You can't navigate online these days without the words "fake news" crossing your path. But what is fake news, who spreads it, and why has it become so pervasive? We talked to Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and the author of True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News to learn more about how to identify fake news and stop spreading misinformation.
How did you first get interested in the topic of fake news? Can you tell us a bit about how you became an authority on the subject?
I became interested in the topic early on in my career. I spent most of my professional career as a CIA officer, specifically in intelligence analysis.
The role of an intelligence analyst is to digest and analyze massive amounts of information and intelligence to inform and warn US policymakers about quickly moving events around the world. So much of that involves being able to sort out the false or misleading information from what is accurate, much like most of us have to do (or at least should do) with our social media and information streams.
But in the world of intelligence, you also have to contend with the fact that it is standard practice for foreign governments to use covert and overt influence operations and disinformation, such as putting out false or misleading content or conspiracy theories to influence events, obfuscate the truth, or hide what they are doing. When I left the Agency in 2017, I used that knowledge and experience to lead efforts in disinformation investigations in the private sector.
"Fake news" is a term everyone from citizens to politicians throws around often these days. Is there a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes fake news?
Yes, there is. The term has been around for more than a century at this point, but it has been distorted, particularly in recent years, by political leaders and public figures to target the actual media and to limit press freedoms.
It’s important to recognize that so-called “fake news” is not created by the actual news media.
It’s important to recognize that so-called “fake news” is not created by the actual news media. The fake news phenomenon does not include reporters working hard to bring you accurate information each day.
Similarly, when media outlets report something you disagree with, that doesn't make it fake news. The same is true when they report something that ends up being wrong; news and events move rapidly, so reports change.
How is "fake news" defined? What are some of the characteristics of a fake news story?
I define fake news as an attempt to deliberately spread inaccurate or false information to mislead others, presenting it in a way that makes people likely to believe it to be true.
As for some of the characteristics, fake news stories are often sensational and crafted in a way that's designed to trigger emotional reactions. The kind of content that tends to spread faster.
The emotional hot-takes tend to go viral much more than thoughtful, nuanced conversations.
We can see the phenomenon for ourselves on our social media feeds—the emotional hot-takes tend to go viral much more than thoughtful, nuanced conversations. Additionally, fake news stories often contain a grain of truth rather than being outright lies from the first letter to the last. Content like that sounds reasonable or makes us think we’ve heard something like it before, which makes us more likely to share it.
Why do fake news content creators do what they do? Do the purveyors of fake news share a common objective?
Right now in the US, we’re experiencing a significant era of misinformation and disinformation, thanks largely to the global pandemic and significant political divisions. It’s ripe for those putting out fake news.
The governments, groups, and individuals intentionally spreading fake news all want to influence and mislead, but their targets are typically different and their motivations often are as well. Some fake news may be ideologically motivated. An example would be putting out false political information to help a political candidate or party of choice. If the fake news creators represent a government, the motivation could be to advance their standing in the world or target foreign rivals.
The governments, groups, and individuals intentionally spreading fake news all want to influence and mislead, but their targets and motivations are different.
Others may be financially motivated. For example, the fake news creators will set up a bunch of websites that host pay-per-click ads and then try to get traffic to their sites by putting out false and sensational news stories or clickbait.
Others are motivated by both financial gain and ideology. Lately, I'm seeing a lot more people using fake political content to drive people to websites that collect significant amounts of data on their users, and then turn around and sell that data to political campaigns or organizations.
Although fake news seems like a more recent phenomenon, your book explains that this type of misinformation has been around for centuries. Can you share a few insights about the history of fake news?
While fake news and misinformation are spreading further faster and to more people than ever before thanks to social media and other technological advances, several key things have not changed when it comes to fake news throughout history.
Several key things have not changed when it comes to fake news throughout history.
For example, people and governments have long used times of crisis to pump out false information to do things like solidify their positions of power or to gain support for wars. Additionally, fake news and disinformation have also long been used to target people from marginalized communities to justify violence and repression against them.
The emotional piece of this has always been vital—that is, using false content that triggers a strong emotional reaction from the target audience as a way to get that content to spread and even change behaviors.
Can you share some quick tips to help people spot fake news and identify reliable news sources?
It’s important to watch out for content to which we have a strong emotional reaction. When we do, we are not as likely to apply good critical thinking skills before sharing content. Those critical thinking skills include things like looking at the source of the information and investigating cited sources or asking for sources when someone claims something without providing evidence.
It’s worth the time it takes to look into whether or not a person making a statement has the expertise to be an authority on the topic.
Particularly when it comes to social media, where we’re continually looking at content shared by people we don’t actually know, make sure you investigate accounts before sharing the content they post to make sure they are who they claim to be.
Similarly, it’s worth the time it takes to look into whether or not a person making a statement has the expertise to be an authority on the topic. For example, I’m a reliable source on topics like disinformation, but you should definitely not look to me as a good source of information on topics like astronomy.