It’s official! ‘The internet has been named the most important human invention of all time.’ Easy to believe, isn’t it? It’s hard to remember what we did before the worldwide web existed and what we’d do without it.
But is this true? Is this really a fact? If you ‘Google it’ you can see this ‘fact’ confirmed but further research shows that it is just a blogger’s personal view. Fake news on a small scale maybe, but proof that we should always take what we read online with at least a small pinch of salt.
But not all fake news is as innocuous. Many articles have raised concerns about the high level of consumer trust in Google search responses given that its algorithm can and does deliver wrong and misleading ‘facts’ from third-party sites when we ask more complex questions, for example, around political issues. Furthermore, the increasing use of internet-connected voice-activated assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home will offer an even narrower set of responses as people come to rely on a robotic voice to deliver answers to their questions, rather than conduct internet research themselves.
In a relatively short space of time, the internet has completely revolutionised the way we receive our information, news, and views, and is the quickest research resource imaginable. This is especially useful for those in business to have all the most useful information instantly available at their fingertips. Companies can read about market predictions online, establish the financial status of other companies before they choose to deal with them, quickly check on their reliability, read reviews about their products and services and pinpoint their physical address. Business is now digitally driven and all the better for it.
All well and good but what happens when our trust of this information breaks down? What are the real consequences for business when we cannot automatically believe what we read when we are faced with ‘fake news’?
Fake news has existed long before now, but became a global phenomenon in 2016 with the election of US President Donald Trump and the Brexit vote which will see the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. With these controversial events, which both have considerable consequences for the business world, fake news has arisen from a hidden corner in the online world to reveal itself: bigger, bolder, and more scandalous than ever on mainstream media platforms. Fake news is so predominant today that it has substantially affected the way people trust mass media.
So how do British businesses view what they read online? Do companies view the culture of fake news/post-truth as potentially damaging to business? And how will the new rise of fake news affect their business decision-making?
A recent business poll (February 2017) undertaken by the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ research panel showed that the British business community takes the emergence of fake news very seriously and are working hard to counter it.
Asked, do business leaders have a responsibility to ensure that their senior managers separate fake and factual news when making business decisions?
- 69.39% said yes, they do. Managers must not be swayed by headlines and ensure that decisions are based on evidence/facts (eg through research, due diligence)
- 18.37% said yes, they have a responsibility, however, their business decisions are not influenced by media or social media headlines
- 10.20% said no, it is a manager’s sole responsibility to ensure his/her decision is based on correct information
SMF research panellist, Nick Laird commented: “Good business decisions are always a blend of fact and judgement. The two need to be separated, but both need consideration. Subtle opinion-driven issues can change the context within which a business operates, and thereby change the objective facts: and impact the best decision to take. Leadership is about uncovering and separating the most relevant fact, balancing their value(s) and weight(s), and then adding a layer of judgement on top”.
Raivat Luthra, another panel member warned about the rise of fake news: “It’s one of the biggest issues being faced by business leaders in recent times. Fake/unreliable news is influencing the decision-making abilities of employees in (mostly) a negative way. Perhaps this is something which needs to be tackled via education”.
The panel was also asked about Brexit and recent media coverage:
Are the media headlines/emotions around Brexit affecting your business more than the underlying trading essentials?
- 50.88% said no – despite the media headlines and lack of clarity about the form Brexit will take, they are continuing with business as usual.
- 36.48% said yes – feeling that conflicting media headlines causes uncertainty, making them less confident about pushing ahead with trading decisions.
Panellist David Bell commented on the rise of talking points in media coverage: “Post-truth is a direct emotional appeal, where usual arguments based on facts and data are discarded in favour of talking points seemingly immune to factual rebuttal. These talking points can shift the debate on key issues for businesses, such as Brexit, through a combination of media false balance, the 24-hour news cycle, and filter bubbles created by social media. Rebuttals to post-truth arguments are commonly rejected as smears or scaremongering, without qualification, thus making regular debate more challenging”.
The overall answers showed that most UK businesspeople felt that they can continue their business despite the abundance of fake news, but the margin between those who think fake news impedes business decision-making and those who think the opposite is small.
It’s certainly a business issue we are all too aware of now that fake news has hit the headlines. Panellist Eric Duclos puts things into perspective: “Fake information, or simply wrong information, is nothing new. Any business must take careful account of sources and methodology before using any data for decision-making”.
Some, like panellist Philippe Mandangi, believe there is a positive side to the discussion: “The abundance of news, fake or truth, is a good thing for business so long as business managers take the trouble to analyse each bit of information that goes through their desks in the process of decision making. Gut feeling is not scientifically proven, but a lot of managers still use it to make business decisions”.
The final word on the topic goes to SMF Chris Ambler, who makes this shrewd observation: “Separating fact from assumption is critical to making good business decisions. If you evidence your position, fake news should not become an issue.”
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