Filters, Folklore, Fake News, and Faulty Investigations

By David Debenham

I am myopic and color blind.  My father was hard of hearing.  We all have our perceptional strengths and weaknesses.  Less obvious is our beliefs about people, and the world in which we operate, form a filter through which we perceive the world as we experience it.  Known pejoratively as a “reality distortion field” in which the objective world is filtered through our view of the way the world operates to form the world we experience. Typically, a person’s Weltanschauung would include a person’s philosophic, moral, and religious conclusions about the individual, society, and existence (however tentative) at a particular time in their life used to filtering their life experiences. It is the personal barometer that determines “real” and “fake” news at an individual level.  It determines what is “dependable” data, and how that data is organized into “information”. Another popular word is “paradigm”.  Aa paradigm is a set of assumptions governing how we interact and interpret the world. Every human has a personal paradigm which is influenced by outside forces acting on them and their own experiences and internal beliefs in support of the paradigm. Cognitive dissonance is when one’s experience conflicts with our belief system, causing us to either (i) reject the experience as false data, (ii) or amend our belief system to account for the phenomenon. Usually rejecting the experience as false data is the easier path, and thus the one most taken. However, when the experiences that are inconsistent with the paradigm pile up to the point that they can no longer be ignored, the individual is forced to undergo a “paradigm shift’ in which they are forced to amend their old worldview to account for these experiences. The individual often says that the “scales impeding their vision of reality fell from their eyes” and they could see the world truly for what it was for the first time.

As an investigator, we have to be wary of the witnesses’ worldviews and our own.  Witnesses who are deceived by fraudsters are often lured into a distorted worldview, but one in which they believe they see the world for what it truly is for the first time.  Eventually the fraudster’s worldview must give way when the number of intensity of experiences convinces the mark that it can no longer be true, and the mark realizes that they have “gone down the rabbit hole” to share a false reality with the fraudster.  Thus, a fraud victim often two paradigm changes, the first being the worldview of the fraudster and their “black box” of miracles in which they cannot lose, and the second when they have so uncontrovertibly lost, that they now see the fraud for what it was. Thus, a fraud victim’s account of what is happening, or what has happened, varies radically depending on which paradigm they believe in and the time of your interview. 

For investigators, the danger is in forming a worldview that leads us to conclude what type of person is most likely to have committed this offence, and then filtering the evidence based on this view.  As they say in “Casablanca”, we “round up the usual suspects”. For fraud cases this is extremely dangerous because the fraudster’s ability to be liked, trusted, respected is their stock and trade, as it makes them the least likely to be suspected by victim and investigator alike. Just as fraudsters prey upon people of their own sociological group because trust is presumptively the default (“affinity fraud”), so too fraudsters attempt to prey on our similar interests (sports, cars, etc) in an effort to win our trust. We have to ask ourselves, (1) am I focusing on a suspect because I dislike them and therefore don’t trust them? (2) am I minimizing the involvement of a potential suspect because they don’t seem the type? (3) if I gave all the evidence to another investigator with a background different from my own, would they weigh it in the same way as I have?

Let us take some examples from history.

I don’t believe the traditional account of the Battle of Gettyburg during the Civil War.  The traditional view is (1) Robert E. Lee was a brilliant battlefield tactician at the height of his powers during the Civil War, (2) during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg he simply ordered the main line of his infantry to charge the cannons in what has been known as Pickett’s Charge, where they were mowed down, losing the battle and ultimately the war.  Now how do historians deal with this dissonance?  The traditional views are (1) hubris, Lee believed and his Army was invincible after a string of victories or (2) ill health, a heart attack earlier in the campaign had affected his judgment. These seem like poor attempts at reconciling the folklore of the battle, as a heart attack does not affect one’s faculties after one has recovered, and I doubt that a general on the most important day of his life abandoned his skills as a tactician.

What do I believe? At the Battle of Brandy Station shortly before Gettyburg Stuart’s cavalry engaged the Union cavalry in a fierce battle that resulted in a draw.  That battle revealed the increasing competence of the Union cavalry to the point that they were a match for Stuart’s Invincibles.   That, however, was unknown to Lee when Stuart rejoined Lee on the second day of the Battle of Gettyberg.   I believe Lee instructed Stuart to ride his cavalry around the union line and attack it from the rear, on the road between the Union troops and their retreat route to Washington. When they reached that point, Stuart would fire 4 cannon shots and charge the union position, with Pickett’s forces then charging the main line, and Longstreet from the other side of the Union line. The three pointed pincer attack would see the Union forces surrounded, leaving them no choice but to surrender. Unfortunately for Lee, Longstreet refused to attack and Stuart was repelled by Union General Custer after he had fired the 4 cannon shots, leaving only Pickett’s Charge proceeding as planned. 

What is interesting is not whether I am right or wrong, but the ire and fury visited upon me by my university Professors for attacking the “settled” fork lore of the battle.  Rather than entertaining a new theory that would keep the “settled” view of Lee intact, and explaining why Pickett’s Charge proceeded as it did, the new theory challenged the deeply ensconced views of the Professors at the hands of an “amateur” like myself, and was not be entertained no matter how much “proof” I provided. 

So too, my explanation of the Battle of Stalingrad during World War 2.  I explained it as the tactical equivalent of General Grant’s siege of Vicksberg to cut off Mississippi River, with the Volga River being used by the Soviets in the same manner as the Confederates.   I explained the difference in result being solely to a Gernan intelligence failure that had allowed the Soviet Union to ship the bulk of its forces in Siberia to the Volga undetected at the same time as it was shipping the bulk of its manufacturing plants in the opposite direction.  The result was to double the Soviet forces opposite Stalingrad, and then encircle Stalingrad before the Germans could believe what was happening.   To go from the cusp of ultimate victory to Germany’s largest defeat in history was too much to fathom.   So too, for Professors to believe that Stalingrad was anything other than a military, rather than intelligence failure, and my explanation was once again rebuked.  While university purports to be the place to explore new ideas, my experience was the opposite.   So too may be the case when you are doing an investigation that is led by seasoned professionals with deeply ensconced beliefs. 

All of this may tempt you into believing that there is a great more individual or social psychology in play during the investigative process that you might have previously believed.  Please adjust your worldview accordingly.

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David Debenham

David Debenham

David, CPA, CMA, is the co-chair of the Fraud Law Group of the law firm of McMillan LLP