Evaluating ‘Sources’ in Fake News Like You’re in the CIA

Want to know how to evaluate the memo alleging Trump is run by the Russians, and that they have video of him and his golden showers? I can tell you. Read.

The use of anonymous sources was once a major line for a journalist to cross.

By not naming a source, the journalist insists you trust them. Did they talk to an intern or a policymaker? Every source has an agenda; if we don’t know the source we have no idea of the agenda. Was the journalist trying to act carefully, but was fooled themselves? Remember the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and the way the press facilitated that via articles based on unnamed sources we now know were Bush administration officials with fake tales of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Anonymous sources have their place. With Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post tried to use his information as a tool to work backwards to verifiable truths, or to allow them to reach people who would go on the record. Part of Edward Snowden’s credibility came from his named status.

2016: New Rules

The 2016 election appears to have changed the rules. Writers seem to be able to publish potentially game-changing stories based only on unnamed sources, with little or no collaborating evidence other than “it might be true.” And how can one refute an anonymous source presenting unique information, say something pulled from a highly classified document the public may never see? Adding to the question of credibility, the stories often track the writer’s political stance.

Many readers feel they have only two options: take the writer’s word for it, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, then left like online roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news.

Thinking Like a Spy

So how do readers try to reasonably exercise some healthy skepticism and critical thought? One way is to apply tests intelligence officers follow to help them evaluate their own sources.

  • Is the source in a position to know what they say they know? Someone in Human Resources who says a guy in the Analysis section is underpaid and vulnerable to recruitment, yep. Someone in Human Resources who says they have the embassy’s economic predictions for Country X for next year, hmmm. One of the ways Snowden’s critics sought to discredit him was to claim he could not have had access to the information he released (and so it must be fake.) When this idea is worked backwards – you are out looking for a source on some subject – it is known as spotting.
  • The “position to know” idea scales up sharply when a source says they are privy to conversations well-above their pay grade; how would they know the contents of a call the president made? Anyone who claims to know the why behind some action, what was in the heads of the decision makers, is subject to special skepticism. Overall, the further away from probability – plausibility – a story stretches, the more obligation on the intelligence officer to address those questions.
  • All sources have agendas. Human nature being what it is, sources who just want to do the right thing need to be looked at more closely. The source is risking something by talking, maybe even jail; why? Is what they will get out of the leak worth the risk they are assuming? And if you don’t know your source’s agenda – what they want – then you’re like the guy at the poker table who can’t tell who the rube is.
  • An intelligence officer needs to constantly ask themselves if they are being used, offered fake information for some purpose. How can they tell? What can the source offer that is verifiable? If they say they work directly for the ambassador, can they pass on a few internal phone numbers you can call anonymously?
  • Presumably if you are looking into a topic, and your source claims to have information, do they otherwise seem to know at least as much as you know? And if you’re being leaked to on a topic you know little about, why are they coming to you anyway? Is what you are being told consistent with other information on the subject? Is the information something that follows from known things, something known as expectability? Has the source reported reliably in the past, or have they been referred to you by someone who has?
  • Does what is being handed to you fit the “is the juice worth the squeeze,” risk versus gain, test? For example, a source claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. Would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket?

“It Might Be True”

While anything can have an explanation, “it might be true” or “you can’t prove it’s not true” are enablers of fake news. Instead, readers should apply some of the tests an intelligence officer might: who would know the information? How could someone know? How big a risk would that source be taking and why would take it? What agenda might the source and/or writer have? How plausible is what you’re reading, is the juice worth the squeeze?

In the end, an intelligence officer rarely knows what is 100% true, so they assign a rating to information, such as high confidence, or medium confidence, and act on the information (or not) in line with that.

A reader can never know with certainty the truth about an anonymously-sourced story. Anything is possible, but only some things are probable, and that’s usually the way you bet when you’re making up your mind whether to believe something in the media or not.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.

  • Don

    Yeah, all that Peter, except the spilled beans didn’t come from the spooks.

    Man, did you ever grab for your keyboard too soon on this one! otherwise the story is very plausible considering how kinked Trump has been found to be.

    • Carpenter E

      “is very plausible” says the little socialist. Laughable. The propaganda lies were invented by a Brit who was one of Tony Bliar’s propagandists, a hundred or so “experts” sent in to dominate any issue in the media.

      How would the paid propagandist, now working for the Democrat Party, get information from Russian agents? Oh, I guess they just tell him because they feel like it, right? LOL Most media ignored the lies passed around, until Clinton News Network and the extreme leftists at Buzzfeed conspired to attack Trump with them. Everyone else, including real intelligence experts, says the smear “dossier” is “a pile of dog shit” as one intelligence official put it.

      Sorry bub, nobody believes completely unverified lies. Lies that have been proven false in the few parts where they CAN be verified. Or do you try to claim that Trump’s lawyer went to Prag to “meet with Russian agents”? So funny. He was in the U.S. at the time. The ticket belonged to ANOTHER man named Michael Cohen. That’s some great “fact checking” you leftists got there!

      “very plausible” What a pathetic attempt to smear Trump. The American public laughs at you. Try harder.

  • BrotherJonah

    I can think of several real violations of law and common decency. How he gets his giggles, save for cases of rape or harassment, nyet. The call for the murders of the Central Park Five is sedition at best and if some idiot does off any of them, Trump would be an accomplice.
    The ripoff of Col Gadafi is grand theft by fraud and rent fraud, both felonies in New York.

