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We highlight one of these books every third week each month. Our  Book Reviews and Commentaries are provided by JoEllen McNeal. Thank you JoEllen!

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News

By Cindy L. Otis


“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act”

-George Orwell (alleged)


Ever since Ramses II in 1274 BC created a false story of his supposed victory against the Hittites, fake news has been around.  And in today’s world, with our unprecedented access to information, the phenomenon is more powerful and present than ever. In True or False, former CIA analyst Cindy L. Otis guides readers through the impact of fake news over the centuries and empowers them to fight back by sharing lessons learned in over a decade working in intelligence.


Although fake news has been around for millennia, no other group in history understood the power of Lugenpresse, or “lying press” like the Nazis.  Their actions provide an important lesson for us now.  Since fake news was an integral part of their strategy, the term was meant to discredit actual news so that Germans would not believe what was reported.  For the Nazis, Lugenpresse came to mean any journalist – and then any person – who disagreed with or criticized the Nazi government or Hitler.  They knew that for the lies to work – to get people to turn on their neighbors – they had to control the press and convince the public that the only information they could believe was what the Nazi Party told them.


So how does fake news work?  People or groups using fake news to influence public opinion will often claim that what they say is the truth, and that every other source of information is lying.  Fake news is not usually capable of changing our minds completely – it cannot usually get us to believe the complete opposite of what we believed before.  Instead it plays to our existing beliefs and just make us more certain that we are right.  Otis points out that in the years leading up to World War II, many Germans already thought that straight, white, able-bodied German Christians were a superior race.  Nazi propaganda simply nudged them into targeting everyone that did not fall into that category.  Unfortunately, we can see the same tactics being used today by far-right groups in the U.S.


True or False is packed full of fascinating stories such as the news that appeared in the 1940’s accusing then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of organizing Black people in the South to overthrow the government; the famous Martian invasion of earth that turned out to be a Halloween show created by a young actor, Orson Welles; how Big Tobacco was able to convince the public that cigarette smoking was good for you; and how a debt-ridden, twenty-three-year-old Cameron Harris’s fabricated article, “BREAKING: “Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse,” helped Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election (and  made him $6 million in the process).


Must-read chapter headings include titles such as “Facts vs. Opinions;” “Fake News Takes Over Elections;” “Fake News Goes Viral;” “I’m Biased, You’re Biased, We’re All Biased;” How to Spot Fake News Articles;” “…Spotting Fake Photos and Videos;” “Memes Aren’t News and Other Social-Media Tips;” and “Managing the Chaos of the Breaking-News Cycle.”


Fortunately, finding the truth is still possible. True or False provides fascinating exercises at the end of each chapter to help the reader learn to recognize misleading or false information and a list of fact-checking websites on page 126 that should be something that everyone utilizes while reading any suspicious news.  The websites listed include;;; and


Otis writes, “We might think the simple solution (to fake news) is to trust nothing.  That is what fake news pushers want us to do.  They want us to think that nothing is true anymore, or that the problem is so insurmountable that it isn’t worth our effort….It ignores that fact that truth still exists and that journalists are out there working hard every day to make sure we know what it is.  So it’s up to each of us to help fight fake news.  We might not all be computer programmers.  But, as we’ve learned in this book, we can all think like an intelligence analyst.”


Reading this book means you want to see and defend fact and truth.  As a result, our society will be a little bit stronger.  As Otis writes, “This is an all of us problem.”  Please check this book out from the library, recommend it to your reading groups, tell your friends about it, pass this book on.  “And Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” –John VIII-XXXII


Cindy L. Otis received her bachelor’s degree in international politics and her master’s in international relations with an emphasis in national security from Boston University.  She spent most of her career as a military analyst, but also served as an intelligence briefer to the White House, and later, as branch chief.  She was the recipient of the Army Civilian Service Medal and the CIA’s Donald Cryer Award.  Cindy now works in cyber-security, regularly speaking and writing about political and national security issues for various media outlets.  She also continues her lifelong work advocating for disability rights.

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News By Cindy L. Otis
2021 October Book Commentary