MBA Research

Trend #42: Inaccurate Information

In November 2016, a 28-year-old man walked into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. and opened fire. This man, named Edgar M. Welch, drove from North Carolina to rescue children that he was sure were being held there against their will. He had read about Comet Ping Pong Pizza online. The restaurant was the target of a widespread Internet theory. Many articles and social network posts claimed it was the center of a child sex trafficking ring led by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Media sources such as The New York Times and The Washington Post debunked this theory, but it made little difference. The pizza shop and its neighboring businesses were hounded with threatening mail, phone calls, emails from people who were convinced of their guilt. It was only after Welch had already attacked the restaurant that he realized that his information was wrong. By then, the damage was done.

Problems with accuracy and integrity of information online are not new. On the Internet, anyone can be an author and publisher without much accountability. Today’s readers expect content to be updated to the minute. That “need for speed” reduces the time spent fact-checking and vetting sources. Internet articles are shared instantaneously and can spread across the world in minutes. They rely upon the number of people who open a page and click on advertisements to generate hefty profits.

These factors, combined with growing distrust of traditional news outlets, have changed the landscape of journalism. People no longer rely on the media to fact-check and provide them with the truth; instead, it is largely up to the readers, and most do not care to do so. It is easy to pass off fake information as the truth, as long as the readers want to believe it. In the past few years, hundreds of fake news websites have sprung up, making tens of thousands of dollars daily on advertising revenue. These stories are shared frequently because they tell people what they want to hear and use sensationalized headlines to generate interest. In the 2016 presidential election, false stories outperformed articles from reputable sources on social media. Many people believe that they influenced the outcome.   

Fake news stories are not just detrimental to journalism and politics. They also have real consequences for businesses – and not just the occasional restaurant targeted by conspiracy theorists. Reputation is key, and unfortunately, false information can damage a business’s character without cause. It is difficult to monitor online reviews or testimonials and ensure that nothing inaccurate is posted. Furthermore, if a company is accused of something unsavory in the press, it can be difficult to overcome that negative publicity, even if it is not accurate. For example, clothing retailer L.L. Bean became the target of proposed boycotts after it was revealed that the founder’s granddaughter and heir had contributed to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Though the company itself gave no money or support to any political campaigns, L.L. Bean was immediately at risk of losing business due to the online portrayal. A business can even damage its own reputation with one mistaken or incorrect post. Once something is put on the Internet, its mark has been made.

Inaccurate information can also hurt businesses internally as they seek and use information to inform their decision-making processes. Economic trends and world events are important to nearly any industry, but if a business is not getting accurate information, the decisions made based on that data might not lead to successful outcomes. False information can also affect the economy as a whole, not just individual businesses. One social media post can set off a chain reaction in the markets before it is revealed to be false.

While the spread of inaccurate information seems daunting, businesses can take several steps to combat it and protect their reputations. Checking the validity of sources is crucial. When looking at a news story or piece of online information, one of the first steps is to check the web address. Many fake sources try to imitate reputable news outlets by using parts of their names or copying their web design. However, closely inspecting the web address can reveal that the source is not actually reliable. Businesses can also check the owner of the domain name using Internet directories to see whether or not it is legitimate. It is a good idea to compare an article to a wide variety of sources to separate the facts from the bias.

Technology has made it much more difficult to identify accurate information. However, it has also led to the development of tools to help solve the problem. Reverse image searching, plagiarism detectors, and browser plug-ins can check sources and determine whether or not a page is reliable.

As a final note, businesses should always be skeptical of using social media as a source of news and information. Social media platforms spread stories at a rapid rate and have been criticized for not vetting sources. Posts on social media should not be taken at face value; rather, it is important to check the source and look for the same information in other, more reputable places.

Businesses also need to take the appropriate precautions to make sure that they do not spread false information or become the victim of it. Before posting anything on social media or making any decisions based on research, companies should think twice and do the required work to vet sources. If possible, organizations should have a system in place to help ensure that all posts are appropriate and accurate. Business should also avoid any association with inaccurate sources to preserve their integrity. They should be continuously aware of what people are saying about them by checking reviews online. If necessary, businesses can seek legal action against those who defame them. However, this process is often costly, time-consuming, and ineffective. By the time a lawsuit happens, the damage to the organization’s reputation is already done. It is better to deal with situations as they occur, responding quickly to any negative press in a respectful and effective way.

Classroom Implications

The Internet is an integral part of the lives of today’s students. They are used to perusing Twitter and Facebook rather than a newspaper or television news. Therefore, they are generally less skeptical of social media and random websites. While they have been exposed to a wide variety of sources, this exposure has not made them more discerning readers. In fact, students’ media literacy is shockingly low. In a study conducted by Stanford University, students were evaluated based on their ability to distinguish between ads and articles. The study also examined their ability to determine the trustworthiness of a source. At every level from middle school through college, students were not adequately able to reason about information found on the Internet. They were often fooled and failed to recognize bias. As the prevalence of false information grows, it is concerning that the next generation is not prepared to properly vet online information.

Teachers need to implement strong media literacy skills in the classroom as early as possible. They can point out ways to check sources and strategies for determining what is truth and what is biased. Caution students to be skeptical of writers’ hidden agendas—e.g., political agendas, medical agendas. Programs such as The News Literacy Project provide resources for teachers to educate students about the importance of being smart, discerning readers. Strong media literacy skills will help them to maintain skepticism when evaluating news in the future. Furthermore, students should know about the effects of spreading false information. They will then be more careful to avoid posting without checking sources first.