[Paleopsych] U.S. Dept. of State: How to Identify Misinformation
checker at panix.com
Mon Sep 5 20:57:58 UTC 2005
Greetings from the UVa library, folks! Sarah and I are here on our annual
trip to Charlottesville.
How to Identify Misinformation
How can a journalist or a news consumer tell if a story is true or
false? There are no exact rules, but the following clues can help
indicate if a story or allegation is true.
* Does the story fit the pattern of a conspiracy theory?
* Does the story fit the pattern of an "urban legend?"
* Does the story contain a shocking revelation about a highly
* Is the source trustworthy?
* What does further research tell you?
Does the story fit the pattern of a conspiracy theory?
Does the story claim that vast, powerful, evil forces are secretly
manipulating events? If so, this fits the profile of a conspiracy
theory. Conspiracy theories are rarely true, even though they have
great appeal and are often widely believed. In reality, events
usually have much less exciting explanations.
The U.S. military or intelligence community is a favorite villain in
many conspiracy theories.
For example, the Soviet disinformation apparatus regularly blamed the
U.S. military or intelligence community for a variety of natural
disasters as well as political events. In March 1992, then-Russian
foreign intelligence chief Yevgeni Primakov admitted that the
disinformation service of the Soviet KGB intelligence service had
concocted the false story that the AIDS virus had been created in a US
military laboratory as a biological weapon. When AIDS was first
discovered, no one knew how this horrifying new disease had arisen,
although scientists have now used DNA analysis to determine that "all
HIV-1 strains known to infect man" are closely related to a simian
immunodeficiency virus found in a western equatorial African
chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes troglodytes. But the Soviets used
widespread suspicions about the U.S. military to blame it for AIDS.
(More details on this.)
In his book 9/11: The Big Lie, French author Thierry Meyssan falsely
claimed that no plane hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Instead, he claimed that the building had been struck by a cruise
missile fired by elements within the U.S. government. No such vast
conspiracy existed and many eyewitness accounts and evidence gathered
on the scene confirmed that the hijacked airliner had struck the
building. But, nevertheless, the book was a best-seller in France and
has been translated into 19 languages, demonstrating the power that
even the most groundless conspiracy theories can have. (More
details on 9/11: The Big Lie.)
Does the story fit the pattern of an "urban legend?"
Is the story startlingly good, bad, amazing, horrifying, or otherwise
seemingly "too good" or "too terrible" to be true? If so, it may be
an "urban legend." Urban legends, which often circulate by word of
mouth, e-mail, or the Internet, are false claims that are widely
believed because they put a common fear, hope, suspicion, or other
powerful emotion into story form.
For example, after the September 11 attacks, a story arose that
someone had survived the World Trade Center collapse by "surfing" a
piece of building debris from the 82^nd floor to the ground. Of
course, no one could survive such a fall, but many initially believed
this story, out of desperate hope that some people trapped in the
towers miraculously survived their collapse. (More details on
Another September 11 urban legend is that an undamaged Bible was found
in the midst of the crash site at the Pentagon. In reality, it was a
dictionary. But, if a Bible had survived unscathed, that would have
seemed much more significant, and been seen by many as a sign of
divine intervention. (More details on this.)
Since 1987, the false story that Americans or others are kidnapping or
adopting children in order to use them in organ transplants has been
widely believed. There is absolutely no evidence that any such event
has ever occurred, but such allegations have won the most prestigious
journalism prizes in France in 1995 and Spain in 1996. (More
details on this.)
This urban legend is based on fears about both organ transplantation
and international adoptions, both of which were relatively new
practices in the 1980s. As advances in medical science made organ
transplantation more widespread, unfounded fears began to spread that
people would be murdered for their organs. At the same time, there
were also unfounded fears about the fate of infants adopted by
foreigners and taken far from their home countries. The so-called
"baby parts" rumor combined both these fears in story form, which gave
it great credibility even though there was absolutely no evidence for
In late 2004, a reporter for Saudi Arabia's Al Watan newspaper
repeated a version of the organ trafficking urban legend, falsely
claiming that U.S. forces in Iraq were harvesting organs from dead or
wounded Iraqis for sale in the United States. This shows how the
details of urban legends can change, to fit different circumstances.
(More details in English and Arabic.)
Highly controversial issues
AIDS, organ transplantation, international adoption, and the September
11 attacks are all new, frightening or, in some ways, discomforting
topics. Such highly controversial issues are natural candidates for
the rise of false rumors, unwarranted fears and suspicions. Another
example of a highly controversial issue is depleted uranium, a
relatively new armor-piercing substance that was used by the U.S.
military for the first time during the 1991 Gulf War.
