Wolves, Cod and the Internet

By Roger Davies / 5 January 2016 / In the News, Insights, Intel Analysis, Intelligence 101, Open Source Intelligence, Social Media

This famous cartoon from xkcd, I confess could be me.     

As readers of my blogs and followers on social media will know I too frequently allow myself to be wound up by people posting bogus stuff on the internet as if it were fact.  Unfortunately social media itself is often trivia and I recognise I need to learn to shrug and move on.  Recently there has been a spate of social media reposts on facebook, twitter and linked-in of a picture of wolves . Here is the image and associated text.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 16.07.48

Now, something about the picture struck me, I’d seen it a few years ago while watching a BBC documentary on the wildlife in cold territories (“The Frozen Planet”) but the words associated with the image where what made me feel uncomfortable.  Mostly I couldn’t work out or remember what creature or creatures would “ambush” a pack of 25 wolves anywhere in the world…. so my instinct, as an OSINT fiend, was to check the sources.  Within 20 seconds it was clear that the analysis was baloney, and even that the credited photographer was also incorrect.  The real, original, photo of 2011, correctly attributed with a probably much more correct description is here     Someone had misattributed the photo to “Cesare Brai” (it was actually Chadden Hunter) and added an analysis of the photo that was totally fictional.  One of my other pet peeves, (I have a lot of them!)  is anthropomorphism – the habit of ascribing human motives and thinking to animals, so this particularly wound me up. A whole host of people were commenting on a range of social media channels how this description of the wolves was “cool” and “provided lessons for us all” .  I shake my head in disbelief at the foolishness of social media, giving credence to anyone with the ability type, and the application of cod animal behaviour expertise that apparently us humans can learn from.  I know, I know, I should just shrug and move on…. life is too short and I shouldnt worry about this stuff.

But on another level there are important lessons for OSINT analysis and there’s something interesting going on here which analysts need to be aware of. Firstly, I’m a firm believer that most, (nearly all) OSINT analysts, and indeed intelligence analysts in general, aren’t taught enough about “critical thinking”.  There are a host of critical thinking tools, and methodologies and some of those would address the logical fallacies in the short amount of text that goes with the photograph, and highlight some of the unstated assumptions even in that short paragraph.   So this example is a good example of how critical thinking might be applied to an internet source.  We need to train intelligence analysts better in critical thinking. Secondly, there’s that word “source”. It should be the instinct of every OSINT analyst to check the source. Check the source every time, be sceptical about sources and double check them. One of the beauties of the internet is how easy it is to check sources – try google imaging the picture of the wolves.   I did and google image is an excellent tool – you can even work out very quickly the sort of time in the last couple of months when the bogus description and attribution was applied to a 4 or 5 year old image.

I’m intrigued though at another thing.  The text provides what is clearly an attractive, even inspirational narrative, given the hundreds of reposts in the month of December 2015 and the “likes” that such posts are receiving. I’ve blogged before about how an attractive narrative is an immensely powerful and dangerous tool, and can blow common sense and facts out of the water. Here is another example of this “ narrative” cognitive bias if I can call it that. Humans like stories and clearly the bogus story about the alpha wolf monitoring his pack from the rear sending out the weak in front in case of ambush strikes a chord.

So in summary :  Use critical thinking as much as you can, learn and apply a few critial thinking techniques, always check sources, and be wary of attractive narratives.  Oh, and don’t get wound up, like me, by social media foolishness. Life really is too short.  Either that or arctic chipmunks really are setting ambushes and eating dozens of wolves in an attempt to seize control of the arctic. That would be cool to see. I wonder if anthropomorphism is another cognitive bias?

2 comments on “Wolves, Cod and the Internet

  1. REF

    Your rather factual almost Socratic response, is a fantastic example of why our intelligence analysts have failed so miserably (given the contrasting circumstances) against those who employ emotion and not logic. Like ISIS. The name says it all.

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  2. Tim Haines

    Why is anthropomorphism bad? Because it makes the unwarranted assumption that other animals have the same mental faculties and thought processes that humans have.
    Thankfully intelligence analysts don’t frequently have to make assessments about the cognitive processes of animals. We do however frequently have to make assessments about the cognitive processes of other humans – ‘second guessing’ the motivation, intent and likely course-of-action of our adversaries, for example.
    But how do I know that my adversary has the same cognitive processes that I do? The history of intelligence analysis is littered with errors which have occurred when the assumption has been made that the adversary would behave in the same way that ‘friendly’ forces would in the same situation, or that the adversary’s behaviour represents a particular intent, when in fact cultural and doctrinal differences between us and our enemies render such assumptions invalid.
    Without wishing to dehumanise anyone, sometimes it is hard to anthropomorphise other humans (?). Red teaming, for example, only really works if it can be done in such a way as to factor in such cultural and doctrinal factors – not easy, in my experience.

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