Fake news—two words that have become very prominent in our daily lexicon over the past two years. US President Donald Trump has put a big spotlight on it every time he accuses anyone who criticizes him of disseminating fake news.
As a result, research is also being conducted to understand the dynamics in play. I was particularly intrigued by a recent research report that looked at the proliferation of fake news reports and how they are shared via social media.
The largest-ever study on this phenomenon was conducted by data scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They studied 126,000 different fake news stories on Twitter between 2007 and 2016 that were authored by more than three million individual users. The stores were identified as fake using a consensus of analyses from established fact-checking organizations.
The study found that false information “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”
Why is fake more appealing than genuine? The researchers found that falsehoods were more novel, alarming or appealing, and thus more likely to be shared by other people than real news.
As I reflected on the findings of this study, I immediately began to make parallels to what I see happening a lot in organizations. I’m sure you’ve seen it to.
What may begin as gossip around the water cooler, may become something far more pernicious. Malicious rumors, or half-truths shared between colleagues, all act as a form of what I call, “organizational fake news.” If it is not controlled or managed, it can erode a company’s efforts to execute its strategy and build engagement among employees because it distracts people and can cultivate internal dissent.
Many times, organizational fake news can be created from really bizarre circumstances.
My team and I worked with an organization where corporate employees had recently moved into a newly renovated office building. Shortly after they moved in, my team and I arrived to do leadership training. And throughout our time there, my colleagues heard one particular story told over and over again.
Apparently, all the elevators in the building remained parked on the sixth floor of the office tower. The employees were extremely upset by this because, as it turns out, this was the floor where the executive team had their offices.
The story we heard centered on the allegation that the executive team had deliberately programmed the elevators to hover at the sixth floor so that they didn’t have to wait as long for a ride up or down the building. The story became a staple complaint about the executive team’s sense of entitlement and disregard for other employees.
This story kept coming up so often, I felt compelled to raise the issue with the executive team. What I found was quite intriguing.
Turns out the CEO and every member of his team weren’t even aware that the elevators parked on the sixth floor when not in use. The executive responsible for facilities was so upset that she decided to dig deeper into the issue and found that it was a programming feature carried over from the building’s previous tenant.
No one had manipulated the elevators. Yet, thanks to the inability of employees to sort fact from fiction, it became gospel truth.
In many ways, this is a good example about how fake news can spread like wildfire in an organization.
It also shows how leaders must be vigilant in dealing with organizational fake news.
In my experience, organizations are especially vulnerable to rumors during times of change. There’s always speculation about the fate of some senior executive and whether he or she is being fired or retiring. Or, there is rampant speculation about the motivations behind an acquisition, a merger or the sale of a division. In the absence of fact, conspiracy theories will thrive.
Leaders need to be on top of fake news before it starts going viral. Here are some ideas to consider:
Spot it: Keep a constant watch out for the incidents of fake news in your organization. The executive team I mentioned above was not aware this fake news story was being perpetuated internally. Don’t be the last to figure out that fake news has infected your troops.
Don’t spread it: As a leader, when you hear something that doesn’t make sense, don’t spread it to others. When those in position of authority spread fake news, they add credibility to otherwise incredible information.
Get to the root of the story: Dig deeper to understand how the story got started. In my experience, it’s often not motivated by malicious intentions. It happens because people need to have meaning and logic in their work. Things need to make sense and when they don’t, stories start getting created.
Communicate real news: In my experience, the most important thing a leader can do to combat organizational fake news is to bring clarity and continually communicate to your people at every turn. Keeping people in the dark creates ripe conditions for the creation and dissemination of organizational fake news. Remember, in the absence of truth, people have a tendency to create their own inaccurate version of what’s going on.
Remember that in the absence of a steady flow of solid, truthful information, people will turn to speculation, alarmist rhetoric or half-baked theories. The only antidote to those tendencies is a leader willing to engage in clear, consistent, effective communication.
This week’s gut check for leaders ask you: Is your organization rampant with fake news?