Ex-CIA analyst: 120 million Americans saw Russian-Facebook content

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In True or False, Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst, provides an informative and engaging survey of fake news throughout history.

FORMER US special counsel Robert Mueller discusses Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. (photo credit: REUTERS/JIM BOURG)

FORMER US special counsel Robert Mueller discusses Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

(photo credit: REUTERS/JIM BOURG)

In 1782, with the outcome of the American Revolution still in doubt, Benjamin Franklin printed a newspaper designed to look like a supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle. Franklin’s publications contained fabricated stories about British perfidy and cruelty, “documenting” collaboration with Indian tribes, which reportedly provided the scalps of colonists they killed as tokens of their loyalty to King George III. Many newspapers in the colonies re-printed the articles in Franklin’s supplement.

Fake news, then, is not a 21st century invention, though it is, of course, spread much more easily and to many, many more people through Internet-based social media. In True or False, Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst, provides an informative and engaging survey of fake news throughout history; an analysis of principles of psychology (confirmation bias, negativity bias and cognitive dissonance) behind the attraction to it; and practical recommendations and challenging exercises to test our skills for how to avoid falling for it.

True or False
is being promoted as a book for young adults. I have no doubt that adults of all ages will enjoy and learn a whole lot from it.

Otis has identified an extraordinary array of fake news stories across the millennia. Procopius’s Secret History, she indicates, demonized Emperor Justinian and Theodora, his wife. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story in the New York Sun in 1844 about a balloonist who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 75 hours. The Sun retracted the article two days later, but by then it had spread across the country.

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In 1898 William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, which declared as fact a rumor that Spain blew up the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, became the first newspaper to sell one million copies in a single day. The “Yellow Journalism” of Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, his rival, played a role in president William McKinley’s decision to ask Congress to declare war.

In the Internet age, Otis points out, fake news reaches more people and spreads six times faster than fact-based stories. Appealing as it does to emotion and personal belief, fake news has a significant impact on public opinion.

Operation INFEKTION, a disinformation campaign by the former Soviet Union, convinced about 15% of blacks that AIDS was a genocidal plot launched by the government of the United States. Only 63% of Republicans identify the sentence “Barack Obama was born in the United States” as a fact. Some 46% of Americans who voted for Donald Trump believed the “pizzagate” posts claiming that Hillary Clinton was involved in child sex- trafficking. In 2016, 120 million Americans saw content drafted by Russian agents on Facebook.

OTIS KNOWS that no magic bullet can vanquish fake news. She implies that mitigating its impact will take a lot of hard work. Otis points out, for example, that about four in 10 Americans read a headline and stop. For a large percentage of those who scan or read the body of an article, the slant of the headline shapes their interpretation. To avoid becoming “clickbait,” Otis advises consumers of news not to like, share, comment on or re-tweet an article they have not read.

To assess social media posts, Otis recommends checking the URL to see if it is a .gov, .edu or .com address. They might notice, for example, that the home page of CNNNews.com’s home page looks like, but isn’t the home page of CNN.com, the Internet arm of the broadcast news organization.

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Readers should investigate the source or sources of information and the credentials of the author of the article. If information on them is not to be found, claims should be treated with skepticism. Readers should click on and evaluate hyperlinks. They should watch for spelling and grammatical mistakes. They should see if established media outlets are reporting on the “breaking news.” They should also consult fact-checking websites like Snopes.com and Politifact.com.

To assess whether photographs (which make it 60-70% more likely that a claim will be believed) have been cropped or otherwise altered, readers should look for jagged edges, wavy lines, mismatched lighting, and/or do a reverse image on Google. Most important, perhaps, Otis urges every person who wants to be well-informed to break out of his or her personal news silo and examine the other side of the story.

Otis urges her readers to block, mute and ignore trolls – and rely on, like, share and re-tweet real news from reputable outlets. Putting the fake news genie back in the bottle, she recognizes, will be extremely difficult. This is especially true when around the world, in many democracies as well as dictatorships, leaders control the flow (and encourage the siloing) of information; coin terms like “presstitutes”; mock, threaten, exclude or kill journalists whom they condemn as “enemies of the people”; and foster a “post-truth” political culture in which objective reality is trumped by “alternative facts” and appeals to emotions in shaping public opinion and policy.

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