Being truthful is traditionally viewed as essential to building trust. And for most leaders in politics, business or the charity sector, trust is regarded as essential to success. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, said in 2015: “Leadership today is all about two words…truth and trust.”
These words feel particularly relevant during this week’s meeting of the rich and powerful in Davos, where Theresa May and President Xi Jinping will rub shoulders with Matt Damon and Shakira to wrestle with the big issues of the day. To misquote the belly-dancing songstress, if the last year tells us anything it’s that while the hips don’t lie, the lips often do.
Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have sparked unprecedented (pun intended) debate around claims that both parties bandied around unverified or inaccurate content to win at seemingly any cost. But do the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s decision to leave the EU signify that we are living, as many commentators have asserted, in a post-truth world – a world where the distinction between fact and falsehood is meaningless?
If so, does that mean that we, as professional communicators, need only appeal to emotion and gut instinct?
According to pundits on an excellent BBC Radio 4 show aired earlier this month, the concept of ‘post-truth’ is not new. Statements presented as facts, which later turn out to be false, occurred well before 2016.
Think back to high-profile claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a commission that later found, after 700 inspections, there were no such weapons. The careers of Tony Blair and George Bush will forever be marked by the accusation that they didn’t verify the facts before making the claim to press home their case for invasion.
What is new, however, is the extent to which inaccurate content is being shared, absorbed and re-shared in the public domain.
The proliferation of fake news spread through social echo chambers threatens a future where we become irrevocably split down ideological lines, choosing facts to fit our version of the ‘truth’ and refusing to consider alternatives.
The rise of social media is seen as a key factor in the spread of inaccurate information. Figures from the Pew Research Center show 61% of American Millennials see Facebook as their top source of news and that the social media channel was also the top non-television source for election updates. But in November, the headline of an Independent article read: “Social media echo chambers gifted Donald Trump the presidency.” It refers to the trend of users only seeing and interacting with content they agree with, because they only connect to and follow like-minded people.
So at a time when facts are seemingly being devalued in the political arena, how can truth and trust be maintained in business?
It is important to remember that what we consider to be true is a personal judgment based on feelings as well as raw facts. After all, members of a jury can sit through the same trial and come to opposing conclusions. Behavioural science can explain some of this; we are all prone to biases which lead us to gravitate towards things that reaffirm our view of something, while rejecting anything that doesn’t.
This highlights that our focus cannot solely be on the content of our messages. The messenger is also critical. Research shows that people will listen and be persuaded by those they regard as similar or who hold similar values. Communicators can achieve this by adopting the language and tone of the tribe they are trying to influence.
During the US Presidential election and EU referendum, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage told better stories than those they were campaigning against. Some of the evidence in their stories turned out to be inaccurate, but the power of their story and their ability to connect won the day.
Is this proof that we live in a post-truth world where accurate evidence no longer matters? Not quite. Communicators still need to construct narratives that make good use of facts and evidence in order to succeed. What the post-truth debate tells us is that we must also present those narratives in a way that will demonstrate affinity with the audience we are trying to reach. For now, it’s safe to say that reports of the death of facts are greatly exaggerated.