You’ve noticed the spread of fake news and lying leaders. You probably know a few things about human nature. But have you considered how the two are connected?
The authors of Savvy have.
Savvy: Navigating Fake Companies, Fake Leaders, and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era is a fascinating perspective on how and why we got where we are, by the social media wizard Shiv B. Singh and his wife Rohini Luthra, Ph.D. (I could just as easily write that it is by the brilliant clinical psychologist Rohini Luthra and her husband; it is the combination of perspectives that make this book work.)
If you’re looking for an overview of why people spread false information, don’t check what they’re spreading, and band together in online mobs to eradicate truth and follow deceptive leaders, you’ve found it. You will get a lot smarter if you take a few minutes to read this compact, efficient, and fascinating treatment.
I have to admit to being disappointed by one thing. I wanted Singh and Luthra to solve the problem of fake news. That solution is not in this book. That is a patently unfair criticism — after all, why should these authors be able to fix what no one else can — but I was still hopeful. The emphasis in this book is on how you, individually and as a member of a company, organization, or society, can become smarter in an era of fakery. In that, it succeeds. I would now like Singh and Luthra to fix the broader problem — please get to work on that immediately, okay?
What stood out for me
All psychologists know about the famous experiments by the likes of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo that reveal how ordinary people can become evil, victimizing and torturing others, based on nothing more than peer pressure and the environment they’re placed in. (If you’re not intimately familiar with these experiments, read the book and learn more.) We would all like to believe that, faced with these situations, we would be moral enough to avoid behaving like empathy-free psychopaths. But if you observe what people do online, you see these experiments playing out with ordinary individuals in real-time, spreading lies and following their leaders regardless of what they say. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp make this a lot easier, but the core problem is their toxic interaction with human nature.
Here are a few passages from Savvy that stood out for me. On the post-trust era:
The stark truth is that we have entered . . . a new post-trust era, in which telling truth from opinion, and separating fact from outright fabrications, requires us to be on guard, intensely aware of the ways in which we are being play, and how we are unwittingly contributing to the problem. . . . Fakery has not only pervaded politics, it has made deeper inroads into business and our personal lives.
On why lies spread:
The results [of a study by psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand] showed that when participants had previously been exposed to a fake news headline they were more likely to accept it as a truth later on. Every time a lie is repeated, it is slightly more believable to most people. A single exposure to [a fake] headline doubled the number of participants rating it as true.
On why we love bad news:
[Ohio state University psychologist John] Cacioppo found that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it perceives as negative. In turn, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by negative information than positive information.
On seeing what we want to see:
[Based on a study by psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril.] Our perceptions are swayed by our motives: we tend to see what we want to see. And one of those distorting motives is to be seen as an upstanding member of a group.
On groupthink (read this — is this what you are doing in your company right now?):
Reflect on situations in which you’ve prioritized the cohesiveness of the group so as not to ruffle feathers. Was the group overestimating its ability to achieve a goal? Did it have a sense of moral superiority about its commitment to the goal? Was anyone censored or brushed aside for expressing doubts about its merits? Have there been occasions where your manager has insisted that you and your peers collaborated to the point where you chose the cohesiveness of the group as more important than getting the best answer?
And this terrifying tidbit:
[Dr. Deb Roy and his team at the MIT Media Lab] studied true and false news stories distributed on Twitter over the eleven-year period between 2006 and 2017. . . . The study found that false news was 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true news. In all categories, falsehoods diffused significantly farther, faster, and deeper than the truth. True stories take about six times as long to reach the same number of people as do false ones.
There is much more here, including convincing information about how people bow to authority figures (like Travis Kalanick of Uber), regardless of their reprehensible behavior.
The most insightful and upsetting part of this book was the last chapter, “We Blindly Trust Artificial Intelligence,” which draws a vivid picture of how smart algorithms are getting and how that can be problematic. If you read the section in here about how the Chinese are scoring everyone on their behavior and social media posts — and then doling out advantages or blocking people from services based on those scores — you will become very worried. When you realize how credit scores, Yelp reviews, and a wide variety of systems are helping create the same dynamic in the Western world, you will feel much worse.
Singh and Luthra share lots of advice here on how to be savvy personally. Understanding these tendencies we all have is a good way to protect yourself. But we all imagine ourselves to be virtuous, so the very psychological phenomena that these authors describe cause us to imagine that we are better than this.
We are not. You are not.
Eternal vigilance and skepticism are the only hope we have of making things better. That’s a very thin hope, and one that won’t reach enough people to make a difference, I fear. But each person who reads this book will be a little better off.