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Former CIA analyst shares ‘fake news’ tips for journalists

Cindy Otis is a disinformation expert and author of True Or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News.

Fake news isn’t new. But the Internet provides a unique environment for misinformation that it just might take a former government intelligence officer to understand.

In the new book TRUE OR FALSE, former CIA analyst and disinformation expert Cindy Otis dissects the long history of fake news. She offers strategies she learned during her tenure at the CIA for how to recognize misinformation and overcome our own information biases. 

Otis left the CIA in 2017 — shortly after the Intelligence Community released a declassified assessment showing that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Since then, she’s written extensively on politics and the dangers of information as a weapon. 

“Those pushing false information, whether it’s individuals, governments or groups, have long relied on narratives that stoke strong emotions,” Otis said.

The Journalism Institute reached out to Otis by email to find out what journalists can learn from her debut book.

What inspired you to write a book on the history of fake news?

Otis: After it became public knowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, I watched a sort of collective panic unfold across the country and a couple of worrying trends begin — namely, a fear from average information consumers that they no longer could trust things like the media, their government, and other sources of information. People were also looking for answers about how to figure out and analyze what they were seeing on all of their different information and social media feeds each day. I wrote TRUE OR FALSE in response to both things. It’s a history of disinformation and fake news to demonstrate how the problem has been and lessons we can learn as a result, and it’s also a guide, a step-by-step action plan to help people make sure they’re not falling for and/or amplifying false or misleading content.

Can you briefly share your process for spotting fake news and misinformation? 

Otis: So much of it is just looking at simple things such as: the source of the information and where it was originally published or promoted; where it is spreading and on what platforms; when did it first appear and what kind of narrative it is pushing. Of course I’m also looking at social media accounts for signs of inauthenticity or things like automation. If there are videos, pictures, or memes involved, I do reverse searches as well to see if the context might be misleading or if something has been altered. 

What are some lessons that journalists can take away from this history?

Otis: So many of the politically divisive or misinformation and disinformation targeting women and people of color we see today on topics like coronavirus and national protests against police violence are the same kinds of narratives that have been used throughout history. Those pushing false information, whether it’s individuals, governments or groups, have long relied on narratives that stoke strong emotions, fear and anger being the primary ones, as a way to spread and amplify their narratives.  

How can journalists fight back against misinformation, especially in an environment where public figures openly try to discredit reporters?

Otis: There are a couple of things that I think are important to keep in mind here. First, they should aim for a “do no harm” guiding principle — oftentimes harmful narratives are seeded in fringe sites or forums, but never make it to mainstream platforms. In that case, by exposing it publicly, reporters can unintentionally amplify and spread something that was never going to get off the ground in the first place. Second, I think articles exposing disinformation must include as much information as possible about the origination point and the threat actor. For example and hypothetically, publishing a claim from an organization that they uncovered 40K Russian accounts without any further information only serves to cause panic and sew distrust in our information systems. However, if you can expose a network by walking readers through who started it, how it spread, etc., that is a much more helpful approach in showing readers from where their information comes.

Given how easy conspiracy theories can spread on social media, particularly in relation to COVID-19, what can journalists do to dispel these?

Otis: Again, the “do no harm” principle is key here in not elevating conspiracies that aren’t gaining ground anyway, as well as the earlier comment about laying out the details of the narrative and where it originated. With conspiracies, I think it’s important to note how tangled they are getting, with different conspiracy groups and political extreme groups are picking up different pieces of conspiracies. For example, QAnon as a “group” isn’t really a group with an agreed upon set of beliefs. A key part of being a believer is that you find and interpret clues for yourselves, and that means anything can go viral at any time, really. 

What was the biggest surprise from your research?

Otis: I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how much my own understanding of certain historical events was the outcome of false information spread at the time. One of the examples I talk about in my book, and it’s kind of a fun one, is the supposed mass, national hysteria caused by Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. I had read newspaper archives and even more recent books that had talked about the national panic it had caused when he and a team of voice actors reenacted an alien invasion, but in further research learned it didn’t actually happen that way. 

What prompted you to write TRUE OR FALSE for a YA audience?

Otis: First, Some of the most creative and important writing is being done in the Young Adult space right now. Additionally, as I say in my book, a huge part of the disinformation solution must be having informed information consumers who know how to look at information critically, vet sources, and investigate what they’re reading. As a result, I wrote TRUE OR FALSE specially for YA because we need to help this younger generation, which is more “online” than any other generation of people, learn the tools and tactics they need. Readers will find the content and material accessible to adults as well, but my goal with TRUE OR FALSE was to arm young readers so they can be the first line of defense and carry these skills with them throughout their lives.

What do you hope readers will learn from the book?

Otis: I hope readers will take away some easy to implement actions they can employ in their everyday lives when looking at their social media and news feeds. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans do not read past the headlines of articles, so TRUE OR FALSE starts at that level. I also hope readers take away a bit of a sense of ownership in that they realize they need to actively be a part of the solution, and that starts with making sure they are sharing from good and reliable sources. 

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