July 05, 2022

Berit Anderson on mapping influencers, noticing breaks in patterns, ignoring headlines, and information warfare (Ep27)

“The most important thing, regardless of how you collect information, is learning how to notice what’s important, like learning how to notice the systems that are underlying a specific story or a specific information source, the motivations, keeping tabs on those, and identifying the context behind the information.

– Berit Anderson

Tim O'Reilly

About Berit Anderson

Berit is COO of Strategic News Service and director of programs for the Future in Review conferences. She co-founded and was CEO of Scout.ai, a media company exploring the future of technology. Her work on information warfare has been widely featured in major media such as New Yorker and TechCrunch and she is a frequent international keynote speaker.

LinkedIn: Berit Anderson

Twitter: Berit Anderson

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What you will learn

  • What mindset is needed to see patterns in information (01:43)
  • How and why look for what people do versus what they say (03:00)
  • What are good tools for building mental frameworks (06:14)
  • Why you must find your own way of building relationships in your information (08:54)
  • How to notice what matters especially the hidden ones (11:24)
  • How not to fall into the rabbit hole and balance your pattern searching (15:45)
  • How to survive the information warfare that is all around us (26:18)
  • Why your strong emotions are your signals to think (29:20)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Welcome to the show, Berit.

Berit Anderson: Thank you, Ross, it’s a pleasure to be here, I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Ross: You’ve lived your life immersed in all sorts of information and picking out wonderful things from it. Part of your role is seeing patterns. How do you do that? What’s the underpinning of your practices or mindset that enables you to do that so well?

Berit: I think it’s a combination for me of two things, one, reading as much as possible from sources that I trust and sources that focus on data, as opposed to what people say, I look a lot at people’s actions as opposed to their words. That comes into play a lot in the technology space and the business space where people often, majority of the time, say one thing and do another. Then the other is just talking to people. I try to talk to people who have different opinions than I do, who know more than I do about a subject. I try to bring in experts in particular spaces where I have intellectual weaknesses and use their knowledge and what they’re willing to share, to help build out my mental model of a challenge, an industry, or a space.

Ross: I’d like to get to each of those points. You see what people do rather than they say, and I presume this is the public figures or entrepreneurs? Can you give examples of this idea of seeing people what they do rather than what they say?

Berit: Yes, there are so many there. I live in the US. I’m a journalist, so I feel comfortable saying this, but the entire reporting ecosystem in the United States is based around sensationalism by design because the business model of journalism in the United States is primarily driven by ads. So they will publish, not all media companies, but a vast majority of mainstream media companies will publish, and reward people who can get the most clicks for their articles.

Headlines are key to that. The result of that is that you’ll often see headlines about Elon Musk tweeting something, Donald Trump tweeting something, or the CEO of Google saying something, and the key to those, in my experience, is to ignore them completely. I’m not interested in what Donald Trump is tweeting, except in the context of seeing what his strategy is, in communicating with the public. I don’t take anything that most people say publicly at face value but I do look at okay, where’s the money coming from to fund that person’s initiatives? Who are the investors in their company? What are their biggest challenges from a personal and business perspective? How did they grow up?

I will often look into people’s childhoods and their evolution as an intellectual as a key to understanding their intellectual framework and underpinning, and then I apply that to what are they actually doing with their businesses or with their life. What have they created? What decisions have they made? Where are they spending the money of their company? And that, to me, tells me a whole lot more than any article about Elon Musk’s most recent tweet, or Trump’s most recent tweet. Because so much of what’s happening in those spaces, especially political spaces, but business and tech are the same, is really happening behind the scenes.

From that perspective, investigative journalism is very interesting to me, because people spend a lot of time and energy looking into what’s happening. Media outlets that focus on context and understanding why specific information comes out is very interesting to me. But the blah blah blah says blank headlines, I just totally turn them out.

Ross: Yes, journalism has gone a lot easier when all you need to do is quote somebody’s tweet.

Berit: Screenshot one paragraph, and you’re done.

