PERSPECTIVE: Fact-Checking Separates the Patriots from the Partisans

From Merriam Webster:

Definition of partisan

A firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person

especially: one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance

Definition of patriot

One who loves and supports his or her country

… praised him as a … motivated patriot who was fearless in the quest to preserve American security.

— W. R. Hearst, Jr.

Are you a partisan or patriot? It’s really a very simple question that most assume they already know the answer to. What would happen if you were challenged to take a dare that is short, simple, cost- and pain-free in order to find out the answer? Would you do it? Granted, this dare is not easy for the simple reason that it requires pure, personal honesty. What if I also told you that in order to protect our nation from one of its most serious national security threats, we all must take this dare? First, let me give you a little perspective about why we need all citizens to take this dare.

My profession is analyzing and recommending courses of action to mitigate threats to our national security. My specialties are the threats revolving around influence such as Russian and Chinese influence campaigns and threats emanating from all forms of extremism. In talking with a dear friend recently, I was asked, “What do you consider our number one threat?” Initially, I found this a daunting question, but after long deliberation settled on a choice that actually encompasses all of the significant threats to our republic. Considering I have worked on threats as diverse as terrorism, Russia, China, Iran and others, the threat I settled on actually surprised even me.

The bottom line is that I have a healthy belief in Americans being able to accomplish virtually anything, so long as we are united and apply ourselves appropriately. By default, anything that can undo our unity stands in the way of Americans employing “good ole’ Yankee ingenuity” and facing down any threat or problem is our most serious national security threat. In our current environment, so-called “fake news,” intentionally and unintentionally disseminated by foreign enemies and those who believe themselves patriotic is without a doubt the single most effective means of undoing our national unity. This, in my opinion makes “fake news” our primary national security threat.

No problem or, by extension, threat can be solved or mitigated while we are at odds with our fellow citizens. Our enemies understand this all too well and do all possible to unravel the tightly woven, patriotic fabric of U.S. society with media designed to divide us. Their primary method is to use mis- and disinformation as tools to divide us or, as is commonly known these days, “fake news.” The truth is facts matter and, more importantly, the truth that is made up by those facts matters the most. The only ingredient missing between opposing groups, political parties, ethnicities, etc., is settling on a foundation of facts to any problem or threat. Like all problem solving, you cannot succeed without analysis of what is known.

Fear, stoked by our enemies by way of “fake news,” is their weapon of choice to influence different segments of U.S. society to distrust other segments. Russia didn’t attack us because they are strong; they attacked us to weaken the most threatening of U.S. traits, patriotism by all Americans. Most of us still remember the Cold War and how it unified us against the Soviets.

The most important weapon against enemies plying their influence against us is truth. It is truth and belief in our common values, regardless of political affiliation, that threatens despotic and dangerous enemies. This article is about one way we can settle on facts to solve problems and mitigate threats – if we dare. It will take courage and honesty by everyone who considers themselves patriotic. If this is you, you owe it to yourself and our nation to take this dare.

How many Americans who consider themselves patriotic would be willing to take a dare to dramatically enhance national security? No, this isn’t a trick question but a sincere challenge. There is no trickery, no potential injury or cost with the exception of maybe some occasional hurt feelings or minor embarrassment. It would be a dare so painfully simple but so daunting that many will not take it nor encourage others to do so. The only requirement is the courage to honestly hold yourself to the foundational standard that our Declaration of Independence is built on – that truth is “self-evident.” So, what is this dare that most self-proclaimed patriotic citizens will be afraid to try?

The dare

For two weeks, every single time that you post, tweet, share, re-share, retweet or something similar, you must fact-check both the source and the information first. The bottom line is that you must decide if you’ve done all possible to share truth, facts and both in context. To keep yourself accountable, you must be willing, if challenged to look your spouse, partner, family member, friend or acquaintance in the eye and say, “I promise I have done my best to ensure this information is correct and in context.” You must also be willing to look at yourself in a mirror and swear that you’ve done your best. Finally, you must agree to challenge at least three others to take the dare.

I suppose that you are wondering how something as simple as a dare could have an impact on national security, and it’s a very fair question. This dare is about using truth, not political bias, to make decisions. We are currently plagued by so-called “fake-news,” which has been politicized to the point that most voters simply disregard any information that comes from outside their “political tribe” and with equal ferocity share the opposite, regardless of whether it’s true – or not. This merely keeps Americans divided, unable to come together to fight common enemies like Russia, China, Iran and others. This is precisely the intent of our enemies, to use dishonesty to prevent us from seeing that we are all in the same tribe: the American tribe. A citizen’s duty of being part of the American tribe is to protect the whole tribe, not just some subset of the tribe!

