Who and what to trust in the post-truth era

Instead of – or in addition to – living in the information age, we now appear to be inhabiting the disinformation age.
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 content on a plethora of social media outlets at will, we’ve all become online publishers.

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

Arranging to meet a friend for dinner, I looked up TripAdvisor to check out a new restaurant. Google brought up an article about a journalist, Oobah Butler, who last year propelled his garden shed to the top London restaurant spot on TripAdvisor thanks to his and his friends’ fake reviews of his fake restaurant. Can I now trust my chosen restaurant’s reviews?

Browsing on LinkedIn, I noticed someone recommending a consultant. I was surprised to find that the gushingly endorsed advisor had never held a position in that discipline before becoming a consultant nor did they have a relevant qualification. They also claimed to have a degree from a university that doesn’t award such a degree. Can I trust LinkedIn recommendations?

Then, preparing to sell my iMac, I fired up YouTube on my laptop to discover how to restore it to factory settings. I clicked on a video with many views. When my iMac screen suddenly went blank, I felt a pang of concern. I scrolled to read the comments below the video. Oh dear, this didn’t work for others either. Then it occurred to me that Apple’s website might have more trustworthy advice. Why didn’t I think of that first?

These examples are not about false information being spread by Russians to undermine Western democracies. They’re just ordinary people publishing their own (untrustworthy) content.

In this time of fake news, it’s tempting to trust no-one and nothing. Although it’s become more difficult to work out who and what to trust, my 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. We could 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, what qualifications and experience they have, whether they are informing us or manipulating us into agreeing, and whether one or more independent sources back them up?

A friend nicknamed me ‘Columbo’, mocking me for investigating everything. But in this new post-truth era, we’ll all need to be a bit more of an amateur detective.

David Wallace, Regional Director, PM Forum Scotland