Ross: You also mentioned building the mental models to understand what’s going on and that’s in a way the nub of the challenge and the opportunity today. Are there any tools you use? Are there any mental frameworks that you use to build this, for example, being able to pull back these money trails to build a concept of how the world is structured? And what might happen next?

Berit: Yes, from a tool perspective, I’m old-fashioned, I like Post-it notes. I have them on the walls of my office. I like to map out people who are influencers in a specific space, understand their motivations, use those to move different ideas around, identify connections between companies and individuals, and other groups, it’s pretty basic. I also do a lot of bookmarking of tabs. When I start to notice a pattern happening in a specific industry or a specific space, I’ll create a bookmark folder for that specific pattern. Then as I come across media that relates to that, sometimes it’s just one headline that’s just a tiny part of the story, I can start to collate all of those different information sources to tell a bigger picture and a bigger story. That’s often how I develop. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Strategic News Service, and the Future and Review, which is a conference and action tank focused on using technology to solve global problems.

Now, at the Strategic News Service, I author, about once a month, it’s a newsletter focused on the future of technology and the global economy. It’s extremely accurate. Mark Anderson, who’s also my father, it’s a family company, started in 1995, he has had a 95.2% accuracy rating in his publicly graded predictions since that time. A lot of our work relies on tracking things, noticing things that don’t fit into what you would expect, and then keeping those in the back of your mind. But really, it’s pretty simple, like Google Docs, bookmarks, Post-it, that’s my jam.

Ross: These tools are to just assist visualization but it is your cognition and the truth, they truly are mental models, as opposed to an external construct.

Berit: Yes. I’m open to change. You’ve talked to a lot of people so maybe you can share some of their other experiences or opinions.

Ross: The one thing, which I think is really interesting is the rise of connected note-taking tools such as Obsidian and Roam Research. There are a lot of other similar things. I think information is not separate, but the relationships between them as you’ve been expressing. I think that there are more and more useful tools to facilitate your mental connections by doing that in software and potentially mapping them visually in 2D or 3D maps. There are some interesting tools. The Roamcult and other words describe the phenomenon that is the rapid rise of these tools I think is expressive that they’re entering the zeitgeist. I think there are a lot more opportunities. Everyone needs to hack their own…

Berit: Right. Eat their own thing.

Ross: Useful usage of these tools. But essentially, it is ultimately around what’s in our heads but I think these kinds of tools can be very helpful in building those relationships. A lot of people in the world of online software are using Miro, Mural and other whiteboards. Some people are similarly using them just as a bunch of Post-it notes and seeing relationships and finding that very useful as well. There are more tools, people are finding good ways to use them to stimulate their thinking.

Berit: Yeah, and it totally depends on how everyone’s brain works differently. For me, I like physical objects. I buy physical copies of books, and I write in them, and I take notes as I read, and I underline things that I think are important, and then I pull those things out but that model isn’t going to work for you or someone else necessarily. The most important thing, regardless of how you collect information, is learning how to notice what’s important, like learning how to notice the systems that are underlying a specific story or a specific information source, and the motivations that are underlying a specific story or a specific information source, and keeping tabs on those, and identifying the context behind the information is the most important thing, I think you can learn to help get better at understanding the world and what’s really happening out there.

Ross: That’s something you’ve learned through perhaps growing up in your family, or education, teaching yourself but what would you suggest for other people that want to learn that facility to notice what matters or notice what’s underlying? What is the process? What are the ways in which we can get better at that?

Berit: I would be remiss if I didn’t say you should become a member of Strategic News Service, because that’s where I publish my thinking, and Mark publishes his thinking, and my brother, Evan, also, he’s a world expert on China’s national business model. All of the work that we do, which is focused on technology and the global economy, understanding the systems underlying the world and what’s driving those things, the most important thing to start is questioning what you see, and understanding why people are doing things. For example, I notice how specific countries or governments think and frame things. Then when you see a break in that pattern, like if China, for example, is saying the same thing every day, for 10 years, and then you see them do something that’s out of character, that’s a good place to start looking. Noticing breaks in existing patterns is a really good place to start thinking about, Um, why is that?

