The Golden Age of Half-Truths


This post is by Om Malik from On my Om


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Long ago, in a time before the iPad, YouTube and even the Internet, we got our entertainment came from stories told to us in books or by our parents and grandparents. Some kids were lucky enough to have access to magical, technological marvels like televisions and radios, but we were not that class of people. My mother used to read me stories from Indian mythology, and nothing got me more excited than the Mahabharata. Decades later, whenever I find myself thinking a lot about the difficulty of distinguishing what is actually real in our modern news cycles, I often go back to one of the stories in that epic tale.

Here is the CliffsNotes version:

Dronacharya was a guru who taught warcraft to two sets of cousins, the Pandavas, and the Kauravas. The two tribes went to war, as families sometimes do. Dronacharya decided to fight for the Kauravas, and so did his only son, Ashwatthama.

Dronacharya was unbeatable on the battlefield unless he was in emotional distress. So, his enemies schemed to upset him by exploiting his love for his child. The senior most Pandava brother, Yudhishthira, who was known to never lie, was convinced to mislead Dronacharya. In modern society, we might say he told a white lie. He allowed himself to be heard saying that Ashwatthama was dead. In a way, it was true: an elephant also named Ashwatthama had been killed. Yudhishthira might have mumbled the part about the elephant, but only the half-truth was heard — and it made all the difference. A grieving Dronacharya was no longer a threat, and eventually, the Pandavas won the war.

Of course, this is an incredibly compressed version of a much more nuanced story, which itself is just a piece of a sprawling epic that tells of the ultimate war between good and evil. But it’s enough to make my point: I see a lot of parallels in what transpired in that battle and in modern times. Just as a half-truth was used to win the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, today we are dealing with a world of information where facts and fiction are increasingly spliced.

I would argue that we are living in the golden age of half-truths, thanks in part to the evolution of media as a tool for inducing dopamine. Just as Yudhishthira’s phrasing was designed to achieve a certain outcome, the headlines and stories provided to us by our information sources are crafted for maximum engagement, not maximum information. As a result, half-truths are being presented to us as truisms.

Earlier this week, a friend, who happens to be an information omnivore, shared a tweet from an executive for a communications company with a financial technology focus pointing out that Patagonia was drawing a line in the sand and intended to stop working with certain types of companies, including fintech companies.

 

I initially responded by observing that Patagonia must be on the exact opposite end of the values spectrum from Facebook. We agreed that it makes sense to sacrifice certain business in order to stand behind your beliefs, which unfortunately is not a virtue possessed by Facebook and Google.

It turns out, we weren’t the only ones discussing the tweet. It was in the process of going viral, eventually ending up on the websites of Bloomberg and the San Francisco Chronicle. Patagonia is a brand that inspires people, so most of us were ready — and even eager — to believe what we read.

But was it the full truth? Something about the language in the original tweet bugged me, so I decided to understand the nuances of the situation. Did Patagonia really strip fintech companies of their beloved vest-with-a-logo uniform as the press was proclaiming?

Patagonia, which wasn’t quoted in the first wave of the media brouhaha, had this statement for me:

Our corporate sales program manages Patagonia’s sales to other companies, nonprofits, and other organizations. We recently shifted the focus of this program to increase the number of Certified B Corporations, 1% For The Planet members and other mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet. This shift does not affect current customers in our corporate sales program.

If you take a step back from the breathless, OMG-inducing tone that made its way from social media to actual media posts, you realize that all you actually have is an amplified half-truth.

Patagonia decided that it won’t be doing new wholesale-type deals with brands that don’t match their corporate value system. They want to reward a certain type of company committed to doing good for the planet with better deals and appropriate brand association. A clean tech company, I am sure, would certainly qualify. However, if you are a consumer tech company promoting consumerism, or a hedge fund looking to profit from greed — and you aren’t already a customer — Patagonia doesn’t want to lend you its brand, and it has no discounts for you.

But you could still easily buy their products at retail prices, work with others to get the logos on the vests and continue to wear it as your tech-startup uniform. In other words, you could get your uniform, just not at a discount through Patagonia’s corporate sales program. (This is as it should be — I mean, if you can hire a barista for your company cafe, you can afford an extra few bucks per vest. If you are a hedge fund, then shut up and pay full price, or else be labeled el cheapo! Get the Billions vest, for God’s sake!)

Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite make for a sexy, attention-grabbing story. It’s easy to see why a convenient, more sellable spin on the truth became the preferred version. And this formula is repeated day in, day out. I read a different piece today about Amazon’s acquisition of Eero that was all about amplifying narratives about “greed” and being “screwed over.” It was pretty clear that the story lacked the nuances of financing, debt, and startup failures.

The real story, to me, is that how much miseducation exists when it comes to explaining to employees the risks of working for a startup, the ownership of stock options and how startup ownership and financing works. But most importantly, it is also about the biggest half-truth of them all: an acquihire being portrayed as a triumphant exit when it is anything but. The same outlets that celebrate funding as a major achievement in a company’s lifecycle also celebrate these acquihires, taking the founder’s word for it that it demonstrates success.

Though, there is no denying that eschewing these elements made for a better, more engaging read — one that is much more likely to be shared around the Internet.

The truth can be a bit boring. The Pandavas wouldn’t have won the war if Yudhishthira had shouted that Ashwatthama the elephant was dead. No one would have cared.

This commentary first appeared in April 7th edition of my weekly email newsletter, where I share a commentary or an essay looking back at the week, and links to works worth reading.