“I always think of my views like a stovetop with multiple pots and mixtures brewing. I’m constantly adding new information that I’ve learned, things that I’ve read, and observations that I’ve made into each of these pots, and they’re cooking over time. My opinion, my views, and my analysis evolve as I gain more information.”
– Cindy Otis
About Cindy Otis
Cindy Otis is an author, disinformation expert, and former CIA officer. She is the author of books including True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News. Cindy is a frequent media commentator on the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, NPR, and CNN.
What you will learn
- What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation (01:41)
- How to pick what information is worth looking at (04:34)
- What are the two main starting points to assess information when it comes in (06:10)
- How to build a list of trustworthy sources where we are not experts (11:00)
- Why you don’t need to completely believe or disbelieve something (15:00)
- What are practices to develop your expertise in an area (16:24)
- How combining several schools of thought, especially contrasting ones is valuable (19:21)
- How to consume the news and information, and make better sense of what’s going on (23:00)
- How does a disinformation specialist thrive in a world of information overload (24:45)
Cindy Otis: Thanks for having me.
Ross: You are an expert in disinformation and that’s something that we have lots about these days. Let’s start perhaps with what is disinformation. What’s the difference from misinformation?
Cindy: Right. The key difference between the two terms comes down to intention. With misinformation, it’s false information that people share, not knowing that it’s false. They’re not looking to deceive, they’re not looking to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. By contrast, disinformation is false information in which the creator, the sharer knows that the information is false or misleading and is doing so deliberately. We often see it come up in the context of politics, political issues, whether a person is intentionally trying to mislead on a political topic, for example, but it spans a range of topics.
Ross: Just a little update, the term fake news started to be current in 2016, started to be used a lot, and we’ve had a lot of fake news and we’ve had a lot of disinformation since then. In August 2022, where are we? Is the situation getting worse? What’s the state of play?
Cindy: That’s a big question. I think that the information environment is increasingly complex, it’s increasingly busy and hard to untangle what we’re seeing, why we’re seeing it, how we’re seeing it, and who’s behind it. That is, for better or for worse, is my job to untangle that mess and try to make sense of what’s happening. But for the average information consumer, the average social media user, things are only getting more complicated. The line betweeun what is intentionally spread to deceive and manipulate is getting harder to determine whether it’s intentional, or it’s not intentional.
The other big thing is that technological advances are happening on an everyday basis that make it easier to get information to people and to obscure what it is and who’s behind it. It’s getting easier to trick people because of technological advances. On the positive side, disinformation is a hot new industry so a lot of folks have joined the research community that bring really interesting expertise and backgrounds to it, to this particular problem set. We have certainly made gains in how we’re approaching the problem as well, how we’re looking at it, and the tools that we’re bringing in to be able to do that. But as somebody with a national security background, myself, what worries me the most is how advanced our adversaries are getting in creating and disseminating disinformation.
Ross: You are the author of True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News. Before we dig into that, I’d like to raise a bit of a philosophical point around telling the difference between true and false. Is there absolute truth? How can we unpick differences of opinion as to what is true?
Cindy: It’s a great question and certainly something I struggle with daily. Despite the title of my book, I’m less interested in nitpicking over what is true and what is false, but more in helping folks understand how you make sense of the information you’re seeing, how you unpack who or what is behind it, and how it got into your feed, and then letting you determine given what you have learned through those tools and tactics, do you think the message is true or false. I tend to stick to the analysis of technology, threat actors, and how information gets to people as opposed to trying to determine what is true or false because it gets extremely complicated when you ask those questions.
Ross: Yes, your response gets to my frame, which is how do we get value from information? We’ve got loads of information out there, some of it is valuable, and some of it has negative value because it misleads us or wastes our time. Starting from that idea of spotting fake news or if we could even overlay my view of does it have positive value or negative value, without running through every aspect of your book, I want to get insights. How do people start? Alright, you’re looking at the news, you’re looking at maybe news on some mobile phone, as many do, or even a supposedly reputable website, how do you start to unpick between what is worth looking at and what is not worth looking at?
Cindy: The folks listening to your show are probably pretty savvy information consumers. But first, I would say that we have to account for the fact that we’re all humans at the end of the day. We are emotional creatures, we have emotional reactions to things that mean something to us. Even with all the tips and tricks and technology that you can use to sift and comb through information, organize it, sort it, read it, consume it, and all of that, we’re still emotional beings at the end of the day. As we’re living in, most people would agree, quite tumultuous times across the world, we have to check that, we have to understand that we’re going to have emotional reactions to information as we see it, we’re not machines, we weren’t built to be robots.