Here’s one example. A few years ago, I was tracking Russian misinformation. We started noticing that three times in the last three months, giant US military ships have accidentally run into Chinese ships. By the way, that also happened off the coast of Russia to some random fishing vessels. The first time, I was like, that’s interesting, what really happened there? The first time that happened, I was like, um, that doesn’t happen. As the captain of a US naval vessel, you don’t accidentally run into another giant ship. That means either there was some technological malfunction with their equipment, or it was a very deliberate effort by the other side to cause some kind of crash.

When I started paying attention to that, then I saw the example pop up in Russia, of this happening with an unrelated type of vessel. Then I found out that within the city of Moscow, Ubers were being redirected to the Kremlin by accident somehow. That led me down this whole rabbit hole of okay, what’s happening here, there was a deliberate effort to use GPS spoofing to cause interference with navigation because global navigation systems were all set to GPS. Now since that happened, they’ve had to go back. GPS spoofing is when the coordinates are told that they’re somewhere that they aren’t Since that happened, the US military had gone back and had to reteach all of their naval operators how to prioritize non-GPS-based navigation. But that’s the kind of thing where one ship is crashing into another one, and

you’re like hmm, that’s very unusual, why did that happen? And when you start to ask questions and notice things that are out of the ordinary, then you can follow those threads and find patterns of that sort.

Ross: As a very crude, high-level summary, you’re observing patterns, noticing exceptions and patterns, asking why that might be, and being able to sensitize yourself more to other pattern exceptions that relate to that first one to build this new pattern of possibilities. Is that reasonable?

Berit: Yes, that’s pretty much it. Then I try to read philosophy and poetry in between to help my brain create mental connections that are not related to the news.

Ross: Yes, it’s interesting. There’s a recent article in New York Times about DYOR, do your own research. It’s an interesting point where, yes, you need to do your research and perceive your things but there’s also a point where that can be taken too far in apophenia, and to be able to see patterns that aren’t necessarily there.

Berit: I think that hunger for the DYOR movement is why QAnon was so successful. It encouraged people to find connections and do research and become a part of this global network of truth, essentially, it’s how they framed it. At a time when they had no social connection, it was during the pandemic, so everyone was holed up at home, they needed that, it’s like a serotonin bump when you find a new thing. You do need to balance that realism and that conversation with others outside of your sphere to help process like, does this mean something? Or is it just a coincidence? One coincidence is okay. Usually, I find when they’re like two or three coincidences, that’s when I start noticing a pattern.

Ross: One of the things which you saw patterns early was around disinformation, and information warfare, I’d love to hear where that started and how your engagement with information warfare has progressed?

Berit: Prior to my work at SNS and Future in Review, I was the co-founder of a company called Scout that combined near-term science fiction and investigative reporting. In that space, we use scenario planning, and science fiction as a tool to think through, what could the future implications of these emerging technologies be? What are patterns that we’re observing now that when combined with this next iteration of genetic mutation or experimentation, or this next iteration of widespread information could like – when you start to think about how could this develop, given what we know about the way that the world functions now, you can see problems before they happen, and this is, I’m sure, something that many of your, guests have talked about.

But I find it a really useful tool to think through, how would something work? Because the person who’s creating that technology is going to go through that same process at some point in the future; and there are certain things that you can pick up based on that. Because we were doing that work already, we wrote a piece of fiction that we published in the summer of 2015 about the Facebook newsfeed and how in this piece of fiction, Facebook had used its newsfeed to influence the election. Because we imagined that the majority of Facebook engineers would be more Democratic-leaning, in our mind, in this fiction, they had developed a way, at that point, within Facebook, you only needed the approval of one other engineer to push a change to the newsfeed. It’s like a double point of failure thing. This is something that Mark Zuckerberg was famous for, it is making it easy for engineers to develop and push new updates. The problem is that it also makes it easy to make a change that might have a negative impact on its users.

