Fake news, learning and system failure

km-the-science-of-businessI don’t like Facebook very much. I actually culled my 500+ “friends” down to 40+ about three years ago, and it has remained pretty steady around that number ever since. However, recently, because of a new community page my wife has launched, I have been spending a little more time on Facebook than I care to admit.

Fake news has been in the news (oh the irony) for several months now – several of my American friends are convinced that the whole Trump as President debacle (their words, not mine) is fake news itself (conspiracy theorists are asking whether anyone has actually seen him in the Whitehouse – pictures can be faked you know). But this fake news trend has serious implications, with the potential to bring about catastrophic system failure.

Quite simply, fake news and fake feedback is a contagion that cannot be allowed to infect high-reliability organisations.

Here’s an example. The following test is taken from a viral link posted by a friend,  someone who would be seen as a credible source, who added the following comment to the post:

Amazed to get 25/25 given I answered all the questions as quickly as I could without any thought. I guess a traditional Grammar School education had some benefits 


I took the test, and I am proud to announce that I too am a grammar genius, who obviously doesn’t need Grammarly anymore (scoring 25 out of 25 – apparently only 4% of Americans can achieve this score)!

However, my gloating soon waned. I took the test 10 times, once providing all the correct answers and other times providing between 1 and 8 incorrect answers. With between 1 and 3 incorrect answers, I still received the following screen:


Liars! So what? Think of a teenager taking this test and believing the output.

  • First, they will probably share the test and their fantastic result with all their friends – great response, if you have created this test as a means to develop a viral ad campaign.
  • Secondly, the target audience (e.g. teenagers) receive fake feedback that develops shallow, insecure and incomplete learning. Their confidence is elevated, where they could be led to believe that they are better than they actually are – creating a perception gap between perceived performance and reality that becomes difficult to unlearn, especially for field-dependent learners with an external locus of control.

The World Economic Forum reports that the human advantage in the fourth industrial revolution depends on “complex problem-solving skills”.

With this in mind, do advertising agencies have a moral obligation to realise the damage being caused by their campaigns, where the amplification of fake news creates false knowledge leading to shallow, insecure and incomplete learning and perceptions of reality?

How bad has this problem become? Take a look at the following BBC News article, “Viral agency admits video of female cyclist revenge may be fake“, where the original story, which focuses on the misogynistic actions of a white van driver, was accepted and reported as truth by several UK newspapers.


What is true is that fake news can breed shallow, insecure and incomplete learning. Shallow, insecure and incomplete learning can bring systems to fail.

Quite simply, the contagion that is fake news and fake feedback cannot be allowed to infect high-reliability organisations.

My American friends who didn’t vote for Trump would say that the election result is clear evidence for such a claim. I couldn’t possibly comment.


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