With that framework in mind, part of it is recognizing that we’re human, we’re not able to stay on top of every issue, to follow every news event, to follow every country, every city down to the town and village, it’s not possible. We need to be selective about what we’re going to spend our time and attention on. It’s certainly been key to my professional performance and success that I have had to decide what it is that I am going to focus on in my career that’s played out in different areas of expertise.
I spent 10 years at the CIA, I focused on a particular part of the world at any given time in my career. Then I focused from there on a particular domain of expertise. I was a military analyst for half of my career. I worked on security issues, threat issues, that kind of thing. Part of that is because you can’t gain expertise in the world, you can gain expertise in a particular domain so knowing the difference between what is true expertise, because you’ve focused on it, and what is global expertise. Narrowing down and determining what is it that you’re going to follow, read about, pay attention to, and gain expertise in, and being deliberate about that. That will allow folks to narrow down the sheer amount of information that they would otherwise be seeing.
Second, it’s really important to understand where the information that you’re seeing is coming from. Social media platforms, for better or for worse, at least in the United States, the vast majority of Americans get their news and information from social media. It’s the reality we’re living in. Social media platforms have done different things to get different pieces of content into our feeds, regardless of whether we’re following the creator of that content.
It’s important to understand what kind of content you’re looking at. Are you looking at a video? Are you looking at an article? Are you looking at a meme, a GIF, or something like that? Then dig into it a little bit. Who is it coming from? Is it an account you recognize? Is it an expert that you can actually verify their expertise? Does anyone else say that they’re an expert besides the person claiming to be the expert? What have they written? Where have they studied and that sort of thing? That’s a way of crafting a list of sources of information that are on the relatively trustworthy side, which is the next important step. That was a lot I just threw at you.
Ross: Okay, so just starting to unpick that a little bit. On social media, you come across something which says, Oh, that’s interesting or startling, so two major points which I pulled out there, one is to go back and identify the source, are there appropriate expertise to analyze the article, and the other is to build a set of relatively trustworthy sources. We can dig a little bit more into those, but those are the two main starting points to assess information when it comes in.
Cindy: Yes, going back to what I said about narrowing down and accepting that you’re not going to be able to follow everything with a deep level of expertise.
Ross: The danger is that the disinformation is more likely to come your way, you’re not an expert, and we all have areas where we’re not an expert. If it’s in your area of expertise, you probably can filter it pretty easily. If it isn’t, then that’s where you are more likely to get caught out, unfortunately. I like your phrasing, it was relatively trustworthy sources, because there might not be any completely trustworthy sources. Let’s say you’ve got what you believe is a trustworthy source and something comes along which you think, wow, really? How do you respond to that?
Cindy: One of the things that scare me the most is when I get comments from people who are like, I don’t believe anything unless you’ve posted it yourself, or you’ve verified it. I’m like, Oh, my God, I am not on social media all day, I’m not reading all of the news all of the time, I simply don’t have the time, I’m one person. That’s quite an unhealthy way or dangerous way of looking at what a source list can do for you. You’re still dealing with humans who make mistakes at the end of the day. You’re dealing with news outlets, that they have schedules, they’re dealing with breaking news that changes, they’re dealing with sources that they have to then verify themselves, there are all sorts of ways that they can get it wrong as well.
That’s important to recognize when you’re building that list of somewhat trustworthy sources. But in general, I advise folks all the time that what you should be looking for is, is this a source that I can trust? If it’s a news outlet, is it a standards-based news outlet? Did they have editors? Do they have fact checkers? Do they have a review process? Do they have style guides even that influence how they end up talking about things like the trustworthiness of a source? All of that is important for journalists to ensure that the quality of the reporting is the highest that it can be. But again, these are imperfect organizations run by imperfect people.
Cindy: There are different ways that you should be looking at media outlets. Media outlets who are physically closer to the news that they’re reporting, for example, there’s an attack in a certain part of the country, reporters who are on the ground are potentially going to have more accurate up-to-date information than reporters who are getting it second or third hand based in another part of the country. There are things that you want to look at like that. It’s important to look at individual sources of information that way as well. As I said, with great horror, I see those posts that say I only trust something if you, Cindy Otis, have posted about it or verified it. The reality is I’m not an expert on everything. I’m not an expert on the world. I’m a person who has personal opinions, I try to couch things that I share online with this is my opinion versus this is my area of expertise.
