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The dangerous rise of the OSINT amateur
Future News 167: How the media falls for wartime lies and propaganda
In an alternative universe invented by Britain's psychological warfare operators, 200 hungry sharks imported from Australia and dropped in the English Channel would hinder any amphibious assault from Hitler’s henchmen following the Dunkirk evacuation.
The story, otherwise known as a ‘sib’, was propagated by the UK’s secretive overseas rumour network near the end of spring 1941. Attempts were also made to place the fishy tale in the largely compliant and heavily censored British press.
But the story was so ludicrous that The Daily Mail’s Wilson Broadbent couldn’t keep the origins of this fictitious plan under wraps. Outraged, he instead used the paper to criticise Winston Churchill's government for the rumour spreading.
Broadbent and The Mail were lucky not to receive their own rebuke. They had violated a D-Notice (short for Defence Notice), an informal pact between the press and the British government not to reveal state secrets. In this case it was elements of the UK’s secret propaganda work that had been made public.
This was much to the annoyance of the then Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton. The Labour MP oversaw the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), the clandestine outfit behind the shark story, as well as its sister organisation, the Special Operations Executive.
Dalton was even advised by the security services (Mi5) on the matter, but a prosecution of Broadbent and The Mail would involve “high political decisions” amongst the Cabinet so he decided not to pursue the issue.
A more successful foray into the world of deception by the PWE was an equally ludicrous ploy – to make the Germans think the British could set the English Channel ablaze (the Aussie sharks were also presumably flame retardant).
The originator of this “poisoned sweet meat”, as one former PWE operative put it, was John Baker White, an anti-communist activist and spy who became a Conservative MP after the war. The sib, later known as the ‘Big Lie’, was multifaceted and used truths, half-truths and downright falsehoods to scare and confuse the enemy.
It is true that a Petroleum Warfare Department was established in July 1940 to explore military uses – both offensive and defensive – of the fuel. It’s also true that devices like flame barrages were explored.
But It is not true that train-loads of incinerated Germans were being transported back to the Fatherland after encountering Britain’s new secret weapon.
That rumour was spread across the PWE’s black propaganda radio stations into German barracks thanks to the work overseen by The Daily Express’ star foreign correspondent, Sefton Delmer.
The middle-aged hack, effectively on loan to the British government from Lord Beaverbrook, would skilfully use signals intelligence, human intelligence (often via prisoners of war), medical journals and all manner of public and secret information to sprinkle morale sapping and misleading information into his own performances and other materials created by the PWE.
The crucial factor for Delmer’s success wasn’t his perfect German or his meticulous planning – often in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside – it was really the fog of war, the uncertainty which continues to surround modern conflicts to this very day.
The trouble for the modern media is the amount of information being pumped into the public sphere and the pace that is being shared, never mind bad actors seeking to use sophisticated methods to mislead them.
Content deadlines – whether self-imposed or by editors – force their hand and a sort of pseudo-verification process (which isn’t proper verification at all if you think about it) is accepted. With journalists understandably not wanting to get in harm’s way, they are forced to rely on ‘official sources’.
But how does a wartime media work under ‘official sources’? Until very recently there was no firm figure on the number of casualties Ukraine’s military had endured fighting Russia.
The media was reliant on the Ukrainians for this data, but they weren’t forthcoming on the matter. And while the country’s allies estimated losses on the Russian side, they were understandably reluctant to report on Ukrainian deaths. Such is war.
The problem is that this type of information vacuum has helped create a new generation of amateur online detectives, some of which claim to be open-source intelligence (OSINT) experts.
The trouble is, OSINT work can be extremely time consuming, complex and often requires a deep knowledge of weapons systems, military structures and terrain, amongst many other variables.
In other words, throwing up one low-res video on social media, pointing to a couple of variables and making a definitive conclusion – as we saw with the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital bombing in Gaza – is not solid OSINT work.
If you want an example of solid OSINT work, look at The Middlebury Institute’s research around the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The FT’s data guru John Burn-Murdoch has also further expanded on the problem, rightfully pointing to the fact that newsrooms should upgrade their news gathering techniques and that many well-known OSINT-powered entities have experienced and dedicated teams behind them.
Sometimes it’s best to pause before you swallow the “poisoned sweet meat”.
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