How do you know it's true? - Michelle Gibbings

How do you know it's true?

Spoofing, spamming, scamming, impersonating, misinformation and hacking. You’ve likely been a victim of one or all of these, and if the predictions are correct, the frequency and sophistication will get worse.

Last weekend, I woke up to someone impersonating me on Instagram (not a fun feeling), and I’ve had emails sent out under my name but not from me, and my system wasn’t hacked. Instead, it was spoofing. In both instances, it was easy to know it wasn’t from me, but you could fall for it if you were not attentive.

At the same time, I’ve just finished watching the TV Series – The Capture, which takes you into the world of deep fakes and the altering of CCTV footage to achieve desired outcomes. It’s a great series and slightly terrifying in parts.

There is genuine concern in many quarters of society about where this will lead and its impact on how we live and work as a society. For example, this article in The Atlantic ponders how we will know whether the next political scandal is real or not. With the current iteration of deep fake technology, it’s possible to spot the fake.

In my case, it wasn’t technology, but spelling errors and the writing style, which were a dead giveaway. In the TV series, the politician who was being deep-faked was harder to spot. It was only someone who was trained to look at the detail who could distinguish the deep fake from the real politician.

Society functions on trust
How we live and work is based on connections and relationships. For these to work, trust needs to be present.

If a friend calls you on their mobile number, you trust it is them. If you see a photograph of them online, you assume it is them. However, as we are starting to see, that may not be so.

Similarly, our relationships with companies and institutions function on trust. For example, you have an online bank account showing a series of digits. Those digits represent the money you have in your bank account. You trust those details won’t be manipulated or disappear, and the bank will honour the arrangement. Of course, there are legal avenues if that trust relationship falls apart. But living your life from one lawsuit to another is not a way to live.

So, where does that leave you? Do you stop trusting what you see and hear? Do you become hyper-vigilant and paranoid? Do you never trust anything?

In today’s working world, there are several things to consider and we all play a part in being curious and questioning.

Expand your horizons
New York Times journalist, Max Fisher, explains in his book The Chaos Machine the manipulative role that social media plays in directing and stealing your attention.

He writes, “When you open social media, you think that you’re seeing the views, sentiments, and political opinions of your community. You think it’s the world being reflected through the platforms, but you’re seeing a lie that the platform tells you to manipulate you. You’re actually seeing the choices made by the platform’s artificial intelligence systems, which have combed through vast amounts of online content (more than you could take in yourself) and selected a tiny proportion of those posts to show you. Then it ordered and sequenced them in a way that those systems have learned will be maximally effective at keeping you engaged for as long as possible“.

But it’s not just social media that does this. The world is full of distractions and people who want to control what you see (or don’t see).

In the political satire movie, Wag the Dog, a PR spin doctor and Hollywood producer fabricate a war to distract attention from a presidential sex scandal. It’s the classic case of ‘nothing to see here, but hey, look over there’. While that’s a movie, as someone who used to work in PR, I can attest to the fact that it’s a classic tactic to deploy. It’s often very effective too.

Consequently, you want to be deliberate about where you are directing your attention. What are you seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing?

Avoid the rabbit hole
You don’t want to be like Alice in Wonderland, falling down a rabbit hole and spiralling into a world of misinformation, disinformation, half-truths and half-formed opinions.

Author and journalist Van Badham‘s brilliant book, QAnon and On: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults, outlines how easily this can happen.

In the book, she recounts the perspective of the social scientist, Dr Joan Donovan, who outlined why tales of (and from) conspiracy cults are so popular online. Her research found that it’s “…because the truth was often pretty boring and didn’t play that well on social media”.

Additionally, in a world where comments are provided anonymously, Van Badam noted, “Comments accumulate in a free‐flowing conversation where anyone can say what they like because no one has to know who they are.”

To avoid the rabbit hole, you want to be able to separate fact from fiction.

Separate fact from fiction
When someone says one thing and another person something different, do your own research.