There are many exaggerated fears about depleted uranium because people
associate it with weapons-grade uranium or fuel-grade uranium, which
are much more dangerous substances. When most people hear the word
uranium, a number of strongly held associations spring to mind,
including the atomic bomb, Hiroshima, nuclear reactors, radiation
illness, cancer, and birth defects.
Depleted uranium is what is left over when natural uranium is enriched
to make weapons-grade or fuel-grade uranium. In the process, the
uranium loses, or is depleted, of almost half its radioactivity, which
is how depleted uranium gets its name. But facts like this are less
important in peoples' minds than the deeply ingrained associations
they have with the world "uranium." For this reason, most people
believe that depleted uranium is much more dangerous than it actually
is. (More details on depleted uranium in English and Arabic.)
Another highly controversial issue is that of forbidden weapons, such
as chemical or biological weapons. The United States is regularly,
and falsely, accused of using these weapons. (More details on this in
English and Arabic.)
In the same way, many other highly controversial issues are naturally
prone to misunderstanding and false rumors. Any highly controversial
issue or taboo behavior is ripe material for false rumors and urban
Consider the source
Certain websites, publications, and individuals are known for
spreading false stories, including:
* Aljazeera.com, a deceptive, look-alike website that has sought
to fool people into thinking it is run by the Qatari satellite
television station Al Jazeera
* Jihad Unspun, a website run by a Canadian woman who converted
to Islam after the September 11 attacks when she became convinced
that Osama bin Laden was right
* Islam Memo (Mafkarat-al-Islam), which spreads a great deal of
disinformation about Iraq.
(More details on Islam Memo and Jihad Unspun in English and
There are many conspiracy theory websites, which contain a great deal
of unreliable information. Examples include:
* Australian "private investigator" Joe Vialls, who died in 2005
* Conspiracy Planet
Extremist groups, such as splinter communist parties, often publish
disinformation. This can be especially difficult to identify if the
false allegations are published by front groups. Front groups purport
to be independent, non-partisan organizations but actually controlled
by political parties or groups. Some examples of front groups are:
* The International Action Center, which is a front group for a
splinter communist party called the Workers World Party
* The Free Arab Voice, a website that serves as a front for Arab
communist Muhammad Abu Nasr and his colleagues.
(More details on Muhammad Abu Nasr in English or Arabic.)
Research the allegations
The only way to determine whether an allegation is true or false is to
research it as thoroughly as possible. Of course, this may not always
be possible given publication deadlines and time pressures, but there
is no substitute for thorough research, going back to the original
sources. Using the Internet, many allegations can be fairly
thoroughly researched in a matter of hours.
For example, in July 2005, the counter-misinformation team researched
the allegation that U.S. soldiers in Iraq had killed innocent Iraqi
boys playing football and then "planted" rocket-propelled grenades
(RPGs) next to them, to make it appear that they were insurgents.
Using a variety of search terms in "Google," a researcher was able to
find the article and photographs upon which the allegations were
based. Because weapons did not appear in the initial photographs, but
did appear in later photographs, some observers believed this was
evidence that the weapons had been planted and that the boys who had
been killed were not armed insurgents.
The researcher was also able to find weblog entries (numbered 100
and 333, on June 26 and July 15, 2005) from the commanding officer of
the platoon that was involved in the incident and another member of
his platoon. The weblog entries made it clear that:
* the teenaged Iraqi boys were armed insurgents;
* after the firefight between U.S. troops and the insurgents was
over, the dead, wounded and captured insurgents were initially
photographed separated from their weapons because the first
priority was to make sure that it was impossible for any of the
surviving insurgents to fire them again;
* following medical treatment for the wounded insurgents, they were
photographed with the captured weapons displayed, in line with
Iraqi government requirements;
* the insurgents were hiding in a dense palm grove, where visibility
was limited to 20 meters, not a likely place for a football game,
and they were seen carrying the RPGs on their shoulders.
Thus, an hour or two of research on the Internet was sufficient to
establish that the suspicions of the bloggers that the weapons had
been planted on innocent Iraqi boys playing football were unfounded.
Finally, if the counter-misinformation team can be of help, ask us.
We can't respond to all requests for information, but if a request is
reasonable and we have the time, we will do our best to provide
accurate, authoritative information.
Created: 27 Jul 2005 Updated: 27 Jul 2005
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