Who and what to trust in the post-truth era

Hands shaking. Trust

Instead of – or in addition to – living in the information age, we now appear to be inhabiting the disinformation age. In our post-truth world, it’s become more challenging to figure out who and what to trust.

Of course, misinformation, spin, lies and deceit have been around forever, but it’s on a whole new scale these days. Before Web 2.0 (the interactive internet), members of the public were the recipients, rather than the perpetrators. Now we’re both. Able to build our own websites and post our content on a plethora of social media outlets, not to mention print our own leaflets at local copy shops, we’ve all become publishers and self-proclaimed experts.

Ordinary lies

Unfortunately, not everyone can be trusted to publish trustworthy information. Just in the last week, this has been brought home to me on at least three occasions.

When arranging to meet a friend for dinner, I looked up TripAdvisor to check out a new restaurant. My Google search for TripAdvisor brought up an article about a journalist, Oobah Butler, who last year propelled his garden shed to the top London restaurant spot on TripAdvisor after the site was tricked by his and his friends’ fake reviews of his fake restaurant. Can I now trust my chosen restaurant’s reviews? How many of them are made-up?

Browsing through my LinkedIn feed to pass time on a train journey, I noticed someone recommending a marketing consultant to one of my connections. Even with my advanced cynicism, I was surprised to find that the gushingly endorsed advisor had in fact never held a marketing position before becoming a marketing consultant nor did they have a business or marketing qualification. On top of that, they claimed to have a degree from a university that doesn’t award such a degree (I’m graduate of that university, so suspected something wasn’t quite right, which was confirmed by a quick look at its website). If you’re going to lie about something like that (which I don’t advocate), at least put a bit of effort into it. How many LinkedIn recommendations can I trust now?

Finally, preparing to sell my iMac, I fired up YouTube on my laptop to find out how to restore it to factory settings. I was relieved to find lots of videos promising to guide me through the process. I clicked on one with many views (it must be good if lots of people have viewed it, mustn’t it?). Despite initial reservations about the video quality, I proceeded to follow the steps being recommended. After a few minutes, when my iMac screen suddenly went blank, I felt a pang of concern. I scrolled down to read the comments below the video. Oh dear, this seemed not to have worked for others either. Then it occurred to me that Apple might have more trustworthy advice on their website – which they did. Why didn’t I think of that first?

None of these examples are about deliberately false information being spread by Russians on social media to undermine Western democracies! They’re just ordinary members of the public publishing their own untrustworthy content to potentially trusting individuals.

Trust, but verify

In this time of fake news, it’s tempting to trust no one and nothing. However, although it’s become more difficult to work out who and what to trust, my own view is that we should continue to “trust, but verify”, to quote former US President Ronald Reagan.

We all need to decide our own verification criteria for who and what we trust. A starting point would be to consider what evidence there is to justify trust, what the person or source’s track record of being credible and accurate is, what bias they might have and why (e.g. who pays them), what qualifications and experience they have, whether they are informing you or manipulating you into agreeing with them, and if one or more independent sources back them up.

We should also, particularly as marketers, strive to be trustworthy ourselves. More than once in my career, I’ve been asked to “spin” something, but the answer is pretty straightforward: No. “But isn’t that your job?”. No, it isn’t.

Just one more thing: be more Columbo

A friend nicknames me Columbo, mocking me for investigating and seeking evidence for just about everything. But in this new post-truth era, we’ll all need to have our wits about us and be a bit more amateur detective.