Bridgette Gallagher did not like the bag.
A former military intelligence officer for the Army, Gallagher was sitting in a Whole Foods with her young son when she noticed a man enter the store, leave a large backpack on a chair and walk out.
“The hair stood up on my neck as I watched him leave the immediate area,” wrote Gallagher, an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s Applied Intelligence program, in an email to A Beautiful Perspective.
Investigating the package, she noticed a camera inside; grabbing her son, she left the Whole Foods before calling the manager and warning them of the suspicious bag. It turned out to belong to one of their employees, who had left it while completing some errands before his shift.
“I’m not sure if that is something most people would have blinked at, but it scared the crap out of me,” Gallagher wrote. “It just wasn’t normal behavior. But I think most people would notice these things if they only paid attention, or didn’t discredit their gut reactions.”
While the threat turned out to be benign, Gallagher’s training as a soldier and intelligence officer—which placed an emphasis on constant vigilance and a tenacious examination of all things around her, be they sources, signals or seemingly-orphaned backpacks—made her take action. She did not shrug it off and simply return to her day.
To a degree, this public skepticism is ingrained in all of us, post 9/11, and it’s a caution we need to turn to for identifying potential threats in today’s most important “public” space: social media and the internet.
Terrell Jermaine Starr noticed an odd detail too.
A reporter for The Root, Starr had written a post on CNN’s confrontation with Floridian Florine Gruen Goldfarb over evidence that the pro-Trump events she had helped to promote were in fact planned by Russians. In the footage, Goldfarb takes a defiant stance, both denying Russian involvement and claiming that it wasn’t important even if they were involved. But in the midst of her defense, she dropped a verbal backpack, saying the people really associated with the Russians were Hillary Clinton “and all her bandits.”
“‘Bandit’ is not a term you hear in the American vernacular every day, but it is commonly used to describe criminals in Russia,” wrote Starr, who has worked in Eastern Europe, in The Root. “Even in Ukraine, where I visit often, the word ‘bandit’ is commonly used to describe criminals. I highly suspect that while Goldfarb may not have met with Russians in person, she may have picked up the word from conversing with Russians electronically or over the phone. Again, I don’t know, but I suspect that this may be the case.”
With the depth and breadth of Russian propaganda efforts finally being made public—and the imminent threat of more to come during the 2018 midterms—insights like Starr’s and skepticism like Gallagher’s may now be crucial to simply navigating our world. The American public has been the target of coordinated propaganda efforts. The only defense may be in learning how to read and think like a spy or intelligence agent ourselves.
Spotting a tell like Starr did, while appropriately cloak-and-dagger and certainly exciting, is not the most likely deterrent to propaganda. Spies are meticulously trained on the nuances and mores of the cultures they infiltrate, and doubly so for a sophisticated espionage community with decades of propaganda experience like the Russians have. The chances of finding a “bandit tell” like Starr did, without his experience or a spy’s training, is unlikely, though broken English, unusual turns of phrase and other grammatical or rhetorical errors should be considered as red flags.
More important is the general approach one should take to the cataract of content.
“I question every source,” Gallagher wrote. “I never read something and believe it, unless it’s the direct source itself. Even when it is the direct source, I still question the motives behind it.”
While Gallagher’s approach may seem skeptical to the point of cynicism, she considers it necessary for making decisions based on fact. “It allows one to set aside preconceived notions, biases and personal motivations and examine the situation objectively.”
The American public has been the target of coordinated propaganda efforts. The only defense may be in learning how to read and think like a spy or intelligence agent ourselves.
Our tendency to make important decisions and assay information emotionally could be a key factor in propaganda’s efficacy. By inserting statements into the echo chamber of social media, provocateurs can help ensure that their messages are not read with a measured eye.
“They fully understand that psychology of even subtly—it doesn’t have to be with a hammer—but even subtly appealing to people’s belief system, and then getting them to act as a force multiplier and getting the word out,” said Mike Baker, former CIA covert field operations officer and co-founder and North American president of Diligence, a private intelligence and risk-management firm.
Approaching all information with your emotions held firmly in check is crucial to being able to process it properly. A healthy dose of skepticism may be vital to navigate a rapidly shadowing digital world.
“Part of the problem is people are gullible because they limit their sources of information,” Baker said. “I just watch MSNBC, or I just watch Fox, or I just read the The New York Times, or I just read The Wall Street Journal. They’re ripe for the picking from the get-go, because they have a limited base of knowledge to evaluate other things that they’re reading.”
In the end, an intelligence officer, a spy, and the person getting their news from Facebook should all have the same goal: get the best, most accurate information possible to defend themselves from being misled.
“You can arm yourself,” Baker said, “with better knowledge.”