Sometimes the US intelligence community gets it wrong, but often, they get it right. And sometimes, they get it really right. We featured the excerpt below in our summary piece on the ODNI threat assessment back in February – highlighting its importance for those who provide analysis and information for decision-makers.
“Future cyber operations will almost certainly include an increased emphasis on changing or manipulating data to compromise its integrity (i.e., accuracy and reliability) to affect decision-making, reduce trust in systems, or cause adverse physical effects. Broader adoption of IoT (internet of things) devices and AI—in settings such as public utilities and health care—will only exacerbate these potential effects… cyber actors, who post disinformation on commercial websites, might seek to alter online media as a means to influence public discourse and create confusion… (pg. 2)”
As the perfect storm that is the US Presidential election is upon us, we are facing a global problem of how to address veracity and credibility of sources, not just for analysts and researchers but for the general public; who ultimately make voting decisions that set the course for US government foreign policy towards the rest of the world.
The proliferation of information on the internet has given rise to an avalanche of disinformation. At the same time, disparate groups across political, cultural and idealist-driven divides increasingly disagree on what constitutes credible information. This creates problems for analysts and decision makers as we grapple with utilizing the information that most accurately reflects the reality facing our business or organization. Below we outline some thoughts and resources for addressing disinformation within your organization, analysis and decision-making:
Agree on a common understanding credibility.
Like many terms in the geopolitical-security world, we sometimes assume that when we discuss credible information, that we have a common understanding and acceptance of what constitutes a credible source. Even within small organizations, opinions on credibility often vary markedly; informed by each individuals’ life experiences and personal biases. For example, one analyst could be assigning high amounts of credibility to only sources that are politically left leaning, while another may be doing the same with right leaning media. (In reality, we hope analysts are looking at sources across the ideological spectrum to understand what their customers may be reading too). Having team discussions about how your team defines credibility – and even utilizing a simple credibility ratings system for information and human sources – like the one used by the US intelligence community – can go a long way to ensuring good communication, use of high-integrity sources and internal understanding of whats credible and what may not be.
Emphasize the importance of integrity of reporting and information over speed of reporting.
While there are notable exceptions to this rule, in general, we should rarely be focused on being the first to report breaking news information to our leadership. There are so many free and paid services that do this already – and some that do it really well. The role of the intelligence and analysis function is to make sure that the organization has the most organization specific, relevant, high-integrity information and analysis to ensure high-quality decision making. Some good resources for understanding the integrity of online sources and journalistic guidelines and standards can be found here, here, here and here. Teams can learn a lot through reviewing these materials, both about how they can better assess the integrity of sources, as well as how to evaluate other organizations and the sources of information they provide.
Develop an understanding of disinformation.
While Russian propaganda is receiving the most attention at present, it should be noted that disinformation campaigns are as old as espionage itself and have been utilized across the world. What has changed is how disinformation is disseminated and its exceptionally wide and quick propagation across the internet – which often makes it difficult to counter before it has become accepted as true. The EU, and increasingly, the US, have been especially affected by propaganda campaigns since sanctions were levied against Russia in 2014 over Ukraine. The EU has even created a task force responsible for educating the public about disinformation and highlighting disinformation in the press.
Exercise extreme caution in utilizing leaked materials of any kind.
Leaked documents, such as those released by Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and other actors, can provide insight into how individuals and organizations communicate. Unfortunately, it is also exceptionally difficult to identify whether the information in these documents has been tampered with, is outright false or taken out of context. In our work, the most important thing we can do related to leaked materials is ensure that our personnel and organizations are not in danger as a result of information in purported leaked documents.
Understand the WHY of fake information.
While much of the above-discussed disinformation is designed to sow confusion and divisive politics, there are many types of disinformation and fake information out there today. These do not all serve the same purpose. For example, a large body of fake information is driven by the pursuit of web advertising revenue; fake news sites that publish alarmist headlines in an effort to get readers to click on the story. Many of these are so poorly written that their veracity is easily questioned – but not all. There are also fake news sites that are generally devoted to providing entertainment (also to bring in advertising revenue, but overtly). The most well known among these is The Onion; but lesser known satire sites can get picked up by less savvy readers and quoted as fact. By learning the motives behind fake information, it is often easier for analysts to divine fact vs fiction and good sources vs bad ones.
Stay on top of the changing information landscape
Finally, in an information environment that is changing by the minute, ensure that your team’s remit includes regular reviews of their sourcing choices and an assessment of their personal biases towards information. Keep them focused on utilizing high quality information from credible government sources, think tanks, academia, and news sites with a record of integrity and accurate reporting. Ensure an understanding of best practices in the use of social media and ground-level sources. And insist on independent source verification of all reported information, including that which comes in from information vendors’ everyday. After all, our analysis is only as good as the credibility of the information that it is based upon.