Disinformation and the Threat Posed by Conspiracy Theories

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By Cindy Otis

Cindy L. Otis is the Vice President of Analysis for Alethea Group, a disinformation investigations and remediation firm, and is an expert on disinformation threat analysis and countermessaging. She is also a Senior non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and an Associate at Argonne National Lab. Prior to this, she served in the CIA as a military analyst, intelligence briefer, and a manager in the Directorate of Intelligence. While at the CIA, she specialized in security issues in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  She is the author of True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Identifying and Fighting Fake News.

The Cipher Brief is running a special series on disinformation – in all of its forms – ahead of the 2020 U.S. Election.  This week, The Cipher Brief spoke with former CIA analyst and Intelligence Briefer Cindy Otis, about how foreign intelligence services use conspiracy theories to sow distrust and division.  Otis is the author of a book coming out next Spring titled, True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Identifying and Fighting Fake News

Foreign intelligence services have long created and promoted conspiracy theories as a critical tool in their information operations arsenals deployed against their adversaries. In one of the most well-known cases from the 1980s, the Soviet Union spread the theory that the U.S. military had created HIV-AIDS at Fort Detrick, Maryland, for use as a biological weapon.  Of course, it wasn’t true, but these types of information operations can effectively, discredit and weaken opponents, damage their credibility, and inflame broader social and political tensions.

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