Post-truth dynamics in the D&I field and what we should do about it

While the Internet jokes about seemingly silly populist media statements, the successes of simplistic, fact-free campaigns continue to horrify experts, including D&I stakeholders. However, the impact of accelerating post-truth dynamics on D&I is largely underestimated as is the responsibility of Media and ourselves.

Probably everyone has heard statements from some politicians (during the past year) that included blatant lies and that might even have been coupled with assaults against women, cultural minorities or other societal groups. How did we feel in this situation? Puzzled? Disbelieving that they could get away with post-truth messages? Angry? Trusting that the total majority of women plus minority groups would regulate the issue as a corrective force? In many cases, this did not happen. For post-truth is not just a weird side-effect of the open nature of the Internet, it is a malicious strategy for those who suddenly see an opportunity to convince sizeable parts of society of their ideology. Their efforts are often (explicitly or implicitly) targeting achievements that diversity, equality, inclusion and equity have brought about. The other side of post-truth dynamics concerns the recipients of messages: To what extent are we able and willing to

  • distinguish opinions or allegations from facts
  • realise when information was preselected for us (to confirm what we already believe)
  • make extra efforts to search for facts that may challenge an all too clear picture?

The following discussion uses the term post-factual instead of post-truth as it reflects the core of the issue more accurately: D&I practitioners know that truth is a relative phenomenon while facts – that can be disputed – are more often similar to ‘evidence’.

Post-factual communication in Diversity & Inclusion

For many D&I practitioners, post-factual communication is not new. We have been fighting against a large number of myths that have been perpetuated about almost every constituency of diversity. But whenever a myth sounded reasonable and connected with a (mostly negative) sentiment of a large audience, it would stick and could not be corrected with facts. Examples include

  • myths about older employees ‘taking’ jobs that younger ones could have while unemployment rates are lower in economies where older people work longer
  • myths about migrants ‘profiting’ from welfare systems while statistics proof that they contribute more to an economy than they receive and that the welfare of all residents increases as a result of immigration
  • myths about a need to recruit more women and support them on their way up the hierarchies while processes and cultures continued to enable leakages (that were not – another myth – a result of personal priorities and choices in the first place)

On the other side, also D&I practitioners engaged in some post-factual discourse, when it supported their own agenda, e.g. regarding legal steps that were presented as ‘necessary, since everything else had not worked out in the past’. All this illustrates that many people can be prone to post-factual dynamics, especially when convictions or emotions are involved.

Emotions, opinions, biases or manipulation?

D&I has relied on using emotional mechanisms to initiate personal growth and even organizational development. So why is it that in recent cases emotions have started to work against many diversity (and inclusion!) aspects while before they had helped D&I? Let’s compare two examples

  • Male C-suite managers with a smart daughter are easy to involve in gender diversity projects, especially if she tells him about negative experiences. For him, gender issues become a present, concrete case that carries empathetic emotions
  • Post-factual campaigners, on the other side, often create negative emotions through scenarios (selectively using data or alleging negative trends) for which they present scapegoats at the same time. This creates, even for people who are relatively well-off, fear and envy, and it leads to rejection, exclusion and even violence against the scapegoated groups.

The first example shows how emotions can be used to leverage D&I, the second one shows the dynamic that currently works against D&I.

While D&I has always tried to challenge or at least uncover prejudice (using evidence, facts or scientific insight), post-factual campaigns target, activate and confirm existing opinions (!) about certain groups of people. This often happens through false assumptions and/or allegations. When this happens consciously and with a purpose, we should be speaking more candidly about manipulation and we should accuse people of fuelling and reinforcing prejudice. A much stronger effect shows up when persons with a (perceived) official mandate engage in post-factual communication. In many recent cases, those public statements served as a justification for attacks and assaults on minority groups. For example, in the UK and Germany racist and homophobic (criminal) actions increased at a double-digit rate (over the past 9 – 12 months).

Probably, not many people were prepared that it would possible to hijack the emotions of sizeable parts of society (including many who are actually ‘under attack’) quite shortly after the world had just survived fascist regimes and communist oppression. Post-factual communication has re-created hug amounts of bias especially in countries were populist movements are strong or even integrated in mainstream politics. Hence, for D&I, even baseline achievements are at risk again – and too few seem to be scared about this trend.

