Foreign Affairs

Disinformation: The Russian Infection

Cancer doesn’t destroy you head-on. Instead, it brings you down from the inside, turning your own cells into enemies. This story is about a cancer, but not a biological one. This cancer is political, and chances are you and the people around you have already been infected.

Fake news — a term many people are probably familiar with and likely tired of hearing — is a term that President Donald Trump likes to claim ownership over. But, in reality, it is actually quite old; it just happened to once go by a different name—активные мероприятия (aktivnie miropriyatiya).

The story begins in 1983 in India, where a story appeared in a small newspaper claiming that the United States had created the AIDS epidemic as a byproduct of U.S. biological warfare tests. The front page article read “AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments.” The goal of the article seemed to be to convince readers that the U.S. government was plotting to kill both African Americans and gay people. The article even goes as far as to name a specific American facility as the origin of the outbreak. This may seem like a crazy allegation printed in a fringe newspaper, but the truth is that this story was the catalyst of a much larger disinformation campaign sponsored by the Soviet government, and the campaign was just beginning.

Just a short four years later, the story had spread around the globe. A scientific report was published by two East German scientists claiming that they could prove that AIDS was created by the United States government. Of course, the report had no real merit or scientific foundation; it served only as the next cog in the Soviet disinformation machine. Nevertheless, the story had erupted and spread like wildfire around the globe, all because of the carefully planned out Soviet campaign known as Operation InfeKtion. The effects of this campaign were far-reaching and detrimental to the international perception of the United States. In 1992, 15 percent of Americans considered it definitely or probably true that “the AIDS virus was created deliberately in a government laboratory.” In 2005, a study by the RAND Corporation and Oregon State University revealed that nearly 50 percent of African Americans thought AIDS was man-made, over 25 percent believed AIDS was a product of a government laboratory, 12 percent believed it was created and spread by the CIA, and 15 percent believed that AIDS was a form of genocide against black people.

Operation InfeKtion served as a prime display of aктивные мероприятия, or active measure, making up 85 percent of the KGB’s budget at the height of their power. However, the phrase active measure doesn’t quite measure up to the reality of their operations. Rather, Активные мероприятия is the most strategic, masterful, and toxic web of lies you could possibly imagine. It was created with the goal to change every American’s perception of reality to such an extent that despite an abundance of information, no one would be able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of themselves and their country.

Disinformation was such a large part of the KGB that every agent was required to spend at least 25 percent of their time coming up with potential campaigns. To put this in perspective, the KGB employed over 15,000 people with the sole purpose of spreading disinformation. That is more people than are currently employed in the US foreign service.

So just how successful were these KGB disinformation campaigns? To answer this, one needs to look no further than some of the most popular and widely spread conspiracies around today. The CIA killing JFK? KGB. The story of how the CIA tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II? KGB. The one about affluent Americans buying poor children from Latin America for the purpose of harvesting their organs? KGB.

The foundations of this Soviet-era strategy encompasses seven key principles. First, exploit social divisions within the target society. Second, create a bold statement so egregious that, if believed, would be damning to the target country. Third, take that bold statement and cushion it with layers of truth. Fourth, conceal the origin of the lie. Fifth, find a patsy to distribute the lie. Sixth, deny any and all allegations of the story being false. Finally, play the long game with the spread of disinformation. While these strategies may have been created by the Soviets, the Russian government has adopted these seven principles, keeping with the same overall goal of spreading as much disinformation as possible.

Yet, being able to recognize these seven principles is only the first step in combating this form of political warfare, and the United States must improve a great deal before it can consider itself as actively preventing the spread of disinformation. We have come a long way since 1983 and Operation InfeKtion, but not in the way one might hope. With the rise of the Internet and mass communication, what once took the Russians months to spread now only takes a matter of days. Stories, like the infamous Pizzagate, have the potential to spread at a rate never seen before, and the U.S government still isn’t taking the threat seriously.

In the fall of 2016, the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, was hacked in a spear-phishing attack, and his emails were subsequently made public by WikiLeaks. Proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory falsely claimed that the emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connected several U.S. restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party with an alleged child sex ring involving the Washington, D.C. restaurant Comet Ping Pong.

Members of the alt-right and other opponents of Clinton’s presidential campaign spread the conspiracy theory on social media outlets such as 4chan and Twitter, with the aid of various Russian botnets, serving to only expand the scope of the story until a man from North Carolina traveled to Comet Ping Pong to investigate this conspiracy, during which he fired a rifle several times inside the restaurant.

Pizzagate is evidence of the real danger of disinformation, as this fake news story resulted in domestic terrorism. Yet, listening to some of the sitting members of both the House and the Senate talk about social media and the threat of propaganda is like listening to a toddler attempt to explain quantum mechanics. The individuals in charge of writing our national security policy don’t even understand the platform well enough to speak about it, let alone resolve a problem as large as this. One need not look any further than Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony at the Capitol, where representatives struggled to understand the concept of data and artificial intelligence.

The fact is that we largely haven’t taken the Russians as a serious threat since the Cold War, and evidently, this has left us vulnerable to such disinformation attacks. With the Obama administration largely taking a foreign policy stance toward Russia that favored friendship, they felt they needn’t address the prevalent fake stories coming out of the Kremlin. After all, who would believe that a presidential candidate would run a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor? Evidently, a great deal of people would, so much so that the story still occasionally comes up today in conspiracy theories. Disinformation is still spreading, and we are doing nothing to stop it.

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