Six ways to think like a CIA analyst to beat fake news

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Before retweeting or sharing a “news” story, writes the author, follow the example of CIA analysts and ask questions. | AP photo

Whenever America’s top national security officials testify before Congress about Russia’s widespread disinformation and influence campaign in the 2016 presidential election, they usually include a stark warning: The Russians will be back.

And while the U.S. government is racing to combat this growing threat — especially before this year’s congressional elections — an essay recently published by the CIA looks to another defender of democracy: the average citizen.


“The bad news” is that all the tools used to trick and influence American voters in 2016 will only get better and easier to use, write Preston Golson, chief of communications for the CIA’s Directorate of Digital Innovation, and former CIA officer Matthew Ferraro.

“The good news is that critical thinking is a skill that can be taught like any other. And we know how,” the authors continue. “U.S. intelligence agencies have been teaching analytical literacy successfully for decades to young officers charged with understanding global threats. Now, the front lines in this war against disinformation extend to the phones of all Americans.”

With that in mind, RealClearLife sought out a veteran former CIA analyst, Cindy Otis, to reveal the rules she learned for sorting the truth from fiction in today’s digital world. They are as follows:

1. Know thyself

Before you even pick up a newspaper or look at a screen, look in the mirror.

“We all read the news under a certain lens based on things like our background, education, life experiences and predetermined viewpoints,” Otis said. “That means we are more likely to agree with judgments [or] analysis that fits our own worldview more easily than something that challenges it.”

A news consumer, Otis said, has to watch out for “confirmation bias” — reading or watching only the sources of news that you already agree with.

“Intelligence analysts receive training throughout their entire careers to be able to identify and counter their personal biases to ensure that the information they give policymakers is unbiased and as accurate as possible,” she said.

Look for the biases in your own thinking and then, when you read or watch the news, be aware of them and how they might be affecting your thought process.

2. Know the outlet doing the reporting

The first step in assessing the credibility of a news report is looking at who’s putting it out there — a task that’s become monumentally harder since the explosion of online media outlets.

“It’s important to understand the source of the information,” Otis said. “This is more than just understanding if the news source is politically left-leaning or right-leaning. Analysts look at whether or not the organization putting out the information has a political goal or if it is a traditional news source.”

3. Know the journalist doing the reporting

Take some time to learn a bit about the author or commentator giving you the news and whether that person has a background in the topic area.

“Like intelligence analysts, journalists who specialize in particular kinds of reporting, such as national security reporting, are the more credible voices,” Otis said. “Even people who specialize in particular areas have their limits, though. Being a national security expert usually doesn’t mean you can speak as authoritatively on military issues as you can about a particular region of the world.”

4. Don’t blindly trust sources, assess them

Diving into the meat of the story itself, pay particular attention to the sources cited and how their background is relevant to the subject at hand.

“If a piece is on the government, are [the journalists] citing people who worked in government 20 years ago or people who are there with first-hand experience now?” Otis asked. “Are they citing a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds, or quoting [or] citing a people who only agree with each other [or] confirm the assessment [or] the event in question?”

If the sources for the story are anonymous, see rules 2 and 3.

5. Slow down, you might discover non-stories

In the lightning-fast 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to see blockbuster news reports coming one after the other. The problem is that it can leave little time for the news organization and others, much less the average citizen, to examine any one thing for very long.

So consciously slow down and take the time to do some research.

“The goal for many news outlets in the age of declining readership is to gain readers,” she said. “That often results in click-bait headlines and stories that sensationalize events. Don’t take what you’re reading as fact, even if it’s from your favorite commentator [or] author.”

6. Seriously, slow down and don’t be part of the problem

“It’s more important than ever before to make sure you’re not part of the disinformation problem,” Otis said.

That means taking a breath before clicking “retweet” on Twitter or “share” on Facebook and running through the above steps.

“Resist the impulse to retweet now based off a headline and read later (or maybe not at all),” Otis said. “If there’s something you don’t know, take the time to do the research.”

Lee Ferran is founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

Reprinted with permission from Real Clear Politics.

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