News outlets do the same as well. Reputable news outlets have a separate category for editorials’ opinions than they do current coverage. That distinction is hugely, hugely important. With an individual source, you can dig into their background, you can look into where did they study, and where did they work. You can look at how long a person worked at a location. For me, I just came up on my fifth anniversary of leaving the intelligence community. When you come to me for information about or views on current national security events, my information is dated. I’ve been out for five years. It’s important to dig into that deep of a level when you’re building that list of potentially trusted sources of information.
Ross: Another aspect is, you don’t necessarily either need to completely believe or disbelieve something, you can take it on, say, alright, possibly for later…
Cindy: Right, you’re taking bits. I always think of it as my views on the range of issues are like a stovetop with multiple pots and multiple mixtures brewing, I’m constantly adding new information that I’ve learned, things that I’ve read, and observations that I’ve made into each of these pots, and they’re cooking over time. My opinion, my views, and my analysis evolve as I gain more information. When we look at our opinions and our views as one-time only, hard and fast, unchangeable, that’s where we run into a lot of issues in terms of bias in thinking, it’s important to treat your analysis as that pot that you’re constantly adding information and ideas to.
Ross: Fantastic. I’d like to start to dig into how you thrive on overload as you have in your previous roles, and no doubt continue to. Coming specifically on the developing expertise, that was part of your role, your role was to be an expert in particular domains. What were your practices to develop your expertise in an area? As you said, you possibly switched from different geographies or areas of expertise, so when you’re coming to a new area of expertise, what was your process? What was the information you did? How did you build the sets of understanding which enabled you to know more than others?
Cindy: When I’m delving into a new area that maybe isn’t an area of expertise, or a strong suit for me yet, but even as an expert, I’m constantly reading as much as I possibly can get my hands on. I’m reading from both news reporting, I’m reading from academia, from experts in research communities, I’m looking at government publications, I’m looking at foreign publications, I’m looking at individual experts who are considered well respected in their fields, and I’m just trying to gather as much information as possible because it’s really important to balance the various sources that you’re looking at. Tapping into the academic communities, you’re going to learn quite a different view on a topic than you’re going to learn from practitioners, for example.
We have the benefit of just having so much information and thought on any topic out there; of course, it can feel overwhelming, but by just trying to get your hands on it as much as possible and again, looking at the backgrounds of the people who are in the organizations that are putting that content out there. It’s not just Googling this particular topic and reading everything that comes up in the first 50 pages, but looking at what are well-respected organizations, academic institutions, and experts in the field, are putting out there.
Then as I’m reading, I’m taking notes, I’m jotting down what are the commonalities that I’m seeing in what people are saying about this topic, and what are the differences. Who are those differences between, organizations or individuals? I’m looking for what is the current school of thought. I’m also looking at how is this school of thought on this particular issue evolved, because historical context on any issue is just invaluable to have. How has thinking on this changed? What has influenced the change in thinking? Are there differences between different communities on this particular topic? It’s a process, it’s long but that’s generally how I start.
Ross: I love that. That’s really insightful actually. Just to stay that back a little bit, finding and reading the different categories of experts or sources of information, reputable ones, where you can find their sources, but ones which would have different perspectives. The idea of the commonality is that differences are critical because if all the experts agree, then that’s looking pretty good. But also what specifically are the differences, I think that’s really valuable. I love that idea about how these ideas have evolved, what is the school of thought? If you can identify a school of thought, maybe say, you can identify several schools of thought, that’s picking the differences but also establishing frames on it, then that’s really valuable seeing how these schools of thought have evolved, and why they’ve evolved, and how is that thinking changed. That’s great. Do you then crystallize that yourself into some kind of a framework or thesis or structure? Or is this all in your head?
Cindy: It’s just all in my head. It’s obvious when you say it out loud that that would be an organized approach that might work. But I’m continuously surprised when I get approached by tech startups, or I get approached by a policymaker or somebody in a position where they’re trying to generate ideas, and they’ve not done the first few steps of going back and seeing what has been tried before. They see a problem. They think the problem started the day they recognized it, and they try to solve it. It’s so important to know whether you’re talking about foreign policy, or you’re talking about a technological innovation, or disinformation, where have we been before? Where’s the current community going? Are there differences in those communities?
Ross: Yes, fabulous. You’ve raised the question in my mind, of the current crop of disinformation startups, is there any which you think are particularly interesting?
Cindy: That’s a good question. I tend to gravitate towards any approach, the problem set from trying to analyze and identify the tactics, techniques, and procedures of threat actors. I’m less interested in technological solutions that are very nascent at this point, very much dependent on improving the natural language processing capabilities, that focus on trying to determine whether an online narrative is true or false for the reasons we talked about, it just is a very incredibly difficult thing to do for humans and AI. I’m much more interested in organizations that focus more on the threat actor.
