How to Spot Disinformation and ‘Fake News’

Intelligence

One of my favorite anecdotes about President Franklin D. Roosevelt concerns his decision to appoint Joseph P. Kennedy, father of future President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert F. and Edward M. Kennedy, to be the first chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission. Kennedy was already well known, even outside of Boston, by the time the 1932 election rolled around. His reputation, as one might guess, was not the best.

When asked why he picked such a “crook” to head the agency charges with rooting out crooks in the stock market, Roosevelt is said to have replied, “takes one to catch one.”

According to a new research paper from Cambridge University in the U.K., the same may just be true for “fake news.”

The flood of “Fake News” in 2016

“Fake news” has been on everyone’s lips since the 2016 presidential election, even if it doesn’t always meant the same thing to everyone. But Friday’s indictment of Russians involved in what the Justice Department charges was a concerted effort to mislead the American public, thus influencing their opinions, has put the subject back in the spotlight.

“Fake news” is really nothing more than good old-fashioned disinformation, the kind that spies have tried to plant in the media forever. A famous example is the rumor started in 1943 by operatives of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, intended to spread doubt among German forces occupying The Netherlands. The OSS agents began whispering that “Barbers in Holland are charging an extra five cents for a shave, because German faces are longer these days.” Their rumoring eventually found its way into newspapers (although there’s no real data on whether or not it affected German morale).

Fittingly, the Cambridge researchers, Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden, are both Dutch, and conducted a novel experiment using Dutch high school students as their subjects.

Roozenbeek and van der Linden were intrigued by a tactic common in the public relations field: inoculation. This theory holds that a selective preview of expected attacks, presented along with a more detailed counter argument, will weaken those attacks once they’re actually leveled by an opponent. “My opponent will tell you that I’m a cheat, but let me show you all the ways I’ve won without cheating.” The pair wondered if the same idea would work on information that you’re not told to expect.

Combatting disinformation by teaching it

The researchers devised a game where they presented the students with facts regarding refugee settlements in Holland. Assuming the role of either a “denier,” an “alarmist,” a “clickbait monger,” or a “conspiracy theorist,” the students were instructed to create a fake news story based on how their character would likely try to frame the story.

After 30 minutes of the exercise, the students were then asked to read one of two different fake news stories about a similar issue, using the names of real institutions but completely fabricated “facts.” A control group, who had performed regular classwork while the first group built their fake news articles, was also shown the second article. Roozenbeek and van der Linden asked groups to rate the story’s reliability, credibility, and the degree to which they agreed with the contents.

In the end, the students who’d built their own fake news stories still found the second fake story persuasive, but not as much as the control group. More significantly, they did not find it reliable. The pair call their results “novel but ‘exploratory,'” acknowledging that more research is necessary.

Expecting true critical thinking from the masses is probably a bridge too far. But it would seem that if we want to teach the public to spot the fakes stories floating around in the sea of information, introducing a measure of skepticism by teaching how people concoct these fake stories might just be the way to go.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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