Standing up for truth can be a risky business. In Ukraine, where truth is a matter of life or death, disinformation is intended to mislead participants and observers alike. Safe routes for example, accepted by Russia as ‘humanitarian corridors’, have come under attack. While Ukrainians fight to protect their homes, the rest of us can support them by choosing a careful response to what we hear. It’s the next step in our new relationship with truth that we in the West have been developing for a while.
The dangers of disinformation
Truth is easily overlooked. Like a downtrodden partner in a difficult relationship, whether at work, at home, in international diplomacy or on battlefields, truth often struggles to be heard. When two or more sides take conflicting views, usually it’s clear what the competing opinions are all about. Sometimes however things are complicated by disinformation.
There’s nothing new in deliberately misleading the audience. In the 1970s, industry was slow to accept the science on global warming, describing it instead as climate change, as benign as a change of clothes. By downplaying the threat, industry prolonged dependency on fossil fuels, with the result that today we have a ‘climate emergency’.
Of course, politicians have not been backward in coming forward with their own versions of honesty and accuracy, often relying on ‘an economy of truth’, as Edmund Burke put it. Sometimes, a narcissistic drive for power leads to dangerous manipulations of the truth. For example, honest hopes about ‘making America great again’ wouldn’t necessarily include storming the Capitol Building.
In the past, clarity wasn’t helped by false equivalence. BBC journalists – full disclosure, I was once one myself – are committed to being objective, which in the BBC way of things isn’t always the same thing as being truthful. A climate scientist for example would be interviewed alongside a climate denier, both sharing equal prominence. To suggest that eminent scientists and politically-motivated critics share a mutual level of expertise is a claim that might be objective, but is it truthful? Not always.
Targeting falsehood and inaccuracy
These days there is a new phase in the West’s relationship with truth in which we’re ready to go to greater lengths to protect it. False equivalence is less prominent. Academic expertise is rightly valued by more sections of the media. Soulless objectivity is being replaced by a heartfelt commitment to recognise nuance. Sources of disinformation are being closed down. A clear example of this proactive approach to truth can be seen in the West’s handling of Russian disinformation.
The West has accused Russia of supplying misleading information in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the 2016 US election, the 2019 UK election and elsewhere, (the UK government has so far neglected to seek detailed evidence about the 2016 Brexit vote).
Russian agencies released thousands of private emails illegally retrieved from the Democratic National Committee. They launched cyber-attacks on European infrastructure and systematically pumped fake news across social media. Such actions, aimed at presenting false perspectives, encouraging populist dissent and creating division, have never been more evident than in the war in Ukraine.
Winning the communication war
In Ukraine, the battle for opinion is key. If he fails to win the communication war, President Putin risks losing influence at home, potentially compromising his grip on power. Meanwhile, if the West fails to win widespread, international support for their actions, totalitarian leaders elsewhere may be encouraged to conduct ‘special operations’ of their own.
At the heart of this communication war, we – everyone from Moscow to Washington, via London and Kyiv – have choices to make regarding who and what to believe.
In the West’s new relationship with truth, it’s not enough to hope that honest evaluations will automatically be obvious to all. Distortion comes all too easily. Whether in references to ‘climate change’, election interference or attempts to disguise wholesale war in Ukraine, uncertainty can be deliberately stoked and exploited.
Which is why in recent weeks, the West has been fighting back. Western intelligence agencies have been openly exposing Russian denials and disinformation. When Moscow said there would be no invasion, the West revealed the date the attack might begin. Western intelligence officials have also spoken out against false ceasefires and dismissed fake allegations that the US is operating a biochemical laboratory in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the UK and US have cracked down on disinformation outlets, imposing sanctions on Russian organisations and websites. Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have been blocking Kremlin-run media agencies and actively removing or demoting content associated with Moscow. According to Jānis Sārts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, “Russia has lost the information war in the West, fair and square.”
Protecting truth at work
Truth must be vigorously protected, falsehood must be actively rejected. Leaders cannot afford to create an environment where people feel afraid to speak out. A commitment to truth and honesty at work has many benefits, including:
- Creating a sense of trust, in which employees feel they can believe what leaders are telling them.
- Avoiding the suspicion that can be caused by misleading or intentionally vague communication. Trust breaks down when there is a disconnect between words and actions.
- A solid foundation for building cohesive teams, staffed by people who can trust each other.
- Integrity is a key part of reputation, enabling a company culture that is inclusive and open to all. No business wants to be regarded as untrustworthy.
- Honesty and trust enable positive performance reviews, allowing people to express themselves fully rather than hide behind things they feel they ought to say.
- In the absence of honesty and trust, mistakes are buried and problems can escalate.
- Truth goes hand in hand with kindness and empathy, values that facilitate teamwork. Mean-spirited honesty however isn’t helpful.
- Truth and honesty are key components of wellbeing and mental health. Unfounded rumour and gossip can be harmful, and can be deflated by accurate information.
Truth in critical thinking
Emotional intelligence – truthful awareness of other people – begins with honest understanding of yourself. These are the personality traits that help to tackle human flaws such as biases. A commitment to truth underpins the accuracy that we rely on in making decisions, and helps to support a personal sense of responsibility.
Truth enables us to take a critic’s view of our own thoughts, evaluating them, accepting those we can rely on, rejecting those we can’t. This is critical thinking, a key component of the future skills that businesses are coming to depend on in the post-pandemic world.
Together, these skills support cultural change and encourage an objective, inclusive atmosphere at work where a commitment to truth is actively pursued. We can’t afford to let truth wither on the vine. Better to actively nurture it, defend it and use it to reject deliberate falsehoods. In protecting truth from disinformation, whether from Russia or anywhere else, we’re safeguarding the values at work and at home that make us who we are.