When a colleague sent me a news story titled A rogue killer drone “hunted down” a human target without being instructed to, UN report says, I smelled a rat.

Call me a pessimist, but there’s no shortage of sensationalist news on the aviation beat. Think of the loud press coverage any time a plane crashes, or the rosy techno-futurist stories that seem crafted to build investor hype. Whether it’s good or bad, and whether its sources are trustworthy or serving another agenda, the news is hard to get right. Even worse are the headlines, which are often only loosely representative of the story.

I wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided to put this story and its headline to an informal test. What follows is my experience trying to extract the truth from the prose.

Reading the story

Business Insider’s May 30, 2021, report began:

“A ‘lethal’ weaponized drone ‘hunted down a human target’ without being told to for the first time, according to a UN report seen by the New Scientist.

The March 2020 incident saw a KARGU-2 quadcopter autonomously attack a human during a conflict between Libyan government forces and a breakaway military faction, led by the Libyan National Army’s Khalifa Haftar, the Daily Star reported.

The Turkish-built KARGU-2, a deadly attack drone designed for asymmetric warfare and anti-terrorist operations, targeted one of Haftar’s soldiers while he tried to retreat, according to the paper.”

At this point, I started making assumptions based on the tone and word choice (“rogue,” “hunted down,” and “without being instructed to”). My wife would call it catastrophizing, but I think it was fair given the language.

  • Did the drone kill the retreating soldier?
  • What was the method of attack?
  • Was the drone destroyed, or did its owner regain control?
  • Is the manufacturer working to correct the flaw that allowed its drone to go rogue?

Strangely, neither Business Insider nor the Daily Star and New York Post – both of which it cited – answered these questions. (The New Scientist may have, but it was behind a paywall. Sigh.)

At first, the biggest red flag in my mind was the lack of data on the soldier’s fate. You’d think that fact sits high enough on the inverted pyramid to avoid editorial cuts. Later, I’d realize this was far from the biggest issue.

Finding the Original Source

Hoping to find the answers elsewhere, I ran a Google keyword search. At first, I saw what one might expect: other news outlets had basically reported the same exact story, with minor revisions to make the content their own. LADbible, to its credit, linked to the UN report in question. Finally, I could play reporter!

Okay, real talk… reporters work hard. And I like to sleep, so I haven’t read all 548 pages of the UN report yet. But the drone incident in its entirety seems to be covered on page 17.

It's still a long passage, so click here to expand:

"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 (see annex 30) and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true "fire, forget and find" capability. The unmanned combat aerial vehicles and the small drone intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability of HAF were neutralized by electronic jamming from the Koral electronic warfare system.

The concentrated firepower and situational awareness that those new battlefield technologies provided was a significant force multiplier for the ground units of GNA-AF, which slowly degraded the HAF operational capability. The latter's units were neither trained nor motivated to defend against the effective use of this new technology and usually retreated in disarray. Once in retreat, they were subject to continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems, which were proving to be a highly effective combination in defeating the United Arab Emirates-delivered Pantsir S-1 surface-toair missile systems. These suffered significant casualties, even when used in a passive electro-optical role to avoid GNA-AF jamming. With the Pantsir S-1 threat negated, HAF units had no real protection from remote air attacks."

The above passage leaves the target’s fate ambiguous, so it makes sense that Business Insider would have as well. But it also implies that the drone, rather than acting without prior instruction, was operating as coded by its developers. In that sense, Business Insider’s dystopian sci-fi language was harder to justify, even if it was citing other news outlets.

And its headline calling the Kargu-2 a “rogue killer drone” that hunted down a target “without being instructed to” was not misleading; it was false.

How Could Business Insider Have Done Better?

If I understand correctly, the real news angle was that this ominous but correctly functioning tech may have just seen its first use in combat, despite ongoing international efforts to ban it. Given enough time, I think an editor could’ve written plenty of headlines that would have been just as catchy without bending the truth. Here is my attempt:

Autonomous combat drone attacks first human target, UN report implies

Or, using Business Insider’s casual, verbose style:

A 2020 Libyan conflict may have seen the world’s first known victim of an autonomous drone, UN report says

How did I do? Would you have clicked either of the above headlines, or did I mess things up too much with my bland, buzz-killing technical writer’s brain? More importantly, do they ring true given what we know about the story? In that sense, at least, I think they do.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which I didn’t bother to cross-reference other news reports or find the UN source material. I might have finished my lunch break thinking that drones were going rogue overseas and passed that false information along to my friends. And who could blame me?

Closing Thoughts

Some will counter that headlines are often wrong, and that people should read the whole story before passing judgment.

But I think that’s kind of a sadistic mentality, like leaving a manhole uncovered and expecting people to walk around it even though nobody bothered to put up cautionary tape. It implies an almost adversarial relationship between writers and readers.

The technical writing equivalent of this would be if an engineer told me that “if the user doesn’t understand this installation guide, he’s dumb.” (NOTE: This is purely theoretical. I’ve read about rude engineers, but rarely meet them.)

Since I’m an aviation geek, let me also just take this opportunity to name drop my buddy, 19th century educational psychologist E.L. Thorndike, whose Law of Primacy states that what is learned first creates an almost unshakeable impression in a student’s mind, making it hard to unlearn bad habits later.

Okay, I doubt Thorndike intended to apply, or would reasonably apply, the Law of Primacy to news headlines. But I still wonder if printing first and making corrections later is as harmless as some people think. Do readers stick around as the news develops? Do they understand that headlines are often crafted to attract attention, not to convey accuracy? Do they carefully analyze each line against multiple competing sources to discern the most likely interpretation of the facts, pausing at the end to reflect on what they just read? … Or are they standing in line at Chipotle, with 30 seconds left to finish reading until their burrito wrap hits the counter?

Let me be clear that my intention is not to bust anyone’s chops. I’ve been a news reporter and felt the insane market pressures. I’ve also been a casual news reader scanning stories on my lunch break, too busy to look at the prose with a critical eye. We are all trying our best in an essential, but imperfect, news system.

That said, no offense meant to journalists. I just fact-check for fun.