"That's Old Fake News": The impact of the information age on intelligence analysts
By Neil Quarmby, CEO Intelligence Rising
Are we in an age of Fake News? I recently came across a very good pictorial representation of bias in the US media – which can usefully be mirrored across other countries. Accompanying the picture was some discussion from intelligence academics around living in the ‘post-truth age’ and the difficulties this affords unbiased analysis by intelligence professionals.
Is it just the arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene that has led some to posit the end of enlightenment and an age of untruths? If so, does this raise the baffling idea being that politicians have never misrepresented the truth in the past? So, is this viewpoint, in itself, a mistruth? One could just as easily argue that truth and lies have been a commodity since Ugg decided the cave needed a president and that he was the best early-human for the job. So why do some people feel there is increased pressure on attaining objectivity in intelligence analysis when, arguably, the reason intelligence has become a profession over the last several hundred years was to assist decision-makers to see through the noise of information and disinformation.
On the one hand, the behaviour which induces misleading information has not really changed. This behaviour stems from all that makes us differ, be creative and be innovative. It reflects our association to what gives us value in our lives – be it a sense of race, nation, creed, religion, eating habits, football codes, etc. It is evident in out emotive or faith-based perceptions of right or wrong, good or bad. It is also reflective of humanity’s darker side: the need to create distinction through social dislocation, gain power over others, or gain commercial or political advantage.
However, there are some real influences of the information age adding complexity to the life of the analyst pursuing objectivity. The information age hasn’t yet delivered the transparency and openness of information that negates secrecy and the need for clandestine and covert collection systems. However, it has delivered massed data-holdings, offers information to the furthest reaches of the world, and provides alternative voices to traditional media outlets. Accepted ‘truths’ that guide people’s interpretation of themselves and their lives can be tested through alternative voices. This may have contributed to reduced participation in many traditional forms of work, religious or national associations and contributed to the rise of new value associations (through the influence of social media and targeted advertising) and new introspections such as environmental concerns and gender issues). To have power over others, one needs funding. So, with diminishing net taxpayers, some of this shift is accompanied by increasingly shrill messaging – especially guilt messaging or messaging of victimology. Like traditional value associations, the new forms are often faith based or experiential based. Meaning analysts searching for ‘real facts’ have to sort through personalised commentary, confused sources, mis-represented evidence, and their own guilt or bias complexes.
There are also shifts in global actors – including non-state actors, and commercial actors who are tied to vested interest. Hence while there is nothing new about having skewed media reporting and hidden motives behind messaging, there is an ability with the wealth of information available and the breadth of information available to actively paralyse analysis and response to real issues. On balance then, the information age has not made it as easy for analysts as the messaging of the IT analytics sector would suggest!