Navigating Risk Management Through a Sea of Lies and Disinformation

November 25, 2016

The world of software abounds with examples of the impact of GIGO – garbage in, garbage out or even garbage in, gospel out. The Wikipedia definition explains GIGO in reference to the fact that “computers, since they operate by logical processes, will unquestionably process unintended, even nonsensical input data and produce undesired, often nonsensical output”. And with the advent of far more powerful computers, able to process inconceivable amounts of data at lightning speed, this concept has acquired even greater relevance. Considering the brain is an organic super computer, controlled by applications science still cannot entirely explain the workings of, human beings are incredibly susceptible to taking in flawed information, and processing it as gospel truth. Contrary to popular belief, risk managers are human beings too, and are just as susceptible to this challenge. In the field of risk management, perhaps more so than most fields, depending on unreliable data can have extreme consequences that could have and should have been avoided by accessing and interpreting accurate information in the first place.

The assertion that managing risk has never been more challenging than it is right now is a fairly easy one to make. Global unrest, financial market instability, rampant unemployment, resource scarcity and failed governments are only some of the massive challenges faced when setting the risk context in which our organizations, both private and public, operate. Risk managers have had to become thought leaders and experts in multiple fields, which necessitates a constant quest for knowledge and understanding in order to maintain a grasp of the elements that make up the bigger picture. In order to do so we turn to the sources we’ve learned to trust implicitly, for instance the education system, religion and our parents, and sources we think we can trust such as our work colleagues, peers and industry bodies. We even put our faith in sources we know we probably shouldn’t trust, amongst others the state, mainstream media, and the powerful PR war machines of giant corporates, civil societies and global think-tanks, all puppet masters masquerading as protectors of “we, the people”.

In 1925, when dictating his book “Mein Kampf”, Adolf Hitler coined the expression “Big Lie”, referring to the use of a lie so “colossal” that nobody would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”. These big lies litter our history, and seem to have become the norm in recent history. Let’s analyse some of the high (some would say devastating) impact examples.

The Vietnam War – Gulf of Tonkin incident
On the 2nd of August 1964 an event took place in the Gulf of Tonkin that would forever shape the course of history and threaten to force the world into another era of warfare. The destroyer USS Maddox was confronted and pursued by three North Vietnamese navy torpedo boats. The USS Maddox is alleged to have fired off warning shots, and was subsequently attacked in a sea battle that apparently claimed four North Vietnamese lives, no US casualties, with the USS Maddox left fairly unscathed but for a single bullet hole from a North Vietnamese round. On the 4th of August 1964, after further allegations of a second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that day, US President Lyndon B. Johnson cut into national television broadcasts announcing that two more US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin had come under fire in international waters, and that “air action is now in execution” against “facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations”. Multiple bombing raids were launched and three days later both houses of Congress in the US authorised “the president, as commander-in-chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the US and to prevent further aggression”. The Vietnam War that followed saw 500,000 US soldiers in Vietnam, with approximately 58,000 US casualties, anywhere as high as 250,000 ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) casualties, 400,000 to 500,000 NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and Viet Cong casualties and, according to Hanoi’s estimates in 1995, which could be inflated, civilian casualties which topped out at almost 2 million people.

Johnson’s use of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a major contributing factor in the decision to go to war, was blown out of the water so to speak in 1971 when The New York Times brought the Pentagon Papers to the attention of the public. This report undeniably demonstrated that the Johnson administration had “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to congress”. At the time the NYT article focused on the fact that the US had secretly bombed areas in nearby Cambodia and Laos and conducted raids on North Vietnam. However, the full report was declassified and released in 2011, and evidence now strongly suggests that the second incident on the 4th of August 1964, that ultimately triggered full-scale war, never actually took place, and was entirely fabricated. And, in the absence of conclusive evidence, there are doubts over the first incident as well.