In our republic we elect representatives as our voice. They cannot make decisions without truth. By the same token, we cannot elect the best representatives of our opinions without truth. Facts matter! The only question then is, “If facts matter, then whose facts do I use, those from my political tribe or those from another tribe?” At this point in American history, we need to reframe the question into “what are the facts that support our national tribe, not the Republican or Democratic tribe.” At the moment, far too many citizens are basing their decisions on dishonest information. Most of those I’m talking about would not agree, but as this is my profession I can assure you that this is true. Most also would not accept this opinion from anyone outside their tribe. That’s why we must challenge ourselves individually by taking this dare.

This is where our “dare” comes into play. Becoming tribalized or partisan occurs over your lifespan. Becoming tribal to the point of rejecting what you perceive as outside information has everything to do with your personal identity and narrative. In order to challenge yourself, it will take courage to be willing to literally challenge your beliefs, or what I would professionally call “your own personal narrative” if need be. The real question is, are you willing to be honest with yourself? If not, how can you be honest with others? As a citizen, there is an obligatory requirement to be well-informed so that you can productively support our republic.

“Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.” – Thomas Jefferson to Littleton Waller Tazewell, 1805

Now, who is willing to continue with this dare and self-assess whether you are a patriot or a partisan? Just like the haunted house on Halloween, “continue if you dare.”

Intro and background

For the record, I am retired Army, a political independent for decades and part of an extraordinary think/do tank, Narrative Strategies. Influence, in support of national security and other efforts that support the greater good, is the heart of what we do. Analysis underpins every single thing we do. Good analysis requires as much verifiable information as possible to come up with workable solutions. Great analysis requires absolute honesty with yourself about the determinations of your analysis. Professionally, I have become, by requirement, a nearly obsessive verifier of information. This carries over into my personal life as well. Should you consider yourself patriotic, this should apply to you too.

Our nation was attacked in 2016 by influence operations devised, executed and sustained by Russia. Yes, they also had plenty of help domestically, both witting and unwitting.  They were back in 2018 and they are working tirelessly toward influencing our 2020 election. Russia employs a variety of techniques from cyber, mis- and disinformation, false personas and a great many others to achieve their goals of dividing Americans and weakening our resolve against outside enemies. All of their efforts are wrapped around a campaign of narrative warfare. After some success against us and many of our allies and partners in 2016 and almost non-existent deterrence from us, other nations like China and Iran have joined Russia in attacking our elections. In regard to all of the tactics Russia and others are using, we have some defensive measures to help defend us to some degree. Cyber efforts are primarily the benefactors of the defensive measures. The biggest and most severe threat, though, is dishonest influence to trigger designed behaviors by certain elements of U.S. society. Simply stated, they have and continue to use influence to pit segments of U.S. society against each other and to influence citizens to distrust our authorities. They have succeeded beyond their wildest imagination and we are helping them every day by believing what has come to generically be called “fake news.” Even well-intentioned but poorly informed patriots will share and reshare “fake news if it supports their political tribe or hurts tribes outside of their own. Often, we do this unknowingly simply because we didn’t take the time to verify the information.

As long as we fight with each other, we cannot do a credible job of working together to protect the nation or our allies. In this regard, we must remember that our first and foremost tribal allegiance is to the nation, not our political affiliations. Yes, it is a citizen’s duty to protect the nation, be it in combat or through informing ourselves honestly. We often hear the expression “country over party” and this is exactly what Russia and other enemies wish to prevent. Protecting ourselves from this type of attack is almost exclusively in the hands of each citizen who considers themselves patriotic, not the U.S. government or any of her entities. Only we can decide what to believe or not. Yes, accepting and succeeding at this dare is the single most frightening thing possible to our enemies. Militarily, they are weaker. Their only advantage is to influence us to believe that we are weak and divided. Surely everyone remembers the old adage “united we stand, divided we fall”?  This is why accepting this simple dare personally is so important and challenging others to do so as well. Facts matter and, even more than facts, the truths that facts form matter the most.

The bottom line to our national security is that every one of our citizens has a duty and obligation to protect our primary tribe, our nation. This comes before political allegiance. We can and must do this. We’ve done it before and it is part of our American DNA. For example, before WWII, we were divided but came together to fight a common enemy. We simply need to refocus our allegiance to the “American tribe,”, not the R or D tribes.

How do we get to the truth?

Acquiring the truth or as close to it as possible is the point of this dare and not always as difficult as some would suggest. The real challenge and the one requiring courage is accepting the truth if it differs from the views of your tribe. Tribes are about identity and everyone and every tribe have their own different identity. Identity is at the core of narrative-centric campaigns of influence and, once understood, can predictably trigger responses in those targeted. This is why the threat of narrative warfare is so dangerous if left unattended. First things first, though: Let’s get at the truth.

