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Author Interview: 'True Or False'


By now you've certainly heard the term fake news thrown around a lot, often by people to dismiss information they don't like. And while legacy news organizations like NPR are obviously concerned about this, so are many other Americans. Last year, a study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly 70% of Americans say that, quote, "made-up news and information greatly impacts Americans' confidence in government institutions," unquote. And just over half say it's affected their confidence in their fellow Americans.

Well, Cindy Otis isn't just worried about fake news - she decided to do something about it using her years of expertise as a former CIA analyst to help educate news consumers. She shares her tips and insights in a new book called "True Or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide To Spotting Fake News." And she's with us now to tell us more about it.

Cindy Otis, thank you so much for joining us.

CINDY OTIS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You spend the first few chapters focused on the history of fake news, you know, pointing out that this is a tactic that's been used through millennia, which I found fascinating. But I have to say that one of the kind of the shocking points that you make in the book - at least, I think it might be shocking to some - is that you said that it is time for a massive disclaimer. Almost all governments, including the United States, have used fake news as a weapon to influence events in other countries, though they usually call it disinformation.

Most countries use their intelligence services to do so. And in America's case, that means the CIA. Did you know that? I mean, I know that you're really proud to work at the CIA. It was a lifelong goal of yours through your studies. You're certainly proud to work there. You still are. But did you know that? Do you think most Americans know that?

OTIS: You know, I did know that going into it. Covert action is something that intelligence agencies use. And it's a capability that in particular the CIA has to employ when it is, you know, legal and approved by the highest offices in government. So I did know that. There's certainly a lot of information out there in the public domain now about times in which the U.S. intelligence community has really bungled it.

And I felt like it was very important to recognize that - that as a CIA analyst writing about the perils of using this that I admit that the organization that I came from, that I worked in - it was part of their responsibility to use things like influence, information influence.

MARTIN: So what is it, then, about this moment that feels particularly dire, that in your view is particularly dire and warrants a lot of thought and intervention on the part - and scrutiny and careful thought on the part of most citizens?

OTIS: Well, you know, as I mention in the book and I talk about, as you said, for multiple chapters, you know, fake news isn't new. The kinds of narratives that different actors have used throughout history to spread false information - none of that is new. But what's new and therefore so much more dangerous nowadays is technology and social media that allows false information to spread in a way we've never seen before.

And we're certainly living through it right now. We call this time period as disinformation experts an infodemic (ph) because we have a global pandemic, we have national unrest over police violence and we have an upcoming presidential election with just enormous stakes.

And so the amount of false information, misinformation and disinformation that is swirling on our platforms on a minute-to-minute basis is something we've - you know, at this scale and scope, something we've never seen before. And it has the ability to reach people all across the world instantly. Things go viral within seconds these days. And so the problem is just that much harder to solve and really grapple with.

MARTIN: So your book is a practical guide. You give concrete tips about how to spot fake news. Could you just give us some of your tips?

OTIS: Sure. So, first, I always start with making sure you're asking, where is your information coming from? What is it that you're looking at? Is it a social media post that links to a website that you can look on and see, you know, who's running this website? Where are they getting their information? Are there authors listed that I can that I can research and verify? Am I looking at a picture? Has the picture been used before? Is it maybe being used out of context?

With visuals like pictures or videos, the problem is so often that there - they are actual videos or pictures. They're not even edited, but they're simply just taken out of context. They might have been from five years ago and now are being used as evidence of something, you know, allegedly going on now.

So asking those questions first and foremost of, what is it that I'm seeing, where is it coming from, who's putting it out there is a really important first step. And then, from there, investigating those people, those companies, the source of the information. So much of what goes viral on social media these days are from, you know, accounts sharing a personal story that happens to make us feel something. That's one of the ways that the disinformation spreads so effectively, is because it appeals to our emotions. It makes us feel angry or afraid or anxiety. And as a result, it sort of shuts off that critical thinking part of our brains that would otherwise make us stop and ask, you know, where is this coming from?

So, you know, it's also important to realize that when we do have that strong emotional reaction, the very best thing we can do is take a break, pause, wait until we're not feeling as emotionally charged or triggered from it and then do some investigating. Those personal stories sure are hard to verify when people are sharing them. And so when in doubt, I simply don't share them just in case they're wrong.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, after everything you've seen as an analyst, as a person who has dedicated your career to serving in this way and to helping separate, you know, fact from fiction, do you feel hopeful or not about our ability to see our way through this?

OTIS: I'm hopeful for a number of reasons. One, there is a lot of opportunity for us to work on this problem as a country, at the government level, at the private sector level, academia, the nonprofit space. There's just an enormous opportunity to really take on this challenge.

And then, on the more sort of basic side of things, I suppose, I have a lot of hope because the No. 1 question I still get from people on social media and at events and things like that is they want to know how to talk to their friends and family and neighbors about false content. They want to help people understand their - what they're seeing and what they're putting out there, and they want to do it in a way that actually does help.

And so the fact that people still want to have those conversations and still want to help arm others with good information gives me a lot of reason for hope. And then I also get emails and messages all the time from people who say, I started doing this - this thing that you talked about in your book - and I found, you know, I haven't been looking at a good source - all the way to my - you know, my parents, who are in an older generation. They've implemented some of the tips and tools that I talk about in my book, and they're learning things.

And so from young adults who are consuming this information all the way up to my parents' generation, they're seeing results by adopting better practices. And so that gives me reason for hope as well.

MARTIN: That's Cindy Otis. Her new book, "True Or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide To Spotting Fake News," is out now.

Cindy Otis, thank you so much for talking with us.

OTIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.