At Theranos, misinformation began with a prick…of a finger.

The trial of former luminary entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes kicked off last week. Theranos, the company Holmes founded and led until just before it shut down in September, 2018, claimed it was revolutionizing the blood-testing industry. For nearly a decade she was heralded as “the next Steve Jobs,” raising hundreds of millions of dollars, adorning magazine covers, and jet-setting with world leaders. Problem was, she was completely full of crap. If convicted she faces up to 20 years in prison.

  • Young blood: How old was Holmes when she founded Theranos? (answer below)

For the full story, Id refer you to Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood. As far as business books go, it reads more like a suspense novel or thriller than an astonishingly well-researched expose. Highly recommended.

Holmes’ story epitomizes the dangers of misinformation in the workplace. Creating misinformation at work is easy: simply make one or more (or in the case of Holmes, thousands of) false claims. Spreading misinformation is nearly frictionless in today’s distributed, hybrid remote working environments. Gossip-amplifying internal communications tools provide fuel for combustion, behaving in structurally similar ways to many social media apps. Some even believe all the Zoom meetings we’ve all been on over the last year have made lying easier.

Like the political arena, individuals who are exposed to and consume misinformation are often difficult to convert to objective facts. They fall victim to confirmation bias — ideas and information they want to be true. This can directly impact culture and enterprise value.

To minimize the creation and spread of misinformation, establish and maintain frequent internal communications across channels. Frequently seeing the faces of executives in video communications or via their own personal writing builds authenticity and trust. And open, two-way communications channels ensure employees feel heard, as well as provide early detection of misinformation before it has time to take root.

Keep in mind, these tactics are just as effective at spreading misinformation as they are at eliminating it. Theranos effectively used these tools to deceive its employees, investors, the government, and the media. Fingers crossed that justice is served in this case.

WHAT I’M READING

A forthcoming peer-reviewed study from NYU and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France found that from August 2020 to January 2021, news publishers known for putting out misinformation — on both the far left and the far right — got six times the amount of likes, shares, and interactions on the platform as did trustworthy news sources. Misinformation on Facebook got six times more clicks than factual news during the 2020 election, study says — Washington Post — September 2, 2021

Just 100 years ago, journalists were very biased and partisan. While you let that “is this guy serious?” smile fade, I should clarify…they were extremely biased. Okay, I see your point — maybe just keep that smile on your face. Seeking objectivity in journalism is getting in the way of speaking truth — Current — September 7, 2021

  • Extra! Extra! In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, journalism that employed little or no fact-checking, and relied on eye-catching headlines to increase sales was referred to with a certain color. What was the color? (answer below)

YOU WON’T READ THIS ANYWHERE ELSE

Much of the time we spend online, and increasingly in front of the television, goes well beyond escapism. In the words of New Yorker reporter Anna Weiner, “nothing is unaffordable in a [computer-generated] dreamscape, and rent is never due.” Behind the Fantasy Fueling our Real Estate Voyeurism — QRIUS — September 7, 2021

TRIVIA ANSWERS

  • Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford University at 19 years old to start the company that became Theranos. (WSJ)
  • ‘Yellow journalism’ was the term used to describe fake or highly salacious news in the 19th century. The term was likely popularized by the popular “Yellow Kid” cartoon that first ran in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. (Public Domain Review)

Have a great week. And if you like what you’re reading, please forward to a friend, so they can sign up here.

Founder/CEO of Turbine Labs. I write about information access, overload, and bias, as well as our AI-powered software. (turbinelabs.com / @turbinelabs)