In this piece of fiction, we imagined that the two engineers had teamed up and because the change didn’t negatively impact engagement, which was their only metric at that point for which a change to the news feed would have been reviewed, they would use that to sway, to get out the vote efforts, essentially, to increase Democratic voter turnout to impact the outcome of an election, which is something that they had done a study on internally. It’s proved already that if you put an I Voted sticker at the top of the newsfeed at that time that they could influence voter turnout by a pretty big percentage point, I can’t remember what it is now but there was a significant impact on social contagion of voting.

We’d already done that going into the election. In the US, when Trump was elected, on election night, I was struck by a couple of things. One, there was a huge difference between the polls and the actual outcome of the election. I was like, hmm, that’s interesting. Why was that? And then number two, which I thought was even more unusual is that there was a huge difference in the exit polls from the election and the actual outcome of the election. None of that was capturing the way that people voted in that election, and I started looking into it, I was like, why is that? What’s going on here? What’s taking place? And clearly, polling has been outdated for a while, at the time, I’m not sure that they were relying on, as people switched onto mobile phones, a lot of political polling did not update to relevant new technologies. That has changed now in some ways, but not all.

I just started doing more research to figure out okay, what were the actual polling outcomes in specific key swing states? Why did certain states swing differently than what we thought? And the more that I looked into that, the more I found this work that had been done by an incredible… I forgot his name, I apologize, he created a map of the internet during this time, and he found that in addition to all of the normal major news sites that you normally see, publishing and connections between those, normally what you see is a map where there are lots of nodes into major news sites but there was also in his map this circumference of fake news sites or like far-right news sites that were all linking to each other at the same time. I was like, Okay, that’s interesting. Something is going on there.

Then from there, progressed and did more research, talked to more experts, talked to Samuel Woolley at Oxford, who was studying information warfare and bots on Twitter, learned about that, and started putting all these different pieces together to eventually publish the first article that explained how Trump, Cambridge Analytica, and Russia had used information warfare to gain the outcome of the US election and how Cambridge Analytica was working around the world with other governments to gain the outcomes of other elections as well. It started from a science fiction piece, it’s one thing, and then because I was in my head already, or that was in our heads already, we’re thinking about that. it became this eerie piece of premonition in a weird way, reverse premonition.

Ross: That’s part of the frame of exploring what is plausible. It’s not hard to put together some pieces that seem as plausible, and sometimes the plausible uncovers some truths.

Berit: The more time I spend on Earth, the more I realize that things that most people assume are not plausible, usually are. Oftentimes, I interact with people and they’re like, well that couldn’t be, no one’s really that evil, or no one’s really that manipulative, and no one’s that coordinated, and it turns out that they actually are. The more you learn about the world and the way things work, there’s a lot that people assume could never happen or would never happen, but that does happen.

Ross: You are essentially a futurist, or that’s part of your role. I think part of that role as well is that we have this cone of possibilities that people talk about the future, what is probable, possible in the realms of possibility. Part of it’s opening your mind, and a lot of people think in terms of what they think is most likely and part of that mindset is then being able to think across a broader spectrum of what is plausible or possible and be able to stretch, almost literally stretch your mind to encompass that.

Berit: Yes, a big part of that is also seeking out. When I want to understand something better, for example, with the QAnon group, I did a piece on QAnon at the very beginning when it was just starting, and I was trying to figure out, okay, what are the motivations behind this group? Why are they doing what they’re doing? Where’s that coming from?

You just dive in, there’s a reason that people pay political operatives to infiltrate other groups. It’s because when you understand another mindset and the mechanics of the inner workings of an influence effort, you can start to see that play out. That requires having conversations with people who think differently than you. It requires reaching out to and listening to, most importantly, people that you maybe don’t feel like you want to listen to. But in doing so, you can start to understand the mental models that are underlying their way of being or way of thinking and it helps to increase the sphere of your understanding.

