Former GCHQ Director: Why Thinking Like A Spy Can Fight Fake News

With coronavirus misinformation rampant in online forums, it can be hard for the average internet user to be confident about what they are reading.

Online information has in the past been used to mislead and influence key political decisions, with experts suggesting that tackling the phenomenon during the health crisis should be a priority.

Towards the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, the Ministry of Defence sent a team to the Cabinet Office to help stop online misinformation being spread over the crisis.

BFBS Sitrep spoke to the former Director of GCHQ, Sir David Omand, author of the new book 'How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence', to tell us more about his approach to dealing with fake news.

Why should I think like a spy?

"I started thinking about this book after the Brexit referendum and then the 2016 US Presidential election as they were being reflected on social media and I felt I wanted to send out a call to arms in favour of more rational analysis.

"Less half-truths, distortions, fake news, all of the stuff which we have seen on social media, not all of it coming from Russia, I may say, some coming from our own political class."

Instead, Sir David sees a clear need for a more discerning mindset, that is inherently cynical of information that’s harder to verify.

"I think we need to get back to being able to distill what we see and read on social media and analyse it as to what is true and what is false, which led me to the basic question, 'What do you need to know to take a sound decision?'"

Cyber - Using a computer keyboard CREDIT MOD
Sir David Omand recommends a more discerning mindset when approaching online information (Picture: MOD).

How do I think like a spy?

"What we have to do is, inside our own heads, hold together two different kinds of thinking – one is cold, rational analysis… but the other part is emotionally driven."

Mr Omand recommends approaching online material with a keen awareness of how it can affect you emotionally.

"What do you want to get out of the decision? What do you fear and you hope the decision might help you avoid? 

"So you have to know yourself, understand the extent to which, emotionally, you are being swayed."

How can thinking like a spy help me?

"One of the things I want people to get out of the book, if they read it, is that the sort of techniques, the sort of approach which is taken by defence analysts trying to put together, or an intelligence analyst trying to put together, a picture, those are applicable to everyday life as well."

Sir David suggests applying spy-like analysis to help you discern what sources of information are worth trusting.

"When you have any decision to take and we all have decisions to take, some are very big – where you decide to live, what kind of job you might pitch for. Some appear small like will you wear a mask in the street this afternoon that could affect the welfare of others.

"You’ve got all these decisions to take if you go online to try and gather information about a purchase or a holiday or a political opinion. 

"Can I explain what is going on behind the marketplace that, for example, I’m thinking of using for some purchase?"  

You can hear the Sitrep programme this interview was taken from live on Thursdays on BFBS Radio 2 at 16:30 (UK time) and at 18:30 (UK time) BFBS via DAB+ across the UK. 

Listen online and via our radio App in the UK and overseas.  Hear BFBS also on FM in Scotland, Colchester, Salisbury Plain, Aldershot, Catterick, Brize Norton, Lisburn, Holywood and Aldergrove and Blandford Forum in the UK and on all overseas stations. 

On Sky Channel 0211/Freesat 786.

Click here to listen live.

Cover image: The GCHQ building in Cheltenham (Picture: Crown Copyright).

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