Who do you trust?

I recently got into a Twitter "argument" about the CRO Best Corporate Citizens List with @smellow.  The exchange fascinated me... we weren't arguing so much as sharing different perspectives... and what fascinated me wasn't the actual dispute as the sub-text.  Here's the exchange:


@smellow: ...the folks @TheCROA define "Corporate Responsibility" as transparency (not behavior) so @Monsantoco et al get a free pass.
RT@TheCROA: @smellow Corporate Responsibility = accountability. Holding companies accountable requires transparent data. No data = opinion.
@smellow: Nonsense! Data, particularly corp data is subjective and easily manipulated. Isn't corporate responsibility about action not data?

To decipher that exchange for the non-Twitterific, @smellow (the Twitter "handle" or nickname of my counterpart in this exchange), contends we should judge companies based on their actions, not the data on their actions as data can be manipulated.  Leaving aside the obvious point that in order to judge actions we need data about those actions, the more interesting point here is about manipulation and trust.

What data and sources of data should we trust?  Particularly in a world of near-universally available publishing (ala my ability to publish this blog, @smellow's ability to tweet, your ability to comment), how do we know which data are correct?  We used to rely on trusted sources: encyclopedias, libraries, newspapers.  But now the entire Web is a library, the most-used encyclopedia is user-generated, and newspapers are a dying form.  Clay Shirkey in Here Comes Everybody, points out that the professional media's monopoly on veracity owed to its control of the means of production: the expense of paper, ink, and distribution meant that a professional class rose up to control it, set standards, and police itself.  While professional journalists still exists, the expense evaporated, and most people publishing aren't part of the professional class.

In "Online Trust: State of the Art, New Frontiers, and Research Potential," (Journal of Interactive Marketing, Vol 23, 2009) Glen Urban et al site numerous studies showing that the look-and-feel of a Web site consistently ranks in the top three factors (alongside privacy and security certifications) visitors use in evaluating the trustworthiness of a site.  I know this gives history professors around the world the heebeejeebees (think about a well funded or design-gifted Holocaust denier).  The history faculty of Middlebury College voted in 2007 to ban the use of Wikipedia in serious research.  Writing for ZDNet, Donna Bogatin points out in "Wikipedia: Should students trust it", that John Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, said, "...that while Wikipedia is useful for many things, he would like to make it known that he does not recommend it to college students for serious research... it’s not always a definitive source."

So in a world where @smellow thinks that corporate data are easily manipulated, users trust the look-and-feel of a Web site, and even the founder of the world's most-used encyclopedia doesn't trust it, who shoudl we trust?  What data can we rely on?

I don't have a universal answer.  I do know, however, that we at the CROA will continue standing for the use of data -- third-party verified, publicly disclosed, scrutinized data -- as the best hallmark of corporate responsibility.  In the end, I agree with @smellow: actions should speak loudest.  And we need those actions published, out in the open, where we can see them and all evaluate them for ourselves.

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