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Executive team listening to contrary views from colleague
The Profession

CPAs as data stewards in an era of fake news 

In today’s world, mis- and disinformation continue to hamper decision making at every level. But CPAs can play an important role in discerning fact from fiction

Executive team listening to contrary views from colleagueHaving a diverse group of people at the table helps to quash bias and allow for an objective interpretation of information (AzmanL/Getty Images) 

At a time when bias and fake news are rampant, and when political upheaval and a global pandemic provide countless opportunities for ethical breaches, CPAs have a powerful role to play in ensuring the organizations they serve have access to and can rely on credible information. 

“CPAs need to proactively address mis- and disinformation and bias because we are stewards of information and data, that’s always been our role,” says FCPA Brian Friedrich, co-author (with FCPA Laura Friedrich) of Identifying and mitigating bias and mis- and disinformation, a leadership paper produced by CPA Canada in cooperation with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, the International Federation of Accountants and the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants.

Here are three tactics CPAs can use to navigate through today’s erratic environment, and the mis- and disinformation that can arise as a result.


As ethical leaders, CPAs now occupy a broader space than they did in the past, says Brian. This is partly because public expectations are heightening around issues such as sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion.

“There’s a role for CPAs to be proactive in these areas and to play their part in times of crisis,” says Laura. “They can counter the spread of misinformation and the narratives that simply aren’t true.”

Laura adds that it’s CPAs’ enabling skills—such as their professional judgment and skepticism, critical thinking, ethical leadership and communications—that differentiate them from the machines taking over some of their technical roles. For that reason, these skills should be the focus of any upskilling.

Michel Girard, senior fellow at Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and data governance adviser for CPA Canada, agrees. He adds that, as digital transformation becomes a necessity rather than simply a nice-to-have, CPAs must use their skillsets in new ways.

“CPAs have a role to play in establishing new controls and systems that will allow us to establish whether data value chains are working properly or not,” he says.


While misinformation and disinformation aren’t new, their potential reach and the speed at which they can be propagated—especially during periods of political instability and crisis—is unprecedented.

Within this uncertain and constantly shifting environment, CPAs remain tasked with the responsibility to discern truth and act in the public interest.

“It comes back to the basics of making sure that the information we are producing and providing is accurate and objective,” says Laura.

To do this, CPAs need to identify their own biases (and perhaps those of others) and how they might influence their interpretation of information and subsequent decision-making.

“We ourselves as humans are prone to bias and may not be as objective as we need to be,” she says. “How we interpret information that is presented to us impacts how we report on it.”

Having a diverse group of people with varying experiences and outlooks at the decision-making table helps to quash bias and allow for a thorough and objective interpretation of data, adds Brian.

“You are in a better position to evaluate information for its validity and authenticity, and red flag it when necessary,” he says.

Laura agrees. “It’s up to us as leaders to pause and say, ‘Is this accurate? Do we trust this source? Or do we need to take a closer look before distributing it out to the world?’ ”


Although CPAs are armed with sophisticated analytical skills to solve problems and project next steps, the complex issues organizations face today also require a mindset shift, experts say.

“You need to tackle problems that are complex versus complicated,” says Brian. “Complicated problems can have many causes that interact, but they can be broken down and addressed piece-by-piece. In contrast, complex problems and systems include factors that are interconnected and are also dynamic and interactive in ways that are difficult or impossible to predict.”

As a result, complex problems cannot be solved using a specific formula or methodology, Brian says. Instead, they need to be managed. “For example, we’ve seen lockdowns, social-distancing and other measures quickly factoring into global supply chain issues. But clearly, without the introduction of such health measures at the appropriate times, the pandemic would advance unchecked. It’s a delicate balance to manage, particularly given the scale and novelty of the problem.”

Brian also points out that an organization’s decision to shut down operations in an unstable region because of public pressure has implications that extend far beyond ethical considerations. Many parts of that organization’s business operations will be affected, including staffing, supplier relations and revenue generation.

“These are not easy decisions,” Brian says. “And there is no formula or textbook you can turn to for the answers.”

Laura adds that the role of CPAs is evolving to ensure organizational decision-making considers broader societal impacts.

“It’s about considering the intersection of all these different elements, about being the voice of reason, stepping back and looking at things more systematically,” she says.


For more on how CPAs can counter mis- and disinformation, see Identifying and mitigating bias and mis- and disinformation. This paper is part of a series of thought leadership pieces on ethical leadership in a time of complexity and digital change.

Also, make sure to sign up for the symposium being hosted on April 28-29 by the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Accounting Ethics and CPA Canada, which will explore and discuss The impact of global pandemic, specifically COVID-19, on ethics, professionalism and judgement in accounting and financial reporting.