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​Are Assaults on Truth Hastening a Doomsday?

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For billions of people around the world, Jan. 23 was a day like any other. However, for a select group of scientists, public policy experts, and former politicians, the end of the world ticked a little closer to reality. On that day, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed the Doomsday Clock up to 100 seconds to midnight.

For those unfamiliar with the apocalyptic timepiece, the Doomsday Clock is a metaphor for nuclear holocaust or some other world-ending event that coincides with the stroke of midnight. Since its creation in 1947, the clock has never been closer to that witching hour.

The reason for this dire acceleration is not a new shooting war or diplomatic crisis. Instead, the change is hastened by the growing assault on truth. The group behind the Doomsday Clock issued a warning that disinformation campaigns have so undermined public faith in facts as to make it impossible to take on pressing global concerns.

Indeed, assaults on truth are growing in scope and complexity. The most high-profile example is the debate over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but that is just one example in one information arena. A former White House and National Security Agency official offered a big-picture perspective in her comments for a Washington Post article.

"Cyber-enabled information warfare poses an outsized threat because of its ability to undermine the reliability of the information on which we rely for rational decision-making in nearly every domain," said Melanie Teplinsky, now an adjunct professor at American University's Washington College of Law.

Disinformation can take on diverse forms, including social media campaigns, "fake news" accounts, and deepfake videos and photographs, all enabled by the internet and other tools that make communicating with millions (possibly billions) of people easy and cheap.

This warning should cause particular concern for internal auditors. Independent and objective assurance is the profession's foundation, and our value to the organizations we serve is rooted in accountability and transparency. An essential ingredient in accountability and transparency is truth. 

Internal audit must remain an important beacon of truth for our organizations, and it begins with how we do our jobs. I have written often about the traits of great internal audit leaders, and an unwavering commitment to truth is one of those traits. Indeed, the word truth appears throughout my book, Trusted Advisors: Key Attributes of Outstanding Internal Auditors. 

  • An unwavering commitment to truth is essential to honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior.
  • Speaking truth to power is essential to exercising the courage of our convictions.
  • A commitment to truth is essential to digging deeper to get to the root cause of control failures or other threats to effective risk management.
  • Relying on facts and telling the truth are essential to effectively managing organizational politics.

What's more, uncovering truth is essential to providing useful information, insight, and foresight to the organizations we serve. Boards and executive management make short- and long-term strategic and operational decisions based on the best information at hand. Part of our job as internal auditors must be to break through the noise and ensure our organizations are receiving and acting on trustworthy information.

Another aspect of disinformation is how it can damage an organization. It is easy to imagine how a business competitor might leverage disinformation to gain an advantage. Something as simple as a surreptitious social media campaign promoting fake discounts or poor customer service could disrupt operations. An organization's financial stability, vulnerability to hostile takeover, or even the health of its CEO can be fodder for disinformation campaigns. Some might say these "dirty tricks" have been around for as long as businesses have been competing, but carrying out such deception has never been easier. As such, internal auditors must treat disinformation as an emerging risk.

The fight for truth is not new for internal auditors, but the battlefield is becoming much more complicated and dangerous. While many of us might disagree that disinformation has become an existential threat, it would be foolhardy to believe it is not a growing and real risk.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

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