De keersmaecker, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of people management and organization at Esade Business School in Barcelona.
The risk of misinformation spread is particularly high during times of turmoil and transition, but any uncertainty can be a catalyst. Impending changes, from the mundane (say, a planned change to the food sold in the company cafeteria) to the tumultuous (for example, the acquisition of one’s company by a rival) can foment false narratives fueled by the human desire for certainty and easy answers that misinformation may provide.
So what’s a business leader to do? Misinformation isn’t going away. Social media behemoths such as Twitter and Facebook have tried to kill it and failed spectacularly. Leaders need to take a different tack. Rather than try to clear their networks of misinformation, they should focus on teaching employees how to recognize it and process it correctly so that it doesn’t cloud their ability to make good decisions.
Many people are not aware of their biases – or believe they are immune to them.
Jonas De keersmaecker, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of People Management and Organization, Esade Business School
Recognizing misinformation requires understanding how our irrational minds work. A whole field of psychology is dedicated to the subject of thinking about the way we think, called metacognition. If you want your employees to be better information consumers, you need to help them better understand how their minds make decisions.
We humans have a slew of built-in cognitive shortcuts that not only cloud decision-making overall but weaken our ability to assess information. “It’s very difficult to overcome human biases because they often happen at an unconscious level,” says De keersmaecker. “Many people are also not aware of their biases – or believe they are immune to them.”
Examples of these hidden thinking traps include our natural inclination to make decisions based on the most immediate examples that come to mind (known as the availability heuristic), seeking out information that validates our own preconceptions (confirmation bias), trusting information we’ve heard before over new information (the illusory truth effect), and perhaps the most dangerous of all, the belief that we have no biases (the bias blind spot).
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Researchers have found several techniques that can help employees rein in innate biases, overconfidence, and other mental shortcuts to become better critical thinkers and thoughtful consumers of information:
- ·Own your vulnerability. We are way too confident in our ability to judge misinformation, and the more confident we are, the worse we get. There’s a name for that: the Dunning–Kruger effect. So the first step to being a better judge of misinformation is simply to be aware of our innate hurdles to spotting it.
- Take a mindful approach. Misinformation preys on human emotions, particularly in high-stakes situations where we have a baseline level of fear or anger, for example. It makes sense then that mindfulness – being more intentional and aware of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions – could be an antidote to misinformation. If something triggers an emotional reaction, it can also be an opportunity to challenge its accuracy and source. Ask why this information is being shared, remembering that other people may be seeking to manipulate your emotions to shape your thinking and behavior.
- Begin by creating space between information input and response. “Slowing down a second to pause and think is a very simple but powerful strategy,” says Unkelbach. If the information turns out to be false, make a plan for how to respond the next time you encounter other information that sparks an emotion.
- Understand what’s behind the information. One of the best buffers against misinformation is understanding the motives and methods of those presenting data or a particular point of view. While there may be no such thing as completely unbiased information, relying on sources that are up front about their data methods and their limits is a good start. Look to trusted information purveyors such as peer-reviewed research journals and subject matter experts. The search engine Consensus also offers evidence-based answers to searches.
- Consider the opposite. A good exercise for testing misinformation: make an argument for an alternate point of view. This is useful even – and especially – if you’re utterly convinced by something you heard at the end of a Zoom session, a résumé you reviewed, or a study a colleague forwarded. Having trouble coming up with a counterargument to what you’re reading? There’s a Web site for that.
- Bring in others who are different from you. Asking others whom you trust to evaluate information is always helpful, but don’t do it in a bubble of people with the same opinions as you. Try to find those who might look at things differently – people with diverse backgrounds, experience, and expertise.
- Pick someone to be the contrarian. If colleagues are feeling squeamish about taking a different point of view, make it someone’s job. Having a designated contrarian reduces the chances that you or your teammates will take someone’s point of view personally, Unkelbach says. One technique is for different team members to take turns playing the role of devil’s advocate during discussions. It can also be valuable to give individuals positive recognition when they say something that constructively challenges your existing assumptions.
- Address misinformation before employees do. Misinformation loves a vacuum. Business leaders can get ahead of rumors and misstatements by providing as much clarity as possible during times of change or transition, positioning the organization as a trustworthy source of accurate and timely information. This is known as prebunking: providing examples of different ways that bad actors might try to mislead employees before they encounter the real thing, according to Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol’s school of experimental psychology and Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge’s department of psychology.
Misinformation will go on. But organizations that recognize it as a business risk – managing it as they would any other – can limit its effect on their organizations. Leaders who recognize the reasons people accept or spread misinformation; equip their employees to better assess information and root out the bad data; and provide their employees with timely and trustworthy information during times of uncertainty and change will be most effective in managing the threat.
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