Seek out the multiple sides of the debate. It’s never just two sides. There will always be opposites, but what about the positions in the middle? Often we hear the loudest voices, which more easily direct the conversation. We need to hear from people who don’t hold much power but are likely to have additional insights.

I remember watching a TV interview a few years ago with the then Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, about green energy and the shutting of coal-fired power stations. He referenced what happened to power prices when the Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria shut. Next, Atlassian co-founder, Mike Cannon-Brookes was interviewed, and when asked his perspective on power prices, he said that Frydenberg’s comment was true, but it was missing three crucial details. It was in those three details that the substance of the issue changed.

It’s easy to only tell part of the story and to share data that doesn’t give the complete picture.

It’s also not enough to have a hunch, or as one climate change sceptic once said, “I’m not relying on evidence“, when holding fast to an opinion.

Consider the agenda that a person may be pushing while sharing their perspectives and ideas. What do they stand to gain or lose? Sowing seeds of doubt can be a compelling way of distracting you and confusing the debate.

You want facts and data combined with a curious mind that is open to alternative perspectives.

Validate your sources
When looking at your facts and data, check the source. Is the source reputable, valid and current?

There’s a saying that history is written by the victors, so what perspective is the author taking? What’s the lens they are using to view the situation? History is littered with examples of skewed perspectives. Sometimes that can be deliberate. Other times it’s based on unconscious bias, sloppy work, a lack of access to alternative opinions, pressure and time (to name a few).

Information gets compressed and altered over time. If you’ve ever played the children’s game of Chinese Whispers, you’ll know how information can change slightly each time it is shared. The end result can be different from the starting point.

Quotes are a perfect example of this. You’ve likely seen many quotes shared as social media posts or referenced in books. There are quotes from famous authors, celebrities and sports stars. However, sometimes those quotes are wrong and misattributed. In many situations, this isn’t from deliberate misrepresentation. The quote may have been taken out of context or massaged over time. Here are some great examples. In the case of quotations, tools such as Quote Investigator are a quick and easy way to check a quote’s history and authenticity.

You need to take the time to check and verify. In your profession, what are the tools, processes and frameworks you can use to investigate and validate your sources, data and information?

As you do this, remember that you want to rely on research, not what Wharton Professor Adam Grant refers to as ‘mesearch‘.

The scientific and research community uses a tool known as the Evidence Pyramid. The higher the material and study are placed on the pyramid, the more scientifically valid it is. At the bottom of the pyramid is expert opinion and information. Higher up the pyramid are clinical trials and, at the top, systematic reviews.

Be accountable
As part of this, you want to get into the detail. You will miss much of what matters when you hover above the issue.

It’s easy to hold opinions. We all do. But what are your ideas backed up with? How much do you really know? Do you know the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or do you know half-truths and hold lots of opinions?

It’s critical to challenge yourself as to the role you are playing and to hold yourself accountable for the ideas and information you share. Are you massaging the truth to suit your agenda, or going further, and manipulating the information?

American Professor Dan Ariely suggests that we all cheat “…up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals“. We can rationalise our behaviour – our lies – by saying to ourselves, things such as:

  • I didn’t want to get into trouble
  • I didn’t want to hurt their feelings
  • It was only a white lie
  • They already have so much that no one will notice
  • It won’t hurt anyone…and many more.

When the rules of behaviour or the laws of the game are grey or blurry, then cheating becomes even more accessible and, sadly, at times, more accepted. Having clear and practised ethical standards is vital because there is always a cost when trust evaporates. A cost in the time we need to spend working out what’s real or not, what is true or not. A cost in how we build and maintain relationships.

In the HBO mini-series about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the Soviet chemist Valery Legasov is quoted as saying, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

Get uncomfortable
There is always more to know and learn, and no single person holds all the information.

Lean into the discomfort of not knowing and surround yourself with knowledge. I love the Japanese practice of tsundoku, which encourages us to love learning. It’s also great to know that the many hours spent in bookstores are not wasted.

In closing (and yes, today’s weekly insight was longer than usual), remember the wise words of Pema Chödrön “The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new“.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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