War in Iraq and weapons of mass destruction
“Simply stated there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”Former US Vice President Dick Cheney, 2002
“Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons… The regime is rebuilding and expanding facilities capable of producing chemical weapons”Former President George W. Bush, 2003

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was strongly premised on the narrative that Saddam Hussein had been manufacturing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s). This narrative escalated incredibly quickly considering the still raw emotion following events of September 11, 2001. Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were painted as global villains, and tentative links were found tying Al Qaeda to the Iraqi regime. In September of 2002, President Bush put his war resolution requesting authorisation for the use of force in Iraq to Congress. Less than 5 months later, in February of 2003 the US Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations Security Council stating that there was “no doubt” Saddam Hussein had WMD’s and at that stage had the capacity to produce more. On March 19, 2003, a multi-national force codenamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, and led by the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, Spain and Poland invaded, struck Baghdad and soon overthrew Saddam Hussein.

Despite what at the time seemed like a fairly rapid conclusion to the war, the weapons of mass destruction, and links to Al Qaeda never materialised. In 2004, the Iraq Survey Group, a fact-finding mission set up by the same multi-national force that invaded Iraq acknowledged in their final report, the Duelfer Report that Saddam Hussein had terminated Iraq’s nuclear program in 1991, and only small stockpiles of mainly timeworn, damaged and contaminated chemical munitions were ever found. To date no conclusive evidence has been presented of an active WMD program in Iraq, or of viable stockpiles of WMD’s. The resultant chaos caused by these actions will reverberate in history, and arguably changed the global landscape irrevocably.

Media – Taking the big lie mainstream
The world of media in its multitude of forms is so widely rooted in lies and disinformation, that this piece could easily be devoted solely to that fantasy world. From the advertising of ridiculously dramatic weight loss or equally spectacular financial gain, to editorial clearly skewed towards a particular political figure and polls rolled out that paint scenarios clearly out of touch with the situation at the coal face (think Brexit and the recent election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States of America), mainstream media has taken the big lie, and turned it into art on a Leonardo da Vinci scale.

The image portrayed in the media seldom reflects reality, and examples of this are all around us. Think for a minute about your favourite magazine cover. The picture or photograph used is often touched up, or altered, sometimes radically, which undoubtedly modifies our interpretation of normal, and ensures that we’re never quite good enough, and of course keep buying the magazine in the hope that we will finally meet those computer generated standards. Reality shows have also skewed our perception of “the real world”, and immediately one thinks of the scandal that erupted recently around the Biggest Loser series when rumours surfaced of substantial time editing regarding the weighing in of competitors (25 days between weigh-ins versus the 7 days reflected on the show). I’m sure many of you have watched the Biggest Loser like I have and thought: ‘Wow, these people are amazing, and they are, just over a more credible timeframe’. On a more serious note, there are also many examples of respected journalists altering images of war in order to augment the narrative of their story, thereby influencing reader opinion. Anderson Cooper of CNN was caught altering footage of the war in Syria by adding in sound effects and overlaying chaotic video next to one of their correspondents on the ground in Syria, who at the time was actually in a completely safe environment.

I’ve listed a few more instances below where propaganda and disinformation have helped weave the deceptive tapestry that we accept as gospel truth at the time, and perhaps still continue to accept.

  • “How many times do I have to say it? Well, it can’t be any clearer than ‘I’ve never taken drugs.’” – Lance Armstrong
  • “Glyphosate is perfectly safe for human consumption and has zero negative impacts on the environment.” – Monsanto
  • “My residence in Nkandla has been paid for by the Zuma family. All the buildings and every room we use in that residence, was built by ourselves as family and not by government.” – Jacob Zuma
  • Climategate – Thousands of emails released to the public revealed that climate scientists were fudging the data and then co-opting the media to sell global warming theories.
  • “Christopher Columbus discovered America” – every history textbook
  • “Dumping fluoride chemicals into the public water supply is just one of the many ways we selflessly serve the humanitarian needs of society” – Overwhelming majority of world governments, including our own.

But I encourage you to do your own research beyond the realms of public opinion, media half-truths, ingrained biases and accepted norms. With the endless ocean of material that just the internet provides, knowledge, when tempered with a fair degree of common sense and logic, has never been more accessible than it is right now. Find the right sources, determine what is measurable with as much accuracy as you can, speak to the right people, and don’t be afraid to demand answers when necessary.

In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with a question: Do you, as the custodian of risk management in your organization, always strive to verify and validate the information you pass through your organic super computer before you process the results for further analysis. Do you thoroughly interrogate that information before incorporating it into your decision making?

You should be…

Paul van der Struys
November 2016