Spy Agency Expert’s Tips on Spotting Fake News

Speaking from experience: Former CIA analyst says this is how to check for fake news: Internet Scambusters #933

No apologies for returning to the topic of fake news in this issue — especially as we have insights from an ex-CIA analyst plus a link to a free 18-page guide.

The spy agency expert shows how easy it is to mislead others and the right actions to take.

And we’ve tapped into a new study by university researchers on the topic of fake news — with a link so you can download it for free.

Let’s get started…


Spy Agency Expert’s Tips on Spotting Fake News


Today, we know more than ever about fake news, how it’s created, circulated and, all too often, believed.

So often, we prove we’re no match for the villains who churn out the false stories. They still find their way into our inboxes or social media pages. And sometimes they get picked up and passed on by those who should know better.

During the election campaign, we’ve seen a huge increase in the flow of false stories, even as the social media sites have claimed to be doing all they can to stem the flow.

So, what’s to be done? Into the lion’s den has stepped disinformation expert and former CIA analyst Cindy Otis. In a newly published book, she says we’re all starting to panic because we’re no longer able to trust the words we read and the stories we hear.

“The panic,” she says, “has manifested in a growing distrust of institutions we traditionally counted on for information, like the news media, fear that social media conversations are orchestrated by ‘Russian bots,’ the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, and in the most extreme cases, people giving up on the existence of facts and truth altogether.”

But none of these things will solve our information problem, she warns.

At the same time, a report from Australian researchers offers little hope that things will improve any time soon. We tend to believe reports that mirror our own beliefs and ideas, they note.

Social media just makes things worse. They monitor what we read and, driven by artificial intelligence, feed through similar reports and stock photographs that seem to validate the story through repetition and imagery to reinforce our biases.

In her book, True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News, Cindy Otis explains how she was taught how to check information sources and set aside her personal biases before jumping to conclusions. This, she argues, is the same kind of critical thinking we all need to adopt to avoid falling for the fakes.

We need to be aware of our own built-in prejudices.

“(W)e are living in a time so rampant with false information, rumors and hoaxes that we disinformation experts call this period an ‘infodemic’,” she says. “Emotions and stress are at an all-time high, so it is more important than ever to make sure you are not spreading false information.”

She uses a couple of recent examples to show how easily we’re fooled:

* Someone posted a video of military equipment being transported by rail in San Diego as “proof” that the US was about to enforce a military lockdown. In fact, rail transport of military machinery around the country is common, but that didn’t stop the fake-news video being viewed two million times.

It was a real video but taken out of context.

Otis stresses the importance of putting aside any emotional response to the content before conducting an internet search for more information.

* Anyone who closely read a widely circulated report of thousands of rioters and looters being on their way to a civil unrest hotspot should have spotted a glaring error — the report suggested all of them were on a single bus!

But even if they were supposed to have been on multiple buses, that would amount to scores of vehicles on the move, yet there were no such traffic reports on the internet.

Ask the obvious questions, says Otis.

* An unnoticed error heavily overpriced furniture items in an online ad, leading conspiracy theorists to suggest the items were a cover for selling kidnapped children.

If readers had taken the time to research the group making the allegations — who frequently made similar claims — they would have quickly dismissed them. According to Otis, the group has never successfully found kidnap victims.

But many readers failed to check and retweeted the claim many times over — even after the company concerned explained the high prices shown had been due to a software glitch.

She concludes: “The fact is, the vast majority of false content circulating online is from real people not knowing what they’re sharing is false. This is why I believe people must be a massive part of the solution to our information problem.”

Free Book

Going a step further, the researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) have produced a free eBook outlining the best ways to combat fake news — the Debunking Handbook 2020.

It shows how people continue to believe fake news even after information has been corrected or clarified. In the end, the authors argue, we citizens have to “inoculate” ourselves by learning to question and spot familiar characteristics that are common to misleading stories. It’s up to us to educate ourselves and build up resilience to fake news.

You can download the book here.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!