Former CIA officer speaks on current state of online (mis) and (dis) information

Eric Singer

The online spike in misinformation and disinformation continues to plague public information officers during crisis and sunny day messaging. Former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Cindy Otis joined me on the PAST Fusion Cell News Line to talk about the proliferation of the problem and how you can deal with it. Her credentials also include national security commentator, author and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. To deal with mis/disinformation, Otis made sure to first highlight the difference between the two terms to effectively understand what we are dealing with: “The difference between the two is really about intentions. They both deal with false information. With misinformation you are spreading false information but you don’t necessarily know that it is false. With disinformation you are spreading false information knowing that it is false and usually the intention here is to mislead or influence.”

Otis believes that mis/disinformation is currently at the highest level in history because of the saturation and usage of social media. Public information officers and others who want to spot the spread of mis/disinformation have a recipe for potential success, says Otis: “It’s going to sound pretty simple but try to take the time to understand where the information is coming from. Is information coming from a social media post? Are there links on the social media post that I can follow that is the original source of the information? Is it a website that I have heard of before or not? Is it a meme or something else that has gone viral that I can’t necessarily vet? It might appear as a rumor in meme form. The real key here is be careful and take your time and try to track down the original source of the information.”

While there have been technology-driven efforts to stop mis/disinformation, Otis doesn’t think the U.S. government has done enough: “They really haven’t taken the steps to address the issue properly. There are some countries outside of the United States that are taking good steps to address the issue. They are starting to enact legislation on social media platforms, building communication initiatives through the government, but that is not happening as much in the United States.” Facebook and Twitter among other organizations have pledged to stop the spread of mis/disinformation, but the key question is, are those efforts working? Otis has been monitoring them, too: “Some of the larger mainstream social media platforms have been taking more steps like providing fact-checking to posts largely through partnership networks that they have created with media outlets and other fact-checking organizations. Others have taken steps to remove what is considered harmful, coordinated and inauthentic behavior from their platforms, like coordinated fake accounts. Some social media organizations are also testing possible interventions to decrease the amount of false content on their platforms. Things like adding a question before you post on their sites such as do you want to post this or how do you verify this? A lot of research is suggesting just adding that question is helpful. However, this isn’t something that has been added to a lot of platforms at this point.”

Finding clarity regarding the problem of spreading fake news has also been part of the ongoing conversational grist, but according to Otis: “There is a tendency to focus on the extent that foreign governments are using disinformation to target the United States, but there is a very large mis/disinformation problem at the domestic level. We’re seeing this play out during the pandemic with health misinformation that is circulated between friends and family, neighbors and co-workers trying to help their immediate circle anticipate threats or stay up with the latest information, but they don’t always take the time to vet that information.” Checking and double checking what you post, what you read and what you send to others can help you be part of the push to stop misinformation and disinformation.

Click my Mp3 Flash Briefing interview with Cindy Otis to hear more of our conversation.

I’ve also provided this link for you to learn more about Cindy Otis and her new book, True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News.

Flash Briefing / June 24, 2020