How to discover truth can occasionally be complicated, but in regard to most Russian propaganda, mis- and disinformation, it’s often painfully easy. What follows is far from an exhaustive list of techniques for discovering the truth but more than enough to meet the requirements of accepting our dare about what is available in open-source media. Being well-informed is called most often “media literacy,” and these days it’s in short supply.

I received a very insightful request from my wife a while back. Though very bright and an elementary school teacher for a long time (no, I’m not saying how long) she, along with many of her teacher friends are frustrated at how to decipher the truth about what they see in media, social included. The result is to assume that everything is dishonest. This is hardly true. For most things on which a citizen must vote there is an enormous amount of credible information at their fingertips. Citizens must learn to find this information in order to make informed decisions. Learning a thing or two about “how” is not only important to each citizen, but to our nation as a whole.

For new users to the steps below, I will toward the end of the paper offer you a short practical exercise to try out your new skills. By using a couple of these simple methods, every citizen will be far more informed, should they be courageous and patriotic enough to overcome their tribal identity affiliations when the truth doesn’t support them.

Following this link is a short list of some of the tools that I use daily and consider very reliable. I am not insisting that you only use my tools but they are certainly valuable, free and as nonpartisan as I can find. As my profession is more along the lines of overall national security from an influence perspective, some of these tools are more focused on conflict, policy, doctrine, law, etc.

Step 1. Glance at the overall presentation of the article, meme etc. Is it sensational? Does it have a provocative headline?

    1. Articles with sensational headlines, photos or graphics tend to be far less believable, especially if the headline is provocative of some emotion like anger, frustration, sadness and especially fear. Fear is the most effective emotion to keep someone dishonestly glued to their tribal affiliations. Fear wielded as a tool of influence by bad actors is far beyond dishonest – it is dangerous.

Step 2. Look carefully at the link in your browser or on your device. More importantly, check the URL carefully. Is it accurate?

    1. A favorite tactic of dishonest influencers is to very slightly alter a URL so that it appears to be a link you are familiar with. This is easy to miss, so please look carefully.

Step 3. Check a variety of sources that evaluate media sites for their bias. There are excellent, ethical and free websites whose whole purpose is to give you a measure of the level of bias for most known websites.

    1. One of my favorites is https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/conspiracy/. This searchable website not only evaluates news but provides a variety of other insights written in plain language that will assist in your evaluation. They grade the level of bias, tell you if the site trafficks in conspiracy theories or pseudo-science and also grades reporting vs. opinion as to level of accuracy.
    2. If a site traffics in conspiracies or pseudo-science at all, trust nothing on the site and eliminate it from your list of sources.
    3. Some sites have a moderate level of bias in their presentation and opinions yet are considered fairly accurate in regards to reporting. These are some of the most challenging sites because you must constantly be on guard.

It’s important to note here that it’s important to know the difference between reporting and an op-ed, or opinion piece. For the purpose of verifying information, stick with reporting only.

    1. There is always a way to find real stories. If they are true they will be on sites lightly biased but containing accurate reporting.
    2. There are also several sites that are considered neutrally biased and accurate in reporting. These should always be your first choice
    3. Everyone has their own internal bias on some level. Everyone also prefers to read, see or hear what suits their bias. It is a major mistake to read only what you like if you are looking for truth.

Step 4. Now, here comes the hard part: content! As noted in step 3, everyone has some level of bias depending on the topic, issue or person. The same as some people like blue and some prefer green, we all have preferences. This is due to a long and complicated discussion about internal narratives. We’ll save that for another time. Simply know that when you are looking at media there is an internal filter, unique to you, that sways your opinion. Political “tribes” have people that share many of the same layers of filters about certain topics. This is why groups can be “triggered” by well-honed narratives.

  1. One of the easiest ways to determine if you need to be careful about the content is to be honest about whether or not you agree and support the content. If yes, find something credible to read that challenges that opinion. The same applies if you disagree. If you emotionally find favor with content, you have probably been triggered intentionally. If reading the same site constantly produces the same reaction, you certainly have been triggered. This doesn’t mean the content is wrong, but in order to do critical analysis, you must challenge your opinions. I often read sites rated with little or no bias or agenda that I don’t like or agree with. My responsibility is to decide if I don’t agree because of my bias or because I legitimately have a better argument.
  2. On the topic of honest content, one personal rule I follow professionally is that if I cannot find a story in either the AP (Associated Press), Reuters or in the reporting section of reliable mainstream news, I almost always discard it. Professionally, I avoid all op-ed pages because I like to figure things out without someone else’s prejudices skewing my thinking. This is a recommended tactic but tends to be less interesting for casual users.

