|Detecting disinformation, without
By Gregory Sinaisky
How to tell genuine reporting from an article
manufactured to produce the desired propaganda effect?
The war in Iraq provides us plenty of interesting
samples for a study of disinformation techniques.
Take the article "Basra Shiites Stage Revolt,
Attack Government Troops", published on March 26 in The
Wall Street Journal Europe. Using its example, we will
try to arm readers with basic principles of
disinformation analysis that hopefully will allow them
in the future to detect deception.
The title of
the article sounds quite definitive. The article starts,
however, with the mush less certain "Military officials
said the Shiite population of Basra ... appeared to be
rising". "Military officials" and "appeared to be"
should immediately raise a red flag for a reader,
especially given a mismatch with such a definitive
title. Why "officials"? Were they speaking in a chorus?
Or was each one providing a complementary piece of
information? A genuine report certainly would tell us
this and also name the officials or at least say why
they cannot be identified.
Why "appears to be"?
There are always specific reasons why something "appears
to be". For example, information about the uprising may
be uncertain because it was supplied by an Iraqi
defector who was not considered trustworthy and has not
been confirmed from other sources. Again, every
professional reporter understands that his job is to
provide such details and it is exactly such details that
make his reporting valuable, interesting, and memorable.
If such all-important details are missing, this is a
sure sign to suspect intentional disinformation.
Going further down the article, we see even more
astonishing example of the same vagueness. "Reporters on
the scene said that Iraqi troops were firing on the
protesting citizens ..." For an astute reader, this
short sentence should raise a whole host of questions.
Were the above-mentioned reporters Western media
reporters embedded with the troops? What was their
location and the distance from which they observed the
Obviously, being inside a besieged city
with riots going on is an exceedingly dangerous
business. Why were the names of the reporters
distinguished by such shining bravery concealed from us,
instead of being proclaimed with pride? Why do they not
want to tell us where they were observing from and how
they managed to get there? In any case, under the
circumstances, being closer to the scene than the
distance of a rifle shot, say one kilometer, merits a
special explanation. Now, an interesting question is,
what are the visual clues allowing a reporter to
distinguish, at such distance, between an uprising and,
let's say, troops firing on looters or many other
possible explanations for the same observation?
The only cue I can think of is not visual, but
an aural cue from an editor requesting the reporter to
report what we cannot explain as anything but an attempt
of intentional disinformation. Given a very specific
nature of the disinformation produced in this particular
case, its obvious potential effect on both resisting
Iraqis and anti-war public opinion, we cannot see any
other explanation for it, except that The Wall Street
Journal directly collaborates with the psychological
warfare department in the Pentagon.
unexpected light on the story is shed in "UK: Iraq to
feel backlash in Basra" posted on CNN.com also on March
26. In this article, the original report on a civilian
revolt is attributed to "the British military
authorities and journalists", again unnamed. Here, the
chorus of "the officials" singing in unison with
"journalists" makes the somewhat more specific and
exceedingly bizarre statement: "We have radars, that, by
tracing the trajectory of mortar rounds, are able to
work out the source, as well as the target location,
which in this case were civilians in Basra." So, now we
know that the uprising in Basra was detected by British
officials and journalists watching a radar screen! This
amazing British radar can even tell an Iraqi official
from a simple citizen and a civilian from a soldier!
Moreover, it apparently can read minds and determine the
reasons people fire on each other!
is a big lie in the information attributed to British
officials. Or maybe I am wrong and this is an example of
the famous British sense of humor deployed to get rid of
pestering American correspondents? Chorus of American
correspondents: "Is there an uprising going on in Basra?
There must be. My editor told me to report it. You say,
how would you know? That's impossible, my editor told me
..." British official: "All right, chaps. I see it on
the radar." Sounds of cellphone dialling and keyboards
To conclude: Remember the following
first rule of disinformation analysis: truth is
specific, lie is vague. Always look for palpable details
in reporting and if the picture is not in focus, there
must be reasons for it.
Want to know the names
of rising stars of disinformation to watch? The Wall
Street Journal article was "compiled" by Matt Murray in
New York from reports by Christopher Cooper in Doha,
Qatar, Carla Anne Robbins and Greg Jaffe in Washington,
and Helene Cooper with the US Army's Third Infantry
Division in Iraq.
(Copyright 2003 Gregory