Lessons from a podcast on mysterious Chinese seeds
While the concept of disinformation has been around for centuries, recently, those spreading it have taken advantage of social media and easy-to-use editing technologies to do so at an unprecedented pace. In 2020, multiple disinformation messaging has eroded confidence in elections and spread deadly untruths about COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness. And believe it not, disinformation leads to negative attitudes and damaging behaviors at workplaces and our own personal lives (different article in the make) all the times.
As I was listening to this story about the “The Great Seed Panic of 2020” on NPR, it became clear to me how we all are in our own information bubbles and unless we consciously make efforts to understand the why, how, what behind each and every piece of information we consume, we are susceptible to make really bad judgments leading to awfully bad outcomes (within our families, teams, organizations, society).
This NPR “Experiment” podcast episode was narrating a story how last summer, thousands of people across the USA received “unsolicited deliveries” of packages, containing arcanely labeled seeds in satchels, apparently originating in China. Facebook groups and numerous media channels lit up with multiple conspiracy theories and eventually USDA got involved to do large scale testing of these packages and actual trees and fruits from these seeds.
Chris Heath, an investigative writer with The Atlantic got curious and dug more to understand the real facts. He started with the hypothesis of e-commerce brushing whereby scrupulous vendors would make fake orders, and do real deliveries of cheap items, followed by fake reviews to boost ratings on a platform like Alibaba or Amazon etc. However, soon he started seeing evidence that pointed him to a very different and unexpected truth.
Most of these deliveries were actually real orders, made by real people, on Amazon.com, at the start of the pandemic lockdown to spruce up their garden or get into gardening while being stuck at home (#Pandemic). However, they never realized that the seed vendor was in China. China being in strict lockdown during that period, the deliveries got delayed by several months. Additionally, to bypass customs inspections and certifications, the Chinese vendors put in cryptic description like “earrings” on the packages instead of describing the seeds, making it confusing for the receivers and raising suspicion levels in the middle of a pandemic that (as of now) is believed to have started in China. Suddenly, there was a media uproar and USDA got involved and everyone started spreading conspiracy theories.
“I think there’s big lessons here to all of us about how easy it is to get it wrong. And, I mean, it’s a very obvious thing, I guess — but how easy it is to get it wrong and jump to conclusions.”
Chris Heath, The Atlantic News Reporter.
Disinformation is coming to us from multiple different channels, at a higher frequency than ever, leading us many times to make bad decisions even while having a good intent. The Pandemic, social unrest, huge and unprecedented climate-change related catastrophes have affected our economy and our mental peace. We are left perplexed, defeated, and lost. We no longer live in a world where human suffering is an anomaly. It is during these times that is particularly important to refuse disinformation and seek credibility behind every piece of information we consume and distribute — personally and professionally.
I hope that these 5 principles / techniques help us be smarter about our decisions (and decision making processes) against the onslaught of disinformation.
1. Be Aware That We Are Fallible
We all have been victims of disinformation. No one is immune. It turns out that if we underestimate our own biases, then we are actually more vulnerable to being misled than others who acknowledge their biases.
We love to share (most of the time) and often share things on social media or between friends because of our gut reactions to a piece of news or post(s) made by someone whom we believe in. We also tend to believe in ideas shared by experts and authoritative figures without questioning the veracity of the information. This is an act of confirmation bias — we are usually biased in believing information that conforms to our inner compass — and we tend to fall for this when we are anxious, angry, or perplexed.
For example, in the particular podcast mentioned above, it seems that more and more people started making social media posts of similar mysterious seeds delivery once the story of one of the person was picked up by the news media. The usual bigotry around China responsible for COVID-19 virus and uncertainty about the seeds being shipped from China, made people believe that these deliveries were part of a bigger conspiracy and not late deliveries of their own-placed orders. Only after specific inquiries and fact checks did many confirm that they were mistaken.
Believing that we all are fallible to such mistakes is the first step. So at work, do not fall victim to gossips — just because there is smoke doesn’t mean its fire, and even if there is fire doesn’t mean its sabotage and even when sabotage is proven doesn’t mean the other team is the only reason. Dig deeper before sharing information on your favorite Slack #random channel.
2. Build Critical Thinking
Everyday we are bombarded with information via multiple channels — emails, slack, social media, your neighbor, parents, and more. My 2 cents: you do not need to believe all the information that you hear or see unless you know that these are pure facts (like the sun rises in the east).
Critical thinking is about assessing information, their sources, timing, frequency, distribution channels, and making decisions about how much of that information you want to trust and belief vs trust but verify. There is nothing negative about having some criteria to assess any information we receive, particularly when that information is coming from groups or people with whom we agree or have alignment — politically, religiously, or by ethnicity or nationality.
For example, while pre-emptive package delivery from your e-commerce company could be a real thing for many arcane reasons, its worth checking your own order history or verifying with your friends and family if they have actually ordered for something to be delivered to you. You could ask questions about why this may not be a conspiracy but a mistake or a potential delay before announcing that to the public on social media. Similarly, surveys, survey results, ratings, etc. may seem as facts but survey samplings, ratings origins etc. could be biased or could have been done with a predetermined result.So when you hear predictions and actions based on surveys and ratings, you got to be mindful of the sampling criteria, size, and timing.
Critical thinking is the key to success at work. If your customer is suddenly asking budget projections of all the work that your company has signed up for in last 6 months, its not only because she wants to know, its also because probably she has a new boss and she wants to appear in-control. If you can explore deeper reasons of anyone’s asks and wants, you will be ahead of the game always.
3. Focus On The Important
Cultivate yourself to understand what really matters and stop spending your time on anything else.
While this is easy to say, it’s hard to do as we all have different identities and each identity may have different needs and wants, sometimes interconnected and other times opposites. Additionally, our needs and wants change over time. So it’s essential to building a practice of reviewing our needs and desires at regular intervals and focus on the important and not everything else.
One time tested way used by design thinkers and psychologist to understand what is important is reframing. Reframing is a technique used to shift your mindset — enabling you to look at a situation, person, or relationship from a slightly different perspective (sometimes even opposite) and it can be tremendously helpful in solving tough problems, making decisions, and situational learning.
For example, if you are about to share something on the intra-company slack channel, take a moment to catch up with yourself and see if its really important to share, do you really need to share and why, who gets affected by what you share, and can there be a potential for harm. What happens if you don’t share? Ask yourself once more if you would have shared the same thing on a nicer day and different time — its better to be sure what you are doing is needed and important as once you have shared something, it’s hard to roll back in case of unexpected outcomes.
4. Stand With Facts
While it’s easy to believe in a theory and then spread a rumor, it’s harder to accept cold facts and make decisions.
Many of us, at work and personal lives, counter argue to facts in order to support our self-beliefs.
Stand with those who stand up for facts and refute misinformation, irrespective of your beliefs, alignments, and alliances. Once you start supporting facts and fact checkers, you will start seeing a radical decrease in any disinformation or misinformation in your circle. Additionally, if you allow misinformation to spread, its more likely that even more people will start to believe it — we humans tend to believe things that we hear repeatedly even if they are not true.
For example, in the podcast episode, what worried me was that none of the news outlets cared about finding out the true reason why people would receive such seeds in their mailbox. Instead they were hyping up the fear of the unknown and syndicating paranoia - a hallmark of the summer of 2020 in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime-pandemic-lockdown. The fact that Chris Heath followed through and eventually got his own theory busted and looked for evidence to explain a phenomena seems remarkable (though that should have been the norm). The fact that NPR covered this only through a podcast and not actually as a news piece is somewhat telling of what people care about news these days.
At work and in personal life, show up with facts when the stuff is critical. Not just hunches and beliefs. If you have facts to validate your claims then it’s an easier conversation to be considered whereas just throwing darts in a dark room will surely get you and your team in trouble.
5. Strive To Restore The Balance
There is no silver bullet to stop disinformation. As an individual living in the modern society affected by bewildering changes we are going to receive information that are not true, not based on facts but laced with fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) tugging at our heart lines. It’s our choice to decide what to believe, what to share, who to accuse, when, and whom and thereby restore the balance.
The best way to make such difficult choices is to delay — in agile speak there is a concept of the Last Responsible Moment — finalize your decisions as late as possible without incurring additional risk — use that time to gather more facts and information to help make the decision. Most bad decisions are made in a hurry due to an emotional pull — pausing and thinking (rethinking) on how your decision could restore the balance to facts (like what Chris Heath did in the podcast story of mysterious Chinese seeds — he didn’t give up on the query till he has enough evidence and facts to revalidate his hunches) is essential to success.
For example, if you want to bring corruption charges against your colleague based on apprehension or proxy hunch, be mindful that the accusation will break all trust commitments, change the power dynamics within your team, and cooperation will be replaced by defense techniques. In accusing your colleague, you’ve already made the conclusion, moving beyond fact gathering. If they successfully dismiss or disprove the accusation, they have a false sense of self-righteousness and may never work with you resulting in a loss-loss situation. So delaying the decision as long as you can and use that time to gather relevant information you need to make your case.