Human Resources in an Age of “Fake News”

“The first step towards spotting fake news is to educate ourselves on how to determine the accuracy and authenticity of information.” Teresa Wilkins, HR Services Director, Knowledge Resource Center

Although most recently associated with politics and the 2016 presidential campaign, the “fake news” issue actually spills over to many facets of American life. In n increasingly digital world false or misleading information can reach more people, more quickly. Decisions based on fake news can intersect with human resources, including the areas of health care decision making, financial planning, and career moves. Learning how to spot fake news is vital to employers and employees alike who rely on what they assume is accurate information on which to base critical decisions. And — this is real news — there are resources out there to help guide you in evaluating sources of information.

Fake News Phenomenon

According to a Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Americans feel that fake news has confused them, and nearly one-quarter reported having shared fake news stories, intentionally or unintentionally. At the heart of fake news is a blurring of the line between facts and opinions. It’s human nature to  disregard information that doesn’t line up with our beliefs, especially on issues that appeal to emotions. But the fake news phenomenon also reflects a larger trend towards the diminishing value of facts and evidence, which Rand CEO Michael Rich has dubbed “truth decay.”  And even though technology can also be harnessed to halt the dissemination of fake news, the tech industry has struggled to do so effectively.

Fake News, HR, and Employee Benefits

Decision-making is at the very core of employee benefits, so when information is misleading or false, or when people are confused by conflicting stories, their choices are affected. A recent survey found that 44% of people expressed difficulty making health care decisions due to concern about fake news, and 63% felt that fake news threatened their ability to make financial decisions. With another 29% stating that the extent of misinformation made it harder for them to decide whether to accept job offers, it’s clear that the fake news phenomenon extends into issues of interest to employers. HR professionals should guard against  basing decisions on hearsay, a form of fake news, when involved in developing and communicating HR and benefits information to the workforce.

  • Health Care

When employees are trying to choose which health care option is best for themselves and their families, it’s important to have a solid benefits communication policy in place to ensure that workers are getting accurate information. For instance, employees can be impacted by fake health care news when deciding whether to use an online pharmacy, or when participating in wellness programs run by poorly vetted vendors who offer misleading advice or promote trendy but ineffective products. Employers can develop a sound communications strategy with their Human Resources benefits staff to ensure reliable information is available to employees, especially during the health insurance enrollment period.

  • Finances

When employees are trying to plan for retirement or choose investments for their 401(k) plans, they need to make decisions that require thoughtful, rational deliberation. And yet many people feel under pressure to make such decisions quickly in response to breaking stories in the marketplace, which leaves them susceptible to the influence of fake or misleading financial news. By investing in benefits such as financial wellness programs, employers can help workers understand how to see the bigger picture involved in financial planning, and also learn how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of financial information, with help from HR.

  • Careers

Employees trying to decide whether to accept a job offer often research prospective employers online. Some websites let people post anonymous reviews of their employers., Aside from the ongoing risk that a disgruntled employee will give a dishonest review, there’s a new potential threat on the horizon: the computer generation of fake reviews by artificial intelligence. Although this technology is still in the research stages, the “darker side” of AI needs to be considered by recruiters and job seekers alike.

Tools to Help Spot Fake News

The first step towards spotting fake news is to educate ourselves on how to determine the accuracy and authenticity of information. One significant factor in how widespread fake news has become may be a decline in teaching critical thinking skills. The ability to evaluate sources is something that can be learned, and many resources are available to help with this process. Librarians are especially well suited to assist with source evaluation, and there are many guides available online through university library websites (see UC Berkeley and University of Michigan for some examples). Additionally, websites such as factcheck.org and politifact.com, and browser plug-ins alert web users to questionable news sources. There are even tools to evaluate statistical information, which can be useful for employee benefits plan design initiatives. Learning how to think more critically about what we are reading is the key to being confident that the information we’re using or sharing is based on sound research.

A few basic tips to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t just read headlines. Emotional or extreme headlines can be deceiving; read beyond them to determine the validity of whatever claim is being made.
  2. Consider the source. Investigate the author’s background to evaluate his or her credentials, and check out any citations to see what information the story is based on. Don’t forget to consider the medium in which the article appears. What is its mission and what other kinds of materials are published there?
  3. Notice the date of the article – is it current, or is outdated material being posted to manipulate the interpretation of other information?

Finally, use the CRAAP test to help you weed out fact from fiction: Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose.

Fake news is not going to disappear any time soon, and it touches on areas significant to everyone’s lives in relation to health care, investments, and careers. More than ever, we need to develop our critical thinking skills and remain alert for the ways in which misinformation might affect our work-life decision making.

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One thought on “Human Resources in an Age of “Fake News”

  1. Todd Christensen October 23, 2017 - Reply

    Thanks for the post, Teresa!
    I remember forwarding to my family back in the last 90s the email about “local” ATM envelopes being laced with Anthrax (I had no idea what Anthrax was, other than a heavy metal rock band from the 80s). And that was even after I had considered sending off for information on making money by stuffing envelopes at home (a true pyramid scheme).
    Education is key, along with experience, and, as you mention, critical thinking skills are, well, critical to dealing with so much fake news.
    I would add that HR professionals looking into financial wellness programs might consider more than just education about 401(k)s and retirement plans. A large percentage of employees are confused by debt elimination claims, credit building and repair scams, and even credit card offers. A well-rounded financial wellness program will include information on budgeting and banking, credit and debt, savings and identity protection, as well as investments.

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