Former CIA Deception Expert Tells Us Five Ways to Detect Fake News


screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-4-13-18-pmPhil Houston is CEO of QVerity, a training and consulting company specializing in detecting deception by employing a model he developed while at the Central Intelligence Agency. He has conducted thousands of interviews and interrogations for the CIA and other federal agencies. His colleague Don Tennant contributed to this report. 

It should surprise no one that the fake news phenomenon has gained so much prominence and notoriety in such a short period of time. If this presidential election proved nothing else, it proved that there’s a lot to be said for the old axiom that truth is stranger than fiction. Our senses have become so dulled by all the seemingly unimaginable real news that breaks on a daily basis that fake news, no matter how preposterous it might initially appear, suddenly becomes plausible. What in the past might have been a giant leap from real news to fake news now is little more than a baby step.

With all of this mind-blowing real news bombarding us every day, a different expectation has been set in terms of what it takes to pique readers’ interest in a story. As readers gradually find themselves dependent on more and more outlandish fare to capture and retain their attention, writers of fake news are able to tap into that dependency to draw in more people to support what has become an enormously lucrative venture. To help readers avoid being roped in, we have identified five key clues—elements that characterize almost every fake news story—that make spotting fictitious content relatively simple:

  1. Crazy claims. We’ve been told for years that the best way to spot a con artist is to remember that if the outcome he promises is too good to be true, it probably is. The same concept is applicable here: If a “news” story is too crazy to be true, it probably is.
  2. Incredulous introduction. Watch out for phrases in the top of the story that acknowledge the incredible, unbelievable nature of what’s coming. Examples are “As preposterous as it might appear,” or “Unimaginable as it may seem.”
  3. Audacious repetition. Consider this scenario: Your coworker walks into your office with a stunned look on his face and says, “Are you ready for this? Santa Claus is sick!” Your natural response is to roll your eyes and say something like, “Go away, I don’t have time for this.” But then he looks at you with a troubled expression on his face and says, “No, I mean it, Santa’s really sick.” The moment  he says that, he has suddenly captured your attention, and you find yourself asking something like, “What do you mean, Santa Claus is sick?” At that point, without realizing it, you’ve begun the process of buying into the fake story. You’re now asking a question about it, whereas just a moment earlier, you were telling the guy to get out, because you were too busy for this nonsense. Suddenly it matters in your life, because while Santa is fictitious to you, he’s not fictitious to your kids—it has some relevance to you. Writers of fake news stories have learned the value of leveraging the psychology of repetition—the more something is repeated, the more believable it becomes. Consider how Madison Avenue advertising works: The magic number is three. If the consumer receives the message three times, research has shown that he may not buy the product immediately, but the door has been opened to his willingness to at least consider buying it.
  4. Hyper hyperbole. Over-the-top statements of degree permeate the story. The news isn’t just “significant,” it’s “absolutely astounding.” Similarly, if the story has to do with some misfortune, it’s not just “serious” or “bad,” it’s “the worst thing we have ever seen.”
  5. Validation void. Invariably, fake news lacks substance in terms of sourcing—the sources tend to be vague and unidentifiable. At the same time, there tends to be no actionable information in the story, in the sense that there’s nowhere within reason to go to attempt to validate it.

What makes the immediate spotting of fake news so critical is that its lucrative nature encourages viral reporting on it. Other media outlets, driven by the profits generated by thousands or millions of page views, start to pick up on it. Since there is no substance to the story, there’s no value to add, so it’s a simple matter of reporting what has been reported. The exponential repetition makes the story exponentially more believable, and before you know it, people are sending get well cards to Santa.

We can assure you that there’s no need. Sources close to the situation have confirmed that Santa is on the mend, and will be in fine shape by Dec. 24.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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