Ross: Interesting. So identifying who the threat actors are, and some of the pathways by which they might be disseminating information.
Cindy: Yes, exactly. Those are the ones where it’s much more clear-cut that they’re attempting to deceive so you don’t have to answer that question of why are they doing this, they’re attempting to deceive. You get to work in what is a much more fun space in looking at, how did they get that information in front of social media users? Who are they targeting specifically? How do they try to cover their tracks?
Ross: Fantastic. In terms of just any daily practices, how do you consume the news, and information, and make sense of what’s going on? Is there anything we can learn from what you’re doing yourself?
Cindy: I don’t know if you can learn anything from it. But here we go. I am extremely intentional about who I follow on social media across all of the platforms. If I respect somebody, but I maybe don’t think they’re providing as much value as I want to see in my feed, I might follow them but mute them. I won’t name names. I read from certain publications, but I do read widely across the spectrum when it comes to political ideology. It’s important to know what communities are saying. I do read widely, but I have a fairly short-ish list of publications that I read from. Otherwise, I would spend my entire life doing nothing but reading.
I use some tools, free in some cases, open-source tools that help you sort, and help you search and discover. Tools like Buzzsumo is a favorite of mine. It’s a way of seeing headlines and topics and seeing engagement on those as well which is important in my work. I’m constantly looking at it when trying to understand the impact of a particular disinformation campaign, looking at how many eyeballs this reached, how many social media feeds did this show up in, that can be really helpful in understanding that. But it also is helpful just to know what the headlines are across a wide variety of sources.
Ross: What other software tools do you use?
Cindy: Buzzsumo is one of my favorites. I do a lot of network analysis so I’m looking at what accounts are linked to each other. I do network mapping. In disinformation analysis, when you’re hunting down, who’s doing what, who saw it, who’s behind it, and how did it get there, the number of tabs that I have open at any given time is just ridiculous. I have to meticulously map what points I’m going to, am I checking a Facebook page? Was there anything on the Facebook page? Am I checking a news site? And gathering data from all of those sources, so it can quickly become completely unwieldy.
You don’t necessarily know what you have found until you’ve found it, you just keep digging further down into the rabbit hole. It’s really important for me in my work to be documenting every step in an investigation, so that I can retrace my steps later if I need to, or understand even where I need to go back to when I determine that maybe I’d gone off in the wrong direction, and I need to get back to where I saw the initial information, so I do a lot of documentation. That can look like anything from literally a Word document and an Excel spreadsheet where I’m dropping bits that I’ve gathered, or it can look a little more sophisticated like using a tool like Hunchly. Those are the basics.
Ross: Fantastic. That’s great. There’s definitely plenty to learn from that. In terms of just rounding out, you as an analyst, as an expert, as a disinformation specialist, but in terms of just helping all of us, what’s your advice in a world of overload on how it is we can thrive? What are a few points or recommendations you can make to our audience?
Cindy: I think people underestimate the emotional toll that overload can give us. I know I have at different points in my career, not realized that I was overloaded and burned out until I was well into all of it. It makes us less able actually to handle the information we’re looking at. It makes it more difficult to do critical thinking. In my career field, it made me less able to do my job because I was so overloaded. It’s important to recognize the emotional toll that different kinds of content and overload in content can wreak on our brains, and then implement things to help us overcome that. People are always surprised when I say this, but I’m a huge proponent of taking breaks of doing normal human things like putting your phone down and going for a walk. It’s incredibly important.
As a former CIA military analyst, I dealt with a lot of disturbing content about conflicts that were happening in other countries. You don’t think that sitting on your computer in this safe town in the United States that it’s going to have such an impact on you, but it does because again, you’re human, you have emotions, you’re a person, and you feel. It’s important to be able to take those breaks, to have those moments of reset, to have those moments of stepping away from it all, getting fresh air, getting some vitamin D, and talking to some friends. Having a community is important as well in your particular area of expertise where you’re working, or just as an average information consumer, it’s important to have other people that you can talk to.
I think people are probably surprised to know that if you visited CIA headquarters, you would see a lot of people walking together with a partner, friend, or colleague, with a coffee in their hand around the building. They’re taking breaks, they’re discussing complex ideas with a partner, they’re unloading, they’re getting some time to discuss how they’re feeling with somebody who completely understands them, at least professionally. Those moments are hugely, hugely important and will make us better able to handle the information we’re consuming daily and think about it in smart ways.
Ross: Fantastic. That’s been really insightful. You are truly an expert in the field. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with our audience, Cindy.
Cindy: Thanks, Ross.