Step 5. This may seem all too apparent but check the date of content. When a topic is emotionally charged, bad actors like to recirculate articles and other content that may be very old in order to trigger a reaction. This tactic has no upside to you or others trying to determine truth. An important exception to using older content is that some government reports such as CRS (Congressional Research Service) have no real expiration date on certain topics.

Step 6. Verify photos. There are plenty of open-source, free tools for verifying photos.

  1. Photos are a real problem. As technology advances, what is termed “deep fakes” will become a more serious problem. Even now, there are millions of fake accounts that use stock photos on troll profiles. Also, photo-shopping a photo to make it look real is commonplace. Using simple tools can alleviate most of these problems and risks.

Okay, here’s your test

Evaluate the following links and be honest with yourself about the information contained in them by following the steps above. Jot down a simple thought about how reliable each link is.

For the purpose of demonstrating my points about tribal affiliations/partisanship I have used a very controversial issue to show just how emotional political and national security issues can be.

Topic: Russian attacks on the U.S. during the 2016 elections

The following links demonstrate a Russian, national security establishment, Republican and, finally, a Democratic narrative. Your job is to follow a handful of basic steps to come to a conclusion about the content of each, decipher its truth (or not) and finally to consider the truth from weighing each against the other three.

One last note before beginning: I realize this is a politically sensitive topic. The topic must be sensitive in order to test your ability to resist political tribal biases or not. I have simply chosen these links and content to test your ability to figure things out. I remind you that I have zero political agenda with this content or links.

Russian narrative: https://www.rt.com/news/473840-ukraine-election-meddling-impeachment/

U.S. National Security narrative: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

Republican narrative: https://republicans-intelligence.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=1024

Democratic narrative: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-impeachment/former-trump-aide-calls-ukraine-meddling-theory-fiction-trump-would-welcome-senate-trial-idUSKBN1XV0I6 

Putting it all together and taking the dare

This is the hardest part as it will challenge your internal biases. In the next two weeks, as you evaluate stories, memes, etc., that you’d like to share on social media, review your answers and then look in the mirror and see if you can honestly say out loud, “This content and website is worthy of sharing with other patriotic citizens.” Finally, if you wish to continue and for extra credit (warning, it’s addictive), find credible websites that you can use to dig into the real overall truth using the same steps.

Remember, if you have honestly followed the steps, sharing content means you are either knowingly telling the truth or lying to your family, friends, co-workers and fellow citizens depending on what you determined by following the steps. Whatever you decide to do, your conscience will guide you. Research shows that the majority of people will not willingly lie to their family and friends, especially if they can be shown as being responsible for a post, tweet or other. Think about it: If a majority of Americans would simply take this dare, we as a nation will make decisions based on truth rather than what dishonest manipulators like Russia would have us believe.

Just because you belong to a political tribe, it doesn’t mean that the tribe is always telling you the truth – whether it be intentionally or unintentionally. The essence of freedom in our republic is that we participate in our government. Wouldn’t everyone be better off if we could depend on every citizen to seek truth before deciding what affects us all?

When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor at the beginning of WWII, Americans of all political persuasions banded together to conquer fascism. During the Cold War we did the same to conquer communism. Russia and others are now attacking us daily through dishonest influence. Isn’t it about time we revisit our history of functioning as one tribe – the American tribe – in order to resist our enemies? Republicans, Democrats, Independents and others are sub-components of our primary tribe as U.S. citizens. We can fight amongst ourselves later but first we must fight our adversaries together.

Being honest with yourself in regards to sharing information is the first step in uniting for our common defense. Now: Please take the dare and encourage others to do so. Remember, being a patriot means being a well-informed citizen who is courageous enough to change their mind if truth demands it.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

A National Security Threat: It’s Time to Get Proactive Against Deepfakes

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Mr. Paul Cobaugh retired from the US Army as a Warrant Officer after a distinguished career in the US Special Operations CT community, primarily focused on mitigating adversarial influence and advancing US objectives by way of influence. Throughout his career he has focused on the centrality of influence in modern conflict whether it be from extremist organisations or state actors employing influence against the US and our Allies. Post military career he was offered and accepted the position of Vice President at Narrative Strategies, a US based Think-Do Tank which specializes in the non-kinetic aspects of conflict. He has also co-authored, Soft Power on Hard Problems, Hamilton Publishing, 2017 and Introduction to Narrative Warfare: A Primer and Study Guide, Amazon, 2018

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