The Boon and Bane of the Internet and the inglorious role of the Media

During the early years of the Internet, most people were enthused by the accessibility and transparency (of information) it provided. That was when everyone expected to find proven facts online. But then, the openness of the web also lead to a desire for everyone to add their opinion about everything. Bloggers and campaigners of all kinds started to conquer the Internet and to occupy people’s valuable (and limited) spaces where they are able and willing to integrate new information. In this situation, it has become harder and harder for more and more people to be aware of what kind of information they digest: personal opinion, fact-based expertise, manipulated messages (disguised as facts) or some mixes? It even happens that when we present facts, they are commented as ‘opinions’, which illustrates another unfortunate impact of the post-factual era.

Let’s reflect: How do we (at least sometimes) look for and process D&I information? From different online sources, we might pick elements while we cannot help to prefer information that confirms what we already think or feel and deprioritise, deselect or disregard input that would challenge us. The phenomenon of the filter bubble reinforces this (human) tendency on a technological level. The Wallstreet Journal has carried out an experiment that shows the magnitude of this: On two facebook profiles, the public can compare what friends of the democrat and republican party will be shown at any given moment respectively: Let’s not assume that we are immune against this ‘algorithm’ as it is politely phrased.

Theoretically, we know how dangerous many of the dynamics are, and we educate our audiences about it – but do we observe and apply the learning ourselves? This has certainly become more challenging in an environment, where the shiniest, the loudest and maybe soon again the strongest, dominate the scene. In addition, our environment has become much more complex which does not encourage us to look for additional, potentially challenging information.

The Media could play a corrective role in this. Unfortunately, many media companies chose or were forced to participate in the battle for quantitative success. They now present what they think will resonate with their audiences and not all of them invest enough resources that would be required to consistently fulfil their mission of providing balanced information. Populist politicians have always known how to use the power of the media, and they certainly excel in using them in the current environment. Donald Trump is the most famous, current example. From the beginning, the media featured him extensively – thinking that by citing some of his absurd-sounding ideas, they would disqualify him. Instead, they promoted him to the extent that he was the only well-known Republican candidate and the rest is history. Media in the UK, France, Germany and Austria have fallen into the same trap when they continued to broadcast hostile messages of the right wings. Demagogues like Erdogan and Orban, who have practically eliminated critical voices, know how to use their Media beyond this: They pro-actively put out demands and accusations, which help to cover their own flaws, even big ones like the erosion of democracy and human rights. And tactically, they enable them to take back some positions and present them in a gentle light. Many, too many, do not see behind these simple tricks.

Companies should act in favour of D&I – in their own interest and beyond

Media reports suggested that large companies had supported and invested in Donald Trump’s campaign. Others demanded – after his election – that he should not pull back from climate commitments. Clearly, the corporate world does not and cannot ignore all these developments, first and foremost out of their own interests. Especially global firms have developed their business models in a way that they need diversity, open-mindedness and inclusive behaviours and systems, now and in the future. Companies are in a position to influence public discourse and political developments, and they should be using this lever now. In order to do this, they have several options:

  • Publicly state their commitment to diversity, inclusion and equality through facts, evidence and experience, including support for groups that are threatened by post-factual campaigns
  • Request from politics to keep up and expand legal frameworks that support valuing differences and fostering inclusion in the workplace and in society in a positive (rather than limiting) way
  • Engage their employees in constructive dialogues about D&I including the possibility for everyone to share and discuss concerns they may have
  • Address post-factual dynamics directly by installing transparent procedures that require the integration of different types of information from various sources

These are simple yet effective ways for companies to make sure that they will not face challenges in the future than can easily be avoided. According to a vast body of research, the business world cannot have any interest in societies (which for them are both marketplaces and labour markets) where large groups are marginalised and where tension is fuelled by ideological agitation. They have interest in an environment where everyone feels safe to be themselves and realise all their potential, and, in doing so, accept others doing the same – altogether.