How Enterprises Can Tackle Misinformation in the Workplace

As the line between our personal and professional lives remains blurry, leaders need to arm their people with the tools and understanding they need to identify and combat misinformation.

None of us learned about ‘misinformation’ in school. The term itself rose from obscurity in 2016 to quickly become a staple of our cultural lexicon, and even 2018’s word of the year. But we know all too well how repeated, prolonged misinformation campaigns can cast doubt on authoritative sources, and threaten the quality of data and information in our personal lives. Unfortunately, misinformation can be subtle, so we often are only aware of its effects when they reach a macro level -- like January’s Capitol Hill riot or the ongoing circulation of wild and unproven rumors around COVID-19 that is slowing down the country’s vaccination effort.

Pervasive, Seductive Falsehoods at Work

Misinformation that we pick up in our “off hours,” through social media or unreliable news sources, for instance, can cross the threshold from our personal to our working lives very easily. Rumors, for one, can destabilize share prices, but misinformation can also tear down morale or inspire vigilantism.

This became especially apparent when a pharmacist and avowed “conspiracy theorist” sabotaged more than 500 doses of the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine, rendering them unusable. His personal naivete around infectious disease and vaccinations encouraged him to take advantage of his professional position and intervene in the distribution process, even though those personal convictions ran counter to the mission of his employer and its commitments to the community.

No organization wants to be in this position, but the rise of misinformation makes it more likely that some will fall victim to false news. Fake news generates 83% more page views than legitimate information, according to a joint study conducted by Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Hong Kong and Carnegie Mellon University. And according to a report by MIT Sloan, falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if people are misinformed individually in their personal lives or collectively within their specific roles at work. If they are influenced by misinformation, they cannot help but carry their misinformed views into everything they do -- including the decisions they make on behalf of their employer.

For corporate leaders to get ahead of misinformation, they must treat it as seriously as other complex and corrosive workplace issues, like sexual harassment or racial discrimination. They must start with their most important asset -- their people. They need to build processes, taking programmatic approaches to stop the spread of falsehoods internally, and ensure that their people never lose trust in the facts that their business needs to run. And they need to base those processes in technology that ensures that a single source of truth in the organization that is uniformly recognized and understood. The following are details on three ways to tackle misinformation:

1. People

Misinformation corrupts the facts we use to understand our world, and can filter into how employees interpret and work toward common goals. It may seem like bread-and-butter fundamentals but creating alignment around data and getting everyone on the same page supports values and processes long after their first days on the job. It’s a significant part of continually renewing faith in the organizational vision and reaffirming the goals that employees should hope to achieve.

This is by no means a call to tell employees what to think. It’s exactly the opposite: managers need to make sure that their staff have the knowledge and the cognitive tools to make sense of the information driving an organization’s decision-making. Without it, they risk leaps in illogical conclusions, cogitive biases, and distrust.

The most important discipline for an accurately-informed workforce is data literacy. All decision-makers should be able to use data and analytics to audit decisions and access the facts. They also need to recognize the importance of peer review in weeding out problems of perspective, like confirmation bias or recency bias. The reality is that, without upskilling individuals to interpret and interrogate data, organizations are more vulnerable to misinformation impacting the business.

2. Processes

No business can fully stop misinformation from occurring. As in cybersecurity, the question is not “if,” but “when.” Even something as core to the business as a product release can cause unforeseen challenges with speculation. News with high stakes, such as an impending M&A or the relocation of a company’s headquarters, can be fodder that fuels misinformation, especially where it causes confusion and bumps up against the human urge to have answers right away.

Finding ways to stem misinformation with thoughtful and consistent disclosure processes is important. Silence serves no one, and an overly secretive organization can provoke unvetted rumor mills that persist even after the truth goes public. Pay close attention in the days following a high-profile Apple announcement.

Though there may be times when it is better to stay silent, most enterprises are better off setting a consistent tone with as much transparency as possible, so when the need arises to scrutinize misinformation, there is a legitimate trust in the processes already in place.

While its human nature to always have some nay-sayers, leaders can control how readily false information roots in the organization by building confidence in leadership with communication, communication, communication.

3. Technology

Finally, a fast moving, modern workforce needs a pipeline of trusted, real-time data to inform decision making. While first party data is inherently clean (assuming the company holds a high standard for its own internal data), most companies aren’t producing all the data they need to solve their most pressing problems. So, the supplying technology platform should be able to identify a single source of truth for any third party data as well. Ideally, the data has an easily identifiable point of origin, age, and some way to track any auditing or edit paths along the way.

A Consistent Problem

More than eight in 10 Americans said they are concerned about the spread of false information, according to research firm Ipsos. Conspiracy theories and all manner of bad information are corrupting the quality of information in our world, and it has already begun to affect businesses. To think that misinformation’s tangible business impacts are limited to vaccine distributors or hospital systems is naïve.

As the line between our personal and professional lives remains blurry, leaders need to arm their people with the tools and understanding they need to identify and combat misinformation -- or risk the fallout.

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer