If you put me on the spot, I will confess that critical thinking education about false information should start in primary school

For today's blog, I grouped together three related but separate questions that I have been asked before. I chose to answer them as part of this blog, because it complements the information available on Claudiu.ca. Here it goes.

1. We've seen your bio and read your site. What's one thing that many people don't know about you?

I guess by now everyone with access to a search engine is aware that I am an information security professional, but many people don't know that I harbour a particular interest in the study of disinformation, the harms of propaganda, the science of psy-ops and the threats of misinformation to our way of life.

With over 10,000 hours of study of underlying causes, forces and motivations, I read, write and talk a lot about gaslighting, fakes, scams and the effects of misdirection, suggestion and showmanship on public perception, historical accuracy and influence on current events, including elections and revolts. I can't say that I also breathe information, but I did grow up in an Eastern Bloc country during the decades when mass surveillance, censorship and propaganda were the default plat du jour, so make of that what you will. A few years ago, I ignited the NATO DEFUSE conference, where the true impact of disinformation harms was discussed and analyzed by professionals in different walks of life. Not to toot my own horn but simply to support the point, I'm also the co-author of a research paper titled "Modern Disinformation Technology Tools, Trends, and Tactics (2022). To illustrate the connection between disinformation and social engineering, it may also be worth mentioning that I wrote the Canadian Cyberfraud Handbook (2017), including a cyberfraud taxonomy based on the largest study of documented scams ever conducted.

In the information space, the prevalence of data sprawl forces the study of spam-bots, troll armies, focused distraction, spamouflage, impersonation, hacktivism, false flags, media distortions, fake news networks and the amplifying power of ... power on literally everything from our ability to tolerate influence operations to the mechanisms that support critical thinking, drive resistance, and ultimately create immunity. It's fun to study historical context and cultural biases on state-sponsored propaganda and delegitimization campaigns particularly as it comes in many flavours like Israel's hasbara, China's dragonbridge, India's Tek Fog, organized public opinion brigades and all manner of privately-sourced and taxpayer-funded deception and interference methods.

Why are governments interested in digital disinformation?

That's simple: because the Internet is the largest medium of democratized information exchange ever devised, and that's a threat to the "nuanced" narratives of power players, so for many, there is value in corrupting data and attacking the very integrity of information.

2. Can you give us ONE tip to start being more secure, from phishing awareness to identifying media bias?

Sure! A lot of people think that because they possess a degree of digital literacy, this translates into information literacy. This is a fallacy that can create an unfounded confidence where vulnerabilities creep in. And we see this every day in politics, religion and over-reliance on biased sources of information without self-checking mechanisms.

We have all heard and heeded the advice to be skeptical, of questioning everything. It's good and certainly well-intentioned, but it ignores how the brain thinks, how the mind works, how the lizard brain reacts. In effect, saying "be on alert to everything" is way too generic and easily cast aside. We experience this "tolerance" all the time in public discourse. Many celebrities and even the politicians we associate with are correct about certain things and dangerously ill-informed about others, yet they speak about both with a jarring sense of confidence that moves public opinion. Worse yet, when we don't set out to "give it a pass because the rest is just so good", we can still miss it simply because it comes from a trusted source and our "question everything" filter does not operate at this level. In this case, the top-down approach does not work, and we need a bottom-up safeguard. Something as simple as "prove it" resonating in our hearts is a good protection against any form of misinformation.

This may be a tip in itself, but not every measure, trick or process has to have a slick name. I boldly call this second one: "I am offended by claims without a source". This is a trigger that allows me to retain control my own internal changes of mind. In a very real sense I *feel* shifts in control over the narrative. The application of change management, a topic familiar to many fans of standardized practices in management consulting, allows me to flag divergence in my own attitude and detect influence being applied to my own entrenched thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, a lie is just a lie.

The third tip: don't think of it as influence but pivot slightly and adopt the term "influence operation". It will drive a newfound degree of intellectual rigor and investigative discipline that forces all kinds of other questions that are not often prompted by the top-down approach. For instance, in an influence operation, the intent needs to be established, but so must the timeframe and the invisible hands that come into play.

Finally, it must be said that this brings a certain degree of pleasure upon seeing diagrams being synesthetically built inside our heads, showing inputs and outputs, pressure tactics, mapping urgency, diverse players and the depth of their own interests coming into focus and fading into the background as key constraints are lined up with various degrees of clarity. This is the type of deep thinking that we must teach ourselves and our children as it not only future proofs our society against all manner of authority and trust abuses but has a very personal impact on our lives as well, from the ability to summarily deal with social engineering to the rejection of sketchy business models and disingenuous labels placed on the products, services and information we consume every moment of every day.

Could statistics about disinformation constitute misinformation, misdirection or even distraction? Who's to say?

3. Final question: Is there a risk to knowing so much about "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" (to paraphrase Al Franken's book on dishonesty and corruption)? Can too much information about cybercrime be toxic, or perhaps make one more paranoid, distrustful and cynical?

Trust no one. Any emotional investment is just a recipe for pain and disappointment.

Just kidding.

I can see how one might get jaded by the prevalence of fakery and deceit, but that's actually an incorrect conclusion. I submit that the more you are able to understand, the less fearful and cynical you become. But you are right in alluding to the fact that once you are able to decode the simple language of influence, it is impossible to unsee it; with one caveat: you have to be able to classify what you are seeing. For instance, the reason I wrote The Canadian Cyberfraud Handbook is to draw attention to the fact that the less we know, the more blindsided we are by what are sometimes simple attacks on our own core values of honesty, integrity and trust. The more cases my academic team of researchers analyzed and presented, the more the big picture revealed itself, with interesting branch structures and delicate details worth knowing about.

A lot of the phrases people love to defiantly parrot are themselves a form of mis-information. "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger" and "ignorance is bliss" and "privacy? they're welcome to my information, I've got nothing to hide" are doublespeak mantras not intended as life lessons but as intentionally paradoxical sayings exclusively concocted to make people feel better about the things they can't control. Like any other Orwellian newspeak, by taking simple fallacies at face value we run the risk of accepting weaponized rhetoric and become a victim of information warfare.

Orwellian newspeak from the Ministry of Truth (1984)

The immediate application of this knowledge is as a booster shot against the next variation of scam that is just around the corner, but its true value is in immunity from FUD, the fear, uncertainty and doubt specifically designed to destabilize our belief systems and attack critical thinking to cause us to act impulsively, be it by buying the next 'smart device' or to fall for malicious clickbait. As Tommy Lee Jones' character, Kay says in Men In Black (1997): "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals". Rarely have truer words been uttered. In the eye of opportunistic entities, the groupthink that takes hold of populations is there to be exploited.

Voltaire helpfully reminds us that those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities, but it's equally helpful to remember that not all disinformation is shared by people with malicious intent. Much of it is reposted by "information mules", those so emotionally invested in an idea that they suppress the required due diligence and often impulsively regurgitate dubious factoids spoon-fed by disinformation actors.

It often makes sense to stop and question - not everything, but - distinct statements and discrete arguments even when they are not articulated as calls to action. And the first place to start is with our own garden, within the confines of our own mind, where cognitive biases can flourish and thrive, selectively choosing the seductive rhetoric of one cause over the suppressed voice of another. Question your selective endorsement of some points and demand rigor from your thought processes. Perhaps most importantly, don't look away from dissenting viewpoints or ignore available information. Do that and you too might be labelled an information junkie or a bibliovore who can appreciate the vast amounts of knowledge none of us can possibly assimilate, from the scores of erudite authors who dedicated their lives to ensuring that the information would reach us through the ages.

Above all, never, ever, ever look at it as a chore. Learn from the good work of others and have fun spotting 'salesy' language before moving on to more advanced deceptive messaging. Help kids to discover logical shortcuts and keep sharpening their critical thinking blades using philosophical razors. Perhaps even more importantly, keep contributing to the public discourse, because people in positions of authority are the first to be targeted by disinformation peddlers that want nothing less than to subvert trusted voices for their own purposes, as we are seeing on an hourly basis in the media. Most of all, keep mentally classifying the types of narratives and information that you see, as it helps you to build foundational confidence and resilience in diverse situations, some of which can have very serious outcomes. All in all, apply yourself to the process, because your disinformation skills will come in handy way sooner than you might think, whether you are investigating science fraud, holding vendors to account for wild claims or are simply trying to make an important voting decision.

Get into the particular habit of fact-checking statements you agree with to combat confirmation bias.