With today’s appetite for rapid and instant communication, the media have developed a tendency to rush information out quickly without subjecting it to proper editorial oversight and scrutiny.

In NSW last month an anti-coal campaigner using only a laptop and mobile phone was able to issue a bogus media release stating that the ANZ bank had reversed a AU$1.2bn loan to Whitehaven Coal.  The result was that $314 million was temporarily wiped off the value of the company.

While the activist’s ability to draw attention to the climate change issue has been applauded as commendable in some quarters, I suggest that fraudulent behaviour only serves to discredit the reputation and cause that the perpetrator is trying to promote. In the words of Plato “whoever is detected in a shameful fraud is ever after not believed even if they speak the truth”.

There have been instances where deliberate misuse of the internet has had devastating effects. According to a CBS News Report “Egypt Fights Cartoons with Cartoons”, riots across the Middle East were sparked by a YouTube video entitled the “Innocence of Muslims” and over 50 people were killed in violence related to the video in September 2012.  See

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57520830/egypt-newspaper-fights-cartoons-with-cartoons/

In its recently released  “Global Risk 2012 Report”, The World Economic Forum identified massive digital misinformation as a real  risk for the world economy over the next decade. Respondents to the questions on which the report  is based  linked it with other risks such as data fraud/theft, cyber attacks, terrorism, systemic financial failure and the breakdown of governance and diplomatic conflict resolution. The report discussed how enhanced hyperconnectivity together with open and easily accessible information could cause havoc in the real world.  http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/

But the WEF report rightly points out that controlling the spread of digital information through national laws or sophisticated technologies raises sensitive questions on the limits to civil liberties – a human value that is not regarded equally across different countries. Censorship limits freedom of speech and what authority could ever be trusted to intervene to eradicate what they perceive to be false information? There may be an even greater danger of “misguided attempts to control such access”.

So what can you do?

Apart from healthy scepticism, I suggest that there are two things that individuals and companies can do to prevent falling victim to digital misinformation.

1. Check that the source of the information is legitimate and that the press release, video or email originated from the company claiming to make it. Go to the company’s website to see if the information is duplicated there. If you can’t find what you are looking for, ring up and ask.

2. Check that the information has been verified by a recognised body.  Company issued reports usually include a statement as to whether the information contained within in it has been independtly verified. Again, if you are not sure, ring up and ask.

The job of verifiers is to identity what is called a “material discrepancy”.  This is a mistake, omission or set of errors that distort the meaning of the information to the extent that those relying on it may make a wrong decision with negative consequences, usually financial loss.

So if the auditor/verifier is competent in the task, it follows that the report or claim should be reasonably free of distortion and can be confidently relied upon when making decisions.

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