Why where you get your ‘news’ from matters

When you work in intelligence there is nothing more important than accuracy. Whatever your source – human, intercept, imagery – you need to determine how true it is before you use it in assessments that get passed on to decision makers. The usual way to do this is through corroboration: getting the same facts from multiple sources.

On rare occasions you only have one major source and you therefore have to run with that. So what happens if that one source is lying? Anyone remember Curveball, the Iraqi source that embellished Saddam Hussain’s WMD programme? Look where that got us! Bad input leads to bad output and, in the worst case, horrendous decisions and actions.

I am of course no longer in intelligence but all this came back to me while reading Red Famine by Anne Applebaum, a very good account of the Stalin-manufactured famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. Despite incontrovertible facts on the ground – literally ‘on the ground’ as people were dying of starvation and falling where they stood – the Soviet regime was in full denial mode. They ascribed the deaths to ‘bad harvests’ and ‘bad weather’ and ‘kulak counter-revolutionary activity’, not state-induced food confiscation and the disastrous agricultural collectivisation programme. They also benefited from ‘fellow travelers’ like the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty who (in)famously told his readers “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation (NB estimates of the death toll range as high as 4.5 MILLION) but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition.” Heck they even executed statisticians responsible for the 1937 census who noted a massive drop in the Ukrainian population!

It took a long time for the truth to come out and, as a Canadian, and one whose maternal grandparents emigrated to my country from Ukraine before WWI, I am proud to say that Ukrainian Canadians played a major part in ensuring that truth eventually emerged. But why I am going on about this in a blog on terrorism? Not because a case can be made that this campaign was in essence state-sponsored terrorism, which I think it can, but rather because it relates to how we obtain and consume news and information. Those in Ukraine and the USSR had one source and one source only: the State. And the State sure as hell wasn’t going to admit that collectivisation was a mistake and that it had ordered Communist thugs to steal people’s last scraps of food, leaving them to starve to death. The State went further and banned travel to or from the region so that the world would not know what was happening either.

We of course are in a different place now. We have ‘the Internet’ and social media to keep us informed. These tools were celebrated at first as a wonderful way to shed light into the corners of the world and provide us with accurate, real-time info. And how has that worked out? Well, taking terrorism as a small example we have ‘learned’ that:

  • China’s actions in Xinjiang are only aimed at rooting out ‘terrorism’
  • Nigeria has Boko Haram ‘on the ropes’ and will defeat the terrorist group ‘soon’
  • India has shut down the Internet in Kashmir to prevent terrorism

and so on.

My advice to readers is simple: be careful with what you see. Pretend you are an intelligence analyst asked to prepare a summary of what we know about ‘X’. Diversify your sources. Question official ones – often. Learn as much as you can about X before you start writing about it. Be humble with your assessment and stay away from definitive statements. Admit there is much you don’t know, but will do your best to find out.

Today we are faced not only with terrorism but with populism and extremism that tell us ‘______ (Islam, immigration, ‘libtards’, etc.) is bad’ and needs to be attacked. Far too many violent incidents are tied to misinformation and disinformation. Far too many purveyors of this have far too many followers and devoted fans. A lot of this is going unchallenged. This has to change.

We need to become better analysts. All of us.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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