Welcome to the post-truth era of alternative facts

Tuesday July 31 2018

Ms Terry  Ramadhani is a senior manager in the

Ms Terry  Ramadhani is a senior manager in the Human Resources Department, East Africa Aga Khan University 

With the renaissance of spin we witnessed departure of information from being primarily based on fact to being based on whatever we wanted the story to be, of course driven by intense interests, be it political, financial, sensationalism, etc.

I am certain that most of us have seen the videos that do rounds to no end claiming that they found that an item of food that is sold in a supermarket near us is fake, for example a plastic cabbage or a plastic egg et cetera. To be quite honest I am yet to come across any of the plastic items that are referred to in many of the videos. I often wonder how many of us actually have? I suspect the nearest we have seen these plastic products is in those videos that we frightfully watch and then pass on to others to see the horrors of modern food chains.

Today we talk of alternative facts as if it is an actual thing, as if there is in fact a replacement for fact. The current entire landscape as far as information sharing in the world today is as sad as it is absurd. There used to be a time when experts spoke, we accepted that they gave us the truth; the best that they knew of the matter at hand in full honesty. Now when experts speak, we look at each other with knowing glances as if to ask whose payroll they are in? Our leaders are not immune to this phenomenon. We have tonnes of examples where world leaders have spit out one lie after another and in fact when caught lying, they respond by lying some more. I feel saddened that somehow we are normalizing this behavior and accepting that in someway it is excusable to exist in this alternative reality where fact and lies are deployed almost interchangeably.

A report by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich earlier this year titled The Truth Decay defined truth decay as a set of four related trends, which are:

1. Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data

2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact

3. The increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact

4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

A glaring impact of this phenomenon in our organizations as is in our world generally is that the trust quotient is taking a major beating. The bar for winning over our colleagues’, employees’ etc trust is raised much higher because we all have collectively become much more suspicious of the information and scenarios that we are exposed to. Consequences of truth decay range from vaccinations uptake declining globally, to productivity decreasing in the workplace due to colleagues building false narratives to push their agenda forward, to heightened brutality from authorities, to heinous acts in an endeavor to eliminate those that we are afraid of et cetera.

Now, all this may feel and seem like some seriously academic debate at first glance, but if we think through the phenomenon more carefully we realize that it has real impact in our day-to-day lives. This is because we are absorbing disinformation on a continuous drip 24 hours a day. This misinformation is in turn reinforcing learning that is incorrect and incoherent, but due to the wide exposure it is producing concerning cognitive bias.

Bearing in mind that we are only as good as the decisions we make in our organizations as well as in our personal lives; it is imperative that we endeavor to choose the best possible solutions every time.

May I humbly offer the following three suggestions as a way to re-affirm our pursuit for truth in this post-truth era?

1. Have a broad base of information. This demands and calls for extensive research. There are masses of data on just about everything. The tricky bit will be to find data that is credible and reliable for inclusion in your knowledge base of whatever your subject matter is. In practical terms, as a leader you must seek information from all quarters, once you have it, you must be ruthless in determining which of it is wheat and which is chaff.

2. Entrench a fact checking culture. Let it be a known practice that opinions on their own will not bear credence to carry the day. Let it be clear that as an organization you stand on the side of facts every time.

3. Cultivate a robust feedback mechanism. This pipeline offers you the critical blind spot knowledge. None is a master of all, we must always be open to feedback from far and wide, and much so from those we do not necessarily wish to hear.