Our greatest societal threat, Misinformation
Hello and welcome to this week's show. As always, I hope that you are strong and healthy and thriving through this global pandemic. I must admit, even here in the last frontier, the number of COVID cases is climbing astronomically. I will caveat that by saying “per capita” as our overall counts don’t even register as a blip on the national screen. Last week we talked about national security threats and hopefully provided some understanding and comfort about the reality of the small chances we each have of witnessing any of those threats. Although the week before we talked about defunding the police, and hopefully got the understanding that it was really the fight between the state legislatures (or city councils) and the state’s court system. I identified that the real threat to the nation's heartland (and all other points between) was the rise of opportunistic crime, and I see an abundance of that happening during the unrest we hear about in every news broadcast. We hear every day about the unrest in Portland, Minneapolis. Milwaukee, and other cities around the country. While there are peaceful protestors for sure, there are more individuals who are opportunistic and committing crimes while the police are detained in survival for their lives. This is a sad state that the United States finds herself in.
How have we (citizens of) the United States come to this? Why are we in a state of unrest? Well, these are both really good questions, so let’s see if we can use some deductive reasoning and figure it out. While the unemployment numbers are very unsettling, and financial mismanagement at the lower economic classes are major contenders, I think there is something else driving the conflict between Americans.
I think (and this is my thought, not that of my sponsors or broadcast mediums, that there are many within this country that are desiring for the country to fail. They are the instigators of this unrest, regardless of what camp they are in, their mission is to sink this experiment we call the United States of America. However, the modus operandi of these types of groups is to fill the publics' head full of misinformation. So, let’s talk about misinformation… what is it?
So, in speaking about the broadcast of misinformation, I’d like to talk about our current adversary, the media. On today’s show, I’d like to take you through the rusty old mind of a 35+ year retired, forgetful intel guy and talk about how misinformation is passed on. There are literally tons of methods to gather intel on subjects, places, or ideologies, but I want to break it down so we can all get on board. First, let’s talk about the recognized ways that we all pass information. Before we get into passing information, let’s talk about some levels of security about the information. We are talking about how most humans classify the information within their own lives.
- Secret information is typically limited to information that individuals feel that no one else needs to know. If you’re single, this might be your SSN or childhood nickname. Typically this information is not shared in any way, I’m sure they're also things at your work that might be proprietary (owned by the company) that can’t be shared. This is the golden crown for agents within the cyber theft world. For parents of active duty children, this should be where OPSEC fits into your world. In some people, this would also include information that they don’t know the validity of, particularly if the information contradicts their own personal beliefs. However, the “crown jewel” for foreign intelligence agents is secure this level of information.
- The next category is “for a price” and contains information about you, your work, or your family that you will limit who knows this stuff. However, the information here may be shared if the stakes are high enough, especially if you don’t consider the risk. Such as telling your friends that you got the new video game in order to be the envy of your crew, not thinking that your enemy now has a way to communicate with you. You’re not going to stand on the street corner and shout it, but if the gain/risk analysis came back in your favor, then you’d publish that shit on Facebook, in which case some foreign agent made note of it, especially given your position within an organization.
- Finally is the general facts about existence. This is open to requests like “do you have the time”, or “is that the new Prius”? This information has no emotional value to it and therefore could be posted on a billboard in your front lawn. Because this information has no emotional or intellectual value to the beholder, the lack of attention to who is listening is present. However, it is this information that we can generate passwords from. By listing out your love current love affairs, or passions, we are able to determine your passwords to compromise your online or hard-wired accounts. It's actually pretty easy in most cases.
Don’t get me wrong, there are always exceptions to the general rules here, as there are a substantial amount of Americans who have very private conversations with others on the cellular phone in very public spaces not releasing what would have been classified Secret information to whoever is listening. Which brings us to understand how the actual information is actually classified. Ultimately, as a third-party listening to the information being provided, I classify the information in two distinct groups:
- Internalized data (emotional connection). This is data (information) about the individual that has some level of fact-checking involved. Whether the source of contrast is valid or not is another conversation completely. However, the actual data has had some level of internal processing by the individual, and some level of verification as to its authenticity.
- Monkey see monkey do, simple regurgitation. Legally referred to as “hearsay” this information has zero fact-checking involved, and no verification as to its validity. This information may contain information that the individual simply hasn’t had time to validate or information that they are no inclined to investigate.
OK, so we’ve classified the information both: from the individual's perspective, as well as third-party interpretation of the individual’s knowledge levels. Let’s take just a minute to talk about the internal processing of data retrieval and storage. The human mind uses several filters to determine whether or not to retain information (data). So, let’s take a brief look at how data is processed within the human mind.
