Has digital transformation led to an upsurge in workplace disinformation?

You don’t have to look far to find misinformation. Just a few weeks ago, amid the aftermath of the coup in Niger, online platforms were being inundated with false information, intensifying tensions surrounding the nation’s future. This included erroneous videos on TikTok and Twitter suggesting the presence of Wagner Group (Russian state-funded) fighters, false claims about Algeria’s military involvement, and inaccurate assertions about banning uranium export to France.

AI is also involved in the spread of misinformation, and those responsible for safeguarding digital data predict this is just the initial phase of AI-crafted content deployment. Big upcoming events, such as the 2024 US Presidential election, could potentially entangle voters in confusion and misinformation.

With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that rumors have the potential to rapidly escalate to areas such as the workplace, wrecking havoc within organizations and sowing seeds of doubt among employees. This can undermine employee spirits, corrode team cohesion, and disrupt operational efficiency. Team leaders must confront and counter the propagation of misinformation, ensuring the preservation of a harmonious workplace atmosphere.

Let’s look at the ways misinformation can spread in the workplace and review some tools for combating it.


Heard it through the grapevine

Most of us are familiar with the idea of shooting the breeze with a colleague to kill some time during those long office hours. However, with the remote working trend becoming commonplace since the onset of COVID-19, this ‘inane’ chat has moved online via digital communication channels. What would have once seemed like an innocent, throwaway comment can now be found online forever to be scrutinized and analyzed.

According to research from the American Psychological Association, individuals on social media and online platforms often rely on intuition to discern the truth. Our tendency to browse social media and the internet means we can readily share what we find to our colleagues, whether its solicited and encouraged or not. This makes employees using these channels susceptible to cognitive pitfalls like the “illusory truth effect,” whereby repeated information is perceived as accurate, or “confirmation bias,” which reduces skepticism towards information and therefore aligning with existing beliefs.

Additionally, in line with this psychological phenomenon, workplaces can witness ‘grapevine communication,’ the discourse of “he/she said X” getting filtered through the team. Unlike formal communication via emails and other traditional communication channels, this is the informal way that communication occurs via private messages or a quick hangout/call—yes, you and Marvin Gaye heard that juicy work gossip through the grapevine…

Many employers will try and stop it, but it’s a normal part of business life—American Management Association estimates that 70 percent of all organizational communication emanates through the grapevine.

Those in senior management positions might share jokes or political views, unaware that their status in the team could highly influence junior members, who could side with certain viewpoints subconsciously. When you consider that discussions on online platforms may be interpreted differently than face-to-face discussions, shared in the wrong channels, and missing vital context, it’s a melting point for misinformation to spread.


Combating misinformation at work

First things first, empowering your team with critical thinking skills is an essential step and comes from good leadership. When addressing potential misinformation within a company, basic best practices include verifying content, assessing personal biases, considering the source, and responding diplomatically. When every team member fully understands this idea of information analysis, it will help mitigate fake news spreading around.

While it’s common to think of corporate communication policies as tools to manage external risks, their potential extends far beyond that. It might be worth considering these policies as avenues for enhancing internal processes too. Companies should revise or create policies that encompass both external and internal channels, collaborating closely with HR to integrate them into employee training initiatives. You could even implement a restricted Slack channel, exclusively accessible to authorized team members, for the dissemination of official internal announcements.

Another consideration is collaborating with civic organizations.Companies can become part of the Civic Alliance to access impartial resources for building employee and customer-oriented civic initiatives. In the context of the election mentioned above, partnerships with groups like TurboVote offer reliable guidance on voter registration, mail-in voting, and polling locations.

Workplace misinformation and rumors may seem unstoppable — after all, it is an instinctive human behavior to emotionally react and share things we find shocking or interesting online. However, asking your employees to slow down, and be considerate before messaging others is paramount.

Using the tools mentioned above will help to foster a positive work environment rooted in trust, respect, and collaboration and build a solid barrier against misinformation. Companies that promote an ethos of transparent feedback and incentivize clear communication will see workplace culture blossom.