Maybe John Lennon had the Internet in mind when he wrote “Strawberry Fields/Nothing is real”. OK, I realize the place in the song came long before the Web was invented, but they both have a decided lack of reality. Since dishonesty or a lack of transparency seem to be this week’s theme, let me throw out another thought that’s prompted by the interwebs which might be helpful in business.
There is a column in the Washington Post called What’s Fake On The Internet This Week. It’s ending, unfortunately. Like a car wreck, there is tragedy in every column but you can’t turn away. What’s tragic is that people believe the things highlighted. You’ve probably seen some of the amazing crap that goes viral. Burger King refusing to sell Diet Coke to anyone ordering a 2,000 calorie Double Whopper or new flavors of Oreos. Those are relatively benign. It’s the junk about race or religion that is treated as Gospel that’s tragic.
How does this stuff get started? It’s not an accident. There are fake news sites that spend all day making this stuff up. I realize that’s not new – the supermarket tabloids have been doing it for decades. The difference is social media. People don’t clip and send a National Enquirer article to hundreds of people but they certainly post things on Facebook. One guy admitted he that tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience. Why do they do this? Traffic equals eyeballs; lots of eyeballs equals revenue.
That really isn’t the business point. This quote is:
Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
We laugh at the fools who believe that Martians live among us and yet we’re all too willing to circulate information in business which confirms our own view of how the business is functioning. That’s dangerous. While a reality distortion field might work for a Steve Jobs, it probably won’t for you. We need to find out the truth and not confirm out own cognitive bias. Laughing about the crap merchants who push this drivel is one thing. Being one yourself is quite another, even if you’re less public than the folks who publish it on the Web. Besides, who wants to put their hand in the air and admit they fell for something so blatantly fake? You?