Headlines Matter, the power of (dis) information – making the right call.
By Philip Ingram MBE
On October 17th, the eve of an unprecedented US Presidential visit to Israel and the Middle East, in an attempt to diffuse growing tensions across the region because of the War against Hamas – declared by Israel after the shocking terror attack by Hamas killing 1500 Israelis and taking 199 hostages just over a week beforehand – an explosion occurred at the al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza.
Within an hour of the explosion major media outlets across the globe, including many UK sites, were describing it in their headlines as an Israeli Air strike, immediately putting a level of credibility on what was being reported, as most people believe the press somehow have access to information that the general public doesn’t. Often, they are right, responsible press verify independently where the public generally doesn’t.
Those reports and their associated headlines do more than just inform, they influence. Recognise, then, that it’s not just the main body of the report, but the headlines that matter. They influence public perception and influence their belief as to what happened. Once someone’s mind is made up, even if further information is provided, few change their minds, and they will cherry-pick what comes next to reinforce their decision. It is human nature. So, where there is potential for doubt, it is critical that reporting reinforces that doubt and doesn’t enhance mis or disinformation.
For those that don’t know, misinformation is information that is incorrect but is disseminated accidentally. Disinformation is incorrect information deliberately disseminated for effect. In war, in conflict, disinformation is rife and is an integral part of many military operations. The first report received is often the least accurate even if it fits a perception of what you think may have happened, that is what targeted disinformation is designed to do.
Unfortunately, in a conflict situation, it is not unusual that you receive report of a civilian target being hit. In operational headquarters it often takes hours to get to the truth even though operations are constantly monitored. That is because everything must be checked, rechecked, and checked again. That principle isn’t one used on social media, or by those pushing disinformation and those reposting misinformation.
Very often, the first report received about an incident is wrong. Instead of reacting immediately, the best thing to do is leave some ‘soak time’. Make a cup of tea, and think about the incident, asking some fundamental questions. Who has the capability to do what?
What would a potential perpetrators motivation be, what is their intent? Both sides have the capability but from an intent perspective, then for the Israelis it could only spell disaster, polarising opposition to what they are doing on the international stage even more – and we saw that with many Middle East leaders cancelling their meetings with President Biden.
If it was deliberate from groups in Gaza, then their timing was perfect, as was the immediate (dis)information campaign to undermine Biden’s visit and polarise the region, and world, more towards an anti-Israeli stance. It looks like they may have achieved that by accident, and rapid exploitation of the information domain.
The difficulty, once people’s minds are made up, is that it is almost impossible to change them back. So, when the IDF offered a very comprehensive briefing of the incident, utilising analysis of photographs, structural damage, lack of impact points, with video and thermal analysis of the explosion and fire – they could suggest it was a missile being fired at Israel that dropped short. Radar analysis added further weight to this analysis as did intercepts of phone messages – especially of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group.
Combined with checks on Israeli missile activity that couldn’t have accidentally hit the hospital, then there is overwhelming evidence to say this was a PIJ missile that fell short and tragically killed many innocent Palestinians. That is not a message the PIJ or Hamas would want to put out, so they doubled down on the Israeli attack claim, knowing that many wouldn’t believe the Israelis. President Biden’s backing of the Israeli assessment will have been based on other intelligence as well. Simple scientific spectral analysis of the explosion and fire will tell what caused it. This type of intelligence analysis is called MASINT or Measurement and Signature Intelligence.
A few key lessons for headline writers and commentators, as headlines matter:
- Initial reports are likely inaccurate so acknowledge the uncertain nature of what is happening.
- Patience is a virtue. Have a “soak time” allowing you to question everything. Confirm, confirm, confirm and don’t be afraid to say there isn’t enough information to make a call.
- Early speculation doesn’t inform, it influences, and once influenced it can rarely be undone. Don’t speculate.
- Avoid being influenced by others who jump to conclusions quickly – remember people look for information to reinforce their beliefs – this is confirmation bias, ignoring the totality of what is being presented.
- MI6, in its reports, often put that ‘this source may be trying to influence as much as inform’ – you may be being influenced!
How can we be certain, the intelligence game?
In the run-up to the action in the early hours of Sat 14thApril to bomb very specific targets in Syria to send a clear message, not just to Bashar Al-Assad but the world, that the use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable, I have noted with sadness the large number of dissenters questioning the decisions of 3 elected heads of state, who represent the worlds policing body, the P5 of the United Nations Security Council.
