Fake News

My last newsletter was all about facts, thus I felt it appropriate and inordinately current to focus this quarter’s newsletter on all things ‘fake news’.

I must reluctantly confess up front that all news is in fact fake to a certain degree. And the key word here is ‘degree’. There is a reality spectrum that starts with completely untrue through to an approximation of nearing complete truth. However, just as perfection is a myth so too is truth. Holding too tightly to truth can indeed be a dangerous pursuit and lead to dogma and righteousness.

Let’s take a basic truth: ‘The sky is blue’. This is clearly not an absolute truth for people who are colour-blind, or completely blind or for most of us on a rainy day. Let alone if we get into how the eye works and what really we are seeing when we look to the heavens (or anywhere else)….

Humans are programed to perpetuate ‘fake news’ or in behavioural terms, we all experience ‘attention bias.’ This means not only are we more likely to notice what fits with our belief system, but we also seek out and believe verifying information while ignoring or doubting evidence to the contrary. And with Google algorithms coded to feed us more of what we want to believe and screen out opposing information, we are more exposed to the distortions of attention bias than ever before.

The challenge from a leadership perspective is that leaders are not immune to attention bias and the consumption and dissemination of fake news. In fact, leaders are more responsible due to the authority, power and influence they have over others. For example, a mundane tweet by a CEO is more likely to be read, retweeted and considered than the same tweet from an unknown employee.

I recall sitting in a parent meeting at my daughters’ school with the Principal leading a public discussion on a contentious issue. A number of parents shared their exasperations and preferences. Each time a parent spoke the Principal, who clearly had an opposing view, immediately twisted what was conveyed. This caused the next parent to speak up to try and get the message heard and again the reaction from the principal was the same. After half an hour of observing the to-and-fro and watching tensions rising I felt compelled to speak. I politely suggested to the principal that she was mishearing what the parents were saying thus her rebukes were not relevant. To her credit the principal thanked me for sharing my observation and the conversation progressed in a much more productive manner. Afterwards parents and teachers alike thanked me for my intervention. For me, it was an interesting example of how our own agenda can cause us to skew reality and twist the messages in front of us. It also made me ponder: who is willing to speak up when they are witnessing a misrepresentation of the truth and what does such intervention ultimately achieve?... I’ll leave you to ponder the multiplicity of possibilities…

While we can’t magic our way out of attention bias nor avoid the creation of our own fake news, we can be mindful of where we are focusing our attention and why. And be more circumspect with what we take on or share as fact.

  • When I consider what an antidote to our own flawed humanity might be a few resources come to mind:‘Humilitas’ by John Dickson

  • ‘Humanise’ by Anthony Howard

  • The illusionist Derren Brown’s work on ‘Making a Murderer’ – YouTube is a good place to start with all Derren’s mind-bending work

  • TedTalk on ‘Conscious Realism’ by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman: ‘Do we see reality as it is?’ Cutting edge thinking and well worth 20 minutes of your time. Click here to watch

I would love to hear about your own stories of attention bias and fake news. Either your direct experience or something you have observed in others.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”

Ronald H Coase, Nobel Prize in Economics, 1991

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