Ross: Yes. That’s getting outside the bubbles to whatever degree we tend to live in. Being very early and perceiving some of the very active information warfare that we live in today, what do you recommend to people to survive and get through the flak of the information warfare that is all around us?

Berit: I think it depends on what your goals are. If your goal is I’m an average person, and I just want to figure out what is going on in the world as best as possible, there are a couple of things you can do. Look for data sources, and don’t take those data sources at face value, but look into who’s funding those data sources? Where’s the motivation for those data sources coming from? As I mentioned, I ignore most mainstream headlines about who said what, that stuff is all garbage, I look at what governments are actually doing, I look at what businesses are actually doing, I read financial filings, like, in the US, the SEC requires financial filings from companies and that’s a very good way of seeing what’s really going on, you’re not ever going to see anything, but you can start to understand a little bit more about what’s happening behind the source.

I love independent investigative outlets, I read The New Yorker a lot, because I feel like they do a very good job of going beyond just headlines on individuals who are shaping public consciousness in interesting ways, in unexpected ways. I look at The Economist and the Wall Street Journal for reporting on financials and what’s really happening in financial markets, and I look for what they’re missing when I read their content. I look at what they’re not saying in their articles, things that seem out of the standard operating behavior. Politically, I lean more liberal, but I follow a lot of conservative writers, thinkers, and actors to try and understand what they’re thinking, what are they doing? What are their strategies? We’re living in this bizarre world where we’ve never been more connected and we’ve never been more the subject of influence from advertisers and political forces, so you have to disconnect from your attachment to those things and take a step back and observe them with more of a learning and critical thinking approach. Or else, you’ll just wind up hating someone because that’s what information warfare is pushing you to do.

Ross: Yes, which is essentially having your own mind when people are trying to shape yours, is perhaps a summary of that. To round out, rather than asking you to recommend what people do, I think you epitomize the stance of how it is you look for, uncover, pull together, and take your stance on understanding what’s going on in the world. What I’d like to ask is, what do you recommend to people to nurture that, to learn that, to develop a similar frame of mind, or approach, or mentality that you have?

Berit: The biggest and most important thing that you can do is to notice when you are consuming information that makes you feel strong emotions. If you read something, and you’re like, I am really angry right now, because I just read this new piece of information, think about that, take a minute and say, why am I feeling angry? What part of me does the framing of this piece of news, or this article, or this piece of content adjust? Or I guess, what part of you is it touching that makes you feel that anger? Why is that happening? What is the motivation behind that? And once you take that step back, don’t also angrily engage with whoever posted that.

Many people interact with news primarily through social media these days. We’ve become accustomed to, we’ve been trained really, by social media platforms to think that we need to have an opinion on every piece of content. That is the currency of social media, it’s like who has the quippiest comment or the smartest retort, or like, calls out, blah, blah, blah, who has the best roast of the politician or the movie star, whatever it is, but if you sit back, take a minute and sit with that, you don’t need to say anything back, it’s okay. That anger that you’re feeling, in some cases it’s justified, but in many cases, it’s a manipulative tactic that is being deployed across social media platforms by bots, trolls, and people who pose as specific individuals in a specific group.

I’ve seen this a lot, most recently in the Black Lives Matter group, there are a lot of fake Black Lives Matter activists. Any hot button social issue has these fake posey accounts in there that are trying to stir things up. If you can avoid those and not jump into the anger feeling, I think it would go a long way towards breaking that cycle of anger reaction, don’t become a cog in the outrage machine.

Ross: I think that’s fantastic as a single point in terms of being able to engage better. I think that really hits the nail. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Berit. There’s so much more I could learn from you. We’ve had a fantastic conversation.

Berit: Thank you for being the kind of person that asks these questions. It’s an important conversation to be had.

Ross: Yes, let’s hope this is sparking some more people seeking to Thrive on Overload as you do. Have a great day.

Berit: Thank you, Ross.

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