    Since Giuliani and Clinton both worked as prosecutors in New York, and are both in the Bar, they’ve committed a crime as accomplices because as barristers makes them Deputized Officers of the Court. And they let that slide in favor of prosecuting homeless people of begging, stealing bread and sleeping under bridges, and they did so by a mandatory Maximum sentence for the crime of poverty. Rich Bitches like Giuliani and Clinton and Trump get a pass.

    Same as always. This takes away from serious charges, focus on a pee session that was apparently legal in the jurisdiction where it allegedly happened instead.

    • Carpenter E

      “rape”, leftist? Like serial rapist Bill Clinton? You are referring to the vile lie that Trump would have “raped” his ex-wife, a complete fabrication by leftist media that she has strongly denied. But of course you’ll keep peddling the lie since you have no conscience and no shame. Disgusting.

      “The call for the murders” you say, supporting mass murderer and war criminal Obama. Who among other things TRIPLED the drone bombings of civilians among the Afghan-Pakistan border. But he’s a leftist like you, so then it’s all right! And you support the war criminal Hillary Clinton, who also took millions of dollars in bribes as State Secretary to sell weapons to Middle Eastern regimes. Those weapons are now used by Saudi Arabia to kill thousands of Yemenites, bomb their infrastructure and food supplies and cause mass starvation for millions of people. But Trump said something bad! What an infant you are.

      Hey, while you’re slandering Trump, how about you take some time off to Google “Clinton body count”? Dozens of people connected to the many investigations about the Clinton since their time fleecing Arkansas, have ended up murdered. Many have “committed suicide” by being shot with two guns, in the chest or in the neck. Others have died in cars alone with no witnesses. TWELVE of their bodyguards have died, ages 35-47. All just coincidences, right? And Trump said something bad!

      • BrotherJonah

        What “slander”? Slander implies untruth. Mr Trump actively campaigns for mob “justice” like killing people without a valid trial and no appeals, that’s calling for murders, and it doesn’t start with the Central Park defendants. He simply declares them guilty and calls out his minions to kill them. When they were WRONGFULLY convicted the only ones of his minions who would be able to do anything it would be the totalitarian Police State gestapo and the prison gangs they control. Far Right Wing or not. When they were proven not guilty Trump still called for their deaths and declared them Guilty Of Something… that’s rather specious and vague, isn’t it. Period instead of question mark because it isn’t a question.

        His mutual admiration society with the Klan and the Nazis, hey, guess what? The Klan even before they were the Confederacy they murdered Americans, lots of them. With the “Indian Wars” to exterminate Natives for the profit of the Plantation Elite, like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Polk, Especially Jackson, who also had the unlawfully incarcerated slaves killed for such crimes as being “uppity” and learning to read and write, or trying to effect their own liberation. Trump and his Nazi Klan henchmen are still and continuously revisiting that American Home-grown (after the first generation of European “christian” immigrants, kicked out of England for being too violent) Terrorism. Your little Right Wing Terrorist in North Carolina just got a death sentence, something your Right Wing supports, as long as it’s not pointed at you.

        The Klan in all its incarnations and reorganizations is the most prolific Terrorist Murder organization, just in the “civil” war they killed more Americans, approximately 300,000 Union soldiers and approximately 200,000 Confederate soldiers in the war THEY STARTED to resist the liberation of unlawfully enslaved Americans. You know the ones, the immigrants who were brought over in chains and their descendants. And when they officially reorganized after the war as the Klan they just kept on killing Americans. And they still do it. And they backed Trump to the hilt. Along with their front organizations like the Heritage Foundation.

        You want to cry “slander”, well, Mr Trump is infamous for suing people for alleged slander. So why is he quietly not suing the Klan for injecting their murderous agenda into his? The Punk In Chief is really loud-mouthed usually, why is he suddenly very low-key about the single most murderous terror group in america endorsing and still supporting him?

        As to the Clintons, Hillary had and still does have the duty to prosecute him for crimes he committed in New York. Bar membership means Deputized Officers of the Court. She and Giuliani have been giving him and their other Country Club Cronies a very large pass, choosing instead to prosecute homeless people for being homeless and giving a mandatory maximum sentence. How much money did he get from Libya by fraud in that one incident, which he so loudly boasts? In Colorado the definition of Grand Theft is 500 dollars, less than that if the victim falls under the definition of “innkeeper”.

        I don’t familiarize myself with the specifics of criminal action. But I do know that New York has some stiff tenant protection laws, as written. But not enforced, like the Grand Theft By Fraud which the Commander in Thief boasts of committing.

        There are thousands of prisoners across america who stole far less money and are serving virtual life sentences.

        For the record, Trumps minion in NC should have the sentence commuted to life.

        Do I have your attention yet? If indeed Trump engaged in OMG actual sex and Did Not Rape his partners, why in the Hell would that be the deciding factor in support/not support his agenda?

        I’m not focused on Hillary because she isn’t in official power. I’ll instead focus on the concerns held by MOST of the actual voters, the REAL voters and not the top down appointed representation of the Electors. Both the Major Party “choices” of The Corporate Oligarchy who basically told us to choose between them, got slapped down by the Real Voters. Neither got a full 48% minority of the vote.

        As for Trump hiring hookers, damn it, they’re the one group of employees he actually pays without taking them to the Kountry Klub Kourts to get official backing for slashing their wages and benefits. And unlike George Washington and the other so-called “founding fathers” he didn’t (as far as I know) kidnap them in foreign lands and bring them in chains to america.

        Jefferson was very indiscreet about his rape of slaves, George Washington and Jackson did the same rape scenario, it’s an integral part of “owning” other human beings.