Probably all of us remember that one English class (or composition class or whatever your school system called it) where the teacher was a stickler for good content and rigorous adherence to the published school writing policy. We learned to construct our arguments following accepted formats, demonstrate the difference between our work and the work of others, and to cite the sources we used by including footnotes and bibliographies which listed the metadata (tech term!) associated with each source – the author, title, publisher, the relevant pages, etc.
It turns out that in our business culture, citing your sources – or, even more importantly, knowing them – is perhaps a lost art but could separate the unserious from the serious.
Since I am always interested in how the world is changing and how globalization is affecting much of that change, it was with interest that I read this article about a town you never heard of: Veles (population: 45,000) in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In the recent US presidential elections, much was written about the proliferation of “fake” news sites, which spin fake stories to excite partisans and drive social media shares, clicks, and ad revenue. It turns out that the town of Veles specialized in this cottage industry during the recent US presidential election. Here is a quote from a creator of just one of the 100 fake news sites in Veles:
“I started the site for a easy way to make money,” said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I’m a musician but I can’t afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things.”
While much has been made about these sites (as well as Facebook and Google’s responsibilities in all of this), there is a part of me that admires the chutzpah of Balkan teenagers who profit off of American electoral insanity as well as the natural human predisposition toward confirmation bias.
While the discussion rages on about fake news sites, perhaps we might consider how this underlying change in information sources might be creeping into our business roles. Some thoughts:
- Confirmation bias is a thing. If you think it only affects your political rivals, think again. It is insidious and we all are prone to it. How might your natural predisposition toward confirmation bias be clouding your work? Take a moment to write down one or two possibilities.
- Much has been made about the democratization of writing. This blog is an example. Virtually any non-North Korean can self-publish. But what we have lost is the art of editing. This is not just a problem for people like me who don’t have editors on staff (actually not exactly true for me since my wife is a former English teacher …). It’s a problem for actual news sites where the pressure for clicks and speed outrun the time it would take to edit/challenge/shape/correct a piece. This should make us more skeptical.
- Speaking of being skeptical, there’s familiar joke that runs around social media sites that attributes this adage to Abraham Lincoln: “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet”. We need to develop more information-source skepticism, or, as this guy said, become good at “triple-checking” our sources before sharing.
- Ask people what their source is when they make a factual assertion that drives the business toward a given direction. If you ask the question a few times (not constantly, which would make you a bore, but at the right times), you and your team will develop some good habits regarding information sources.
Being a good consumer of information is something we all need to improve upon, and with the increase in speed we are liable to make amateur mistakes.
It’s not a lot different than that English class you took years ago. Cite your sources.