Even after the attack, we have the leader of the opposition calling it illegal, questioning the decision making and the evidence to say it was Assad who carried out the horrific chlorine attack on Douma killing countless women and children.
The reports that came out of Douma alongside video released by the Syrian civil defence force, the White Helmets was not the evidence or intelligence the leaders of the USA, France and UK used to make their decision to bomb Syria, it was merely the initiator of a complex, layered process to understand what happened.
For the uninitiated, I am going to describe the sorts of processes that are in place to ensure that our leaders know that Assad’s forces were behind the chemical attack. I am leaving myself open to criticism as I cannot go into the real detail of how systems work and what their exact capabilities are, but I ask that people recognise I have used these systems and processes in the past, I have personal experience. Also, intelligence can be wrong but the more independent sources used and the fact here there would be 3 independent national collection and assessment operations reduces that possibility enormously.
The Middle East and Syria, in particular, is a focus for the intelligence capabilities of many countries involved or affected by the conflict. These will include the USA, UK, France, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran and many more. It is a part of the world with a huge volume of intelligence gathering platforms listening, sniffing, watching, reporting every piece of activity. Banks of analysts will be trying to analyse and interpret that activity, 24/7, 365 days a year – the intelligence cycle of direct, collect, analyse and disseminate is unending.
So, starting with the video from the White Helmets it gave a possible activity at a claimed time with a claimed weapon, how can we know it was a chlorine bomb dropped from an aircraft by Assad’s forces?
Once the reports started coming in, the banks of analysts pouring over their intelligence databases will have started to put together the questions they need answering, and looking for information collected that relates to those questions. The first in this instance would be – was there an aircraft at the claimed time over Douma and if so what type was it, where did it come from and who owned it?
AWACS Airborne early warning aircraft and other capabilities are watching all aircraft movements on a continual basis – they can track hundreds of movements simultaneously and will know if one was there, what type of aircraft it was, civilian/military, fixed wing/rotary wing and possibly even the callsign and model. They will know where it took off from, the route it took to Douma and where it went back to and the route with the exact times of all activities.
Cross-referencing the movement with signals intelligence data gathered from the aircraft, ships, UAVs and other assets hoovering up all radio traffic and more, there will be recordings of the aircraft’s crew checking in with their air traffic control and operational base. Those recordings will be translated, and translations checked.
So, we now know there was an aircraft in the right vicinity at the right time and we know where it came from and when. Imagery Intelligence of the base it flew from the moment it took off going back in time will be poured over by imagery intelligence specialists looking for the preparation of the aircraft, the weapons being loaded onto it, the crew joining it and everything that happened prior to it taking off. That capability exists and can be cross-referenced with capability from partner nations.
It will take time, but the loading of the aircraft will have been photographed. From those pictures an assessment of the weapon can be made – a barrel bomb is not easy to hide from the prying eyes of Western Intelligence. Once that assessment has been made and the number and types of vehicles used to move the weapon to the aircraft identified, the next task is to find the convoy which brought the bomb to the airfield. Intelligence gathered by the likes of the US JSTARs or UK Sentinel R1 can look for movement from known weapons dumps to the airport over a period of time. Various possibilities will be identified and will be cross-referenced with detailed imagery analysis of all of these sites and communications to and from the sites. The picture is building.
Human Intelligence (HUMINT) agents on the ground and Signals intelligence (SIGINT) assets will have been tasked to see what they can find out, what are personnel from the bases saying? What are the discussions Syrian military and political decision-makers having? How are they reacting to the international condemnation? What is being said between Assad’s people and the Russians? What are the Russians saying back to Moscow? Information in little snippets will be being fed to the analysts, agents will be talking to their contacts, supercomputers will be cross-referencing thousands of communications.
It is highly unlikely that there will be a report of the clarity, “Hello base, this is the heli, we have just dropped the chlorine bomb on Douma and are returning to base, over.” But what our intelligence will have told us is there was a Syrian aircraft over Douma at the time the alleged incident occurred, that aircraft came from an airfield where an object consistent with a barrel bomb was seen to be loaded. That object is consistent with one loaded onto trucks from a known chemical weapons storage site. HUMINT and SIGINT will add further context.
Intelligence is an art, scientifically approached, it can be wrong, it never (well rarely) gives a 100% picture, but we can be confident that the picture it does give is pretty close to what actually happened.
What I have described above is not necessarily what happened in the run-up to the decision to attack Syria but it will be in the right ballpark….
Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE