[Paleopsych] U.S. Dept. of State: How to Identify Misinformation

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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
        controversial issue?
      * 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.
    ([1]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.  ([2]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.  ([3]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.  ([4]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.  ([5]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
    the allegation.

    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 [6]English and [7]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 [8]English and [9]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
    [10]English and [11]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:
      * [12]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
      * [13]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
      * [14]Islam Memo (Mafkarat-al-Islam), which spreads a great deal of
        disinformation about Iraq.

    (More details on Islam Memo and Jihad Unspun in [15]English and

    There are many conspiracy theory websites, which contain a great deal
    of unreliable information.  Examples include:
      * [17]Rense.com
      * Australian "private investigator" [18]Joe Vialls, who died in 2005
      * [19]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 [20]International Action Center, which is a front group for a
        splinter communist party called the [21]Workers World Party

      * The [22]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 [23]English or [24]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 [25]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 [26]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


    1. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Jan/14-777030.html
    2. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Jun/28-581634.html
    3. http://www.snopes.com/rumors/survivor.htm
    4. http://www.snopes.com/rumors/bible.htm
    5. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive_Index/The_Baby_Parts_Myth.html
    6. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Jan/14-475342.html
    7. http://usinfo.state.gov/ar/Archive/2005/May/13-191292.html
    8. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Jan/24-107572.html
    9. http://usinfo.state.gov/ar/Archive/2005/May/13-329204.html
   10. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Mar/11-723838.html
   11. http://usinfo.state.gov/ar/Archive/2005/May/13-315186.html
   12. http://aljazeera.com/
   13. http://www.jihadunspun.net/
   14. http://www.islammemo.cc/
   15. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Apr/08-205989.html
   16. http://usinfo.state.gov/ar/Archive/2005/May/13-401696.html
   17. http://www.rense.com/
   18. http://www.vialls.com/
   19. http://www.conspiracyplanet.com/
   20. http://www.iacenter.org/
   21. http://www.workersworld.net/wwp
   22. http://www.freearabvoice.org/
   23. http://usinfo.state.gov/media/Archive/2005/Apr/08-205989.html
   24. http://usinfo.state.gov/ar/Archive/2005/May/13-401696.html
   25. http://www.nogw.com/download/2005_plant_weapons.pdf
   26. http://www.roadstoiraq.com/index.php?p=361

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