Have you heard that Americans now view disinformation—deliberately misleading or biased information—as a “major” problem in society on par with terrorism and gun violence?

According to the 2019 Institute for Public Relations Disinformation in Society Report, terrorism ranked the highest at 66%. Disinformation and gun violence were tied at 63%.

The Institute for Public Relations, which sponsored the survey of 2,200 adults this spring, found frequent incidents of disinformation. More than half of survey respondents, 51%, said they encounter disinformation at least once a day. More than three-fourths, 78%, said they see disinformation once a week.

As a news enthusiast who majored in journalism and later studied neuroscience, I am thrilled that the public now perceives disinformation as a major problem.

However, four of the results show a naiveté with the nuances of the topic and therefore our ability to make sustainable improvements. For instance, survey respondents self-reported that:

  • Four in five, 80%, said they are confident in their ability to recognize false news and information.
  • Almost half, 47%, said they “often” or “always” go to other sources to see if the news and information they are consuming is accurate.
  • Their most trustworthy sources of information are family members, 74%; “people like me”, 72%; and friends, 70%.
  • They gave the most credit to “people like me,” 55%, for trying to combat disinformation in the news. (CEOs and celebrities at 23% each received the lowest scores for tackling disinformation in the news.)

Why my concern about these four results?

Other research doesn’t support these four points.  For example, as reported by Science News, an “analysis of more than 4.5 million tweets and retweets posted from 2006 to 2017 indicates that inaccurate news stories spread faster and further on the social media platform than true stories.” The research also suggests that people play a bigger role in sharing falsehoods than bots.

Even digital natives have trouble judging the credibility of online information. In a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college, 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website.

Based on my experiences and knowledge, I see four factors contributing to the consumption and dissemination of disinformation:

  1. Thanks to our limited attention spans, we seldom pay full attention when we consume information. Furthermore, investing time in checking facts is a low priority – unless our name, professional credentials and reputation are on the line.
  2. Even if we were to check facts, we’re not sure how to do so or whom to trust outside our bubble of family, friends and peers. As the President and CEO of The Institute for Public Relations, Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D. noted, “Unfortunately, only a few organizations outside of the media literacy and news space devote resources to help fix it (disinformation), including many of the perceived culprits for spreading disinformation.”
  3. We’re overwhelmed with information these days, and when we hear or see an interesting nugget it’s hard to remember it, much less where it came from and whether that source is reliable. Having just authored an article for Forbes about the limitations of our working memory, I continue to be hesitant to share information until I double and sometimes triple check my sources.
  4. We’re affected by confirmation bias, the tendency to believe information that confirms our existing views while ignoring or rejecting information that’s in opposition. Individuals of all political persuasions, education levels and economic status are susceptible to confirmation bias.

Disinformation can be a problem in the workplace too, not just in society at large. What can leaders do to counteract it? Try these actions:

  • Be like Edwards Deming, the father of business effectiveness and quality improvement, whose work sowed the seeds for evidence-based management. The quote, “In God we trust; all others must bring data” is widely attributed to Deming. Ask people to provide sources to back up their facts and figures in their presentations and reports, much like students do for research papers.
  • Use the NewsGuard extension on your web browser and encourage others to do so too. Led by veteran journalists and news entrepreneurs, Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, the site’s green-red ratings signal “if a website is trying to get it right or instead has a hidden agenda or knowingly publishes falsehoods or propaganda.” Also, by using a web browser to go to sites rather than using links in social media, you’ll increase your chances of avoiding fake news sites. (For more tips on how to detect fake news, check out this Science News article, People are bad at spotting fake news. Can computer programs do better?)
  • Role model what trusted information dissemination looks like. For example, include citations of legitimate news and research sources in company publications and online. Make sure your CEO and other C-suite executives speak factually and share their sources as appropriate. (Keep in mind that the survey on disinformation showed that CEOs ranked dead last along with celebrities for “tackling disinformation in the news.”)

Disinformation isn’t going away. At least now a sizable percentage of people identify it as a problem. It’s up to all of us to do away with the “dis” in disinformation.

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