Truth is a tricky business

Dear Willow:

I’ve been troubled lately. There’s a conflict in our society that has been simmering steadily for the past few years and has now, in 2020, come to a rapid boil: the overt struggle to come to a consensus on what is true. Not just capital-t True, but agreement on basic facts.

We’ve been hearing for four years a steady onslaught of “fake news,” a claim that relies on repetition as persuasion. We’ve had Russian bots spreading all kinds of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter. Before that, we had “alternative facts,” “truthiness,” anti-vaxxers, birtherism, moon-landing fakeries, and JFK-assassination conspiracies. There have been theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays (I myself was an Oxfordian for a short while in college), that Queen Elizabeth I was really a man, that Nero actually set fire to Rome so he could redo the architecture.

There’s nothing new in humans having a hard time distinguishing truth from, well, malarkey.

But this year seems to have upped the disinformation ante. We’ve had the “Plandemic,” masks actually giving you COVID, Antifa, claims of widespread voter fraud, deep state conspiracies, QAnon insisting on the existence of Satanic Democratic pedophile cabals. Again, some of these have been on the burner for years, and the combustible mix of social media and the urgency of 2020 ratcheted up the heat exponentially.

My own biases are probably showing here, and I’m going to have a LOT of crow to eat if any of these turn out to actually be true, but…none of these stories hold up to any kind of scrutiny. And yet, there are people who believe them and believe them strongly enough to act on them. Remember Pizzagate? When a man stormed a D.C. restaurant with a gun because he had become convinced – by posts he was seeing routinely on Facebook and certain “media” outlets – that Hillary Clinton was running a sex-trafficking ring out of the basement?

Truth can be a tricky business

Truth can be a tricky business. Discerning it, disseminating it, making sure the message cuts through the disinformation sludge.

Willow is, above all, in the business of truth-telling. Heck, we believe in it so strongly that our tagline is “the power of truth.” We do everything we can to draw the clearest possible picture of reality for our clients and offer strategies to navigate that reality successfully.

After a decade of working in market research, I’m still routinely surprised by how difficult it is to get it right.

We have to carefully plan everything. We have to know how to craft and test hypotheses about reality, both the ones our clients bring to us and the ones we generate ourselves, based on our experience.

We have to know what kinds of questions will elicit what kinds of responses. We have to know which answers we can’t get at by asking directly, which techniques we’ll have to use to tease out the most useful, thoughtful, creative answers. Sometimes, we have to develop new ones when the old ones aren’t cutting it.

And we have to constantly monitor the integrity of the data. We have to create trick questions, to weed out “professional respondents” or bots or simply people who are taking the survey on autopilot. We have to find ways to hold participant attention in long surveys, or keep them focused across a day-long discussion group.

We have to make connections in disparate data points, and we have to dig in when two data points seem to be in conflict with each other. We have to have the flexibility of perspective, the empathy and imagination to figure out why they might actually make sense, to envision how the resolution of that conflict can open up opportunities and new ways of thinking.

And we have to be very careful with the narrative we construct from the findings. We have to be tough on ourselves, checking at every turn that we’re not finding the story in the data that maybe we want to be true, or that we’re afraid is true. That we’re stating the case exactly as we find it, checking our biases and double-checking our data.

Check your biases
Double-check your data

On top of that, no matter how complex the landscape we discover, when we report back, we have to do so in ways that are both clear and actionable, so that our clients can see where they should go next and what they may need to do to get there.

Willow spends an immense amount of energy finding and conveying the truth, because it’s what our clients hire us for and, also, it’s simply the right thing to do. This is the case when we find amazing, wonderful, exceptionally positive news, and it’s even more vital when the results may not be what our clients were hoping to hear.

For us, it’s a matter of integrity and respect for our clients and the populations we study, and I’m very proud of that.

Especially during a time when truth sometimes seems exhaustingly difficult to discern. Remember a couple years ago, when a client asked us to find out “if truth matters anymore?” I feel his despair sometimes.

I don’t know how to solve the general disinformation plague sweeping our conversations and our feeds. But I do know the same processes that Willow uses in our work can help all of us deal with misinformation:

  1. Be diligent in the questions we’re asking
  2. Scrutinize the sources of information
  3. Examine the data
  4. Stay curious, and check our own biases
  5. Be careful that the information we pass along is in the service of a worthy goal

Who knew that market research training would come in so handy in 2020?


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