- We’ll call this the “inception phase of data processing”. As the information is received, the first filter identifies how difficult was the information to obtain, or who the data came from. This is the portion of the message reception that product marketing attempts to use, by utilizing respectable or famous people and places, marketing attempts to circumvent this stage by offering a fake set of credentials here. If the information was challenging to obtain, this makes the data more important to the individual (even if the data is not understood), it is retained. While the brain may not have direct access to it, the individual attempts to make connections to what he/she has already retained, or understood from their past.
- This brings us to our second filter, which we’ll call the “validation phase”. After receiving data, the brain will attempt to compare the data against what it already knows. Whether the data is in contrast to what it already has, or not, the brain will attempt to connect it to what it “knows”. If the individual doesn’t have anything to connect the data to, then the brain attempts to connect it to something it does have, which may, or may not be appropriate.
- The last real filter is the “alignment to existing beliefs phase”. How well does it fit into what the brain already knows? This is also where the emotional ties are made. What type of personal emotions are connected to this information?
With an idea about how our brain thinks when it is processing incoming information, lets now trail into how our brain gets tricked into believing something and some of the reasons for tricking it. This is the world of misinformation. Misinformation can be performed in a multitude of ways (we’ll discuss more in a minute), however, at its core, the definition of misinformation is: incorrect or misleading. Essentially it boils down to accidental, or purposeful misconstruing the information. Based on the definition, these two forms of misinformation:
- Misleading or falsifying data is purposeful. There are typically hidden agendas behind the purposeful misconstruing of the information. Now, there is a huge spectrum of misleading, from the white-lie told on a resume to a conspiracy cover-up, however, ultimately individuals who have personal integrity stay off this slippery slope. As we all know, once a person or group steps on the slope of deceit, there is no way off. There are at least three major forms of misleading data.
- Political, religious, or corporative narratives
- Personal position of Editor/Reporter or News Director bias
- The need to deceive the public or a portion of the public. For some other reason.
- Inadvertent passing on of misinformation. As the opposite of intentional misconstruing of information, there is the accidental or inadvertent passing of information. The unfortunate side-effect here is that these types of incidents are just as dangerous as the first type. Unfortunately, we also have a portion of our brain which hears or processes and event very differently from those who witnessed the same event. There are two forms of inadvertent data passing:
- Perception versus reality, who really saw what?
- Lack of attention, no internalization of data
So, I’ve given you guys the understanding of what the types of information are, and how each of us gets and processes information, now let's talk about the transport mediums we use to give information, as well as recognizing some of their faults.
- Face-to-Face communications, both at Intimate / public level discussions. This has always been the best source of determining if there is any misleading information being provided. As we are aware, body language and other indicators can involuntarily give away secrets of untruths, particularly for the inexperienced liars. A study within many different agencies and plenty of online information about “micro-expressions” can help us in determining the validity of the data offered. What you will typically find here is that there is more validity to individual events depending on the overall appearance or relationship of the presenter.
- Personal Electronic communications. Texting and electronic mail (email) have become a fairly reliable method of communication, although a big issue here is the lack of “back story” or additional details. Typically because most use these functions on the small screens of their smartphones, typing is short and sweet. There is some information that can be gleaned, however, a lion’s share of the issue arises when these details are omitted, it is left up to interpretation, and that leads to misinformation on a grand scale.
- Social Media or as many (including myself) like to call it, the “Social Circus”, where bonafide news stories are blended in with fake news in a 10% to 90% mix. Most of the stories found on social media circles are fake. They are designed and posted in hopes of securing “Likes” and more visits to individual pages. Most often they carry the rhetoric of different narratives going on around the political scenes. Social media was never designed as a real news presentation, it was designed as a method of socializing. However, socializing begat the political angles and the two become hopelessly tangled together. Today, social media attempts to champion social change, but is typically stalled by its own angles.
- And Finally, broadcasting on TV/radio. Here we find the “for a price” mentality mentioned earlier
In conclusion, as an intel-gathering specialist, we know how to read through what’s written, or spoken to garner where the information came from, and how it can be used. When we talk about foreign governments gathering information about you in pieces, this is why that’s done. Ultimately these teams can assemble password cracks, or sensitive information paths, by what you do, and do not say out loud. This is the world of intelligence operations around the globe, constantly listening to the chatter going on over the “Internet of Things”. So understand that some things are spoken or written to incite a specific response to validate other data, the things that you mutter in anger or frustration will be misconstrued by someone to be used against you later. Be careful.