Tracing the DNA of Disinformation

The internet may have supercharged the spread of disinformation, but it has been with us for decades, even centuries.

An anonymous letter in Patriot, a small newspaper published in New Delhi that was later revealed to have received Soviet funding. Credit...History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. (Reposting for editorial use from the NYT.com)
An anonymous letter in Patriot, a small newspaper published in New Delhi that was later revealed to have received Soviet funding. Credit...History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. (Reposting for editorial use from the NYT.com)

Bywire will email you from time to time with news digests, stories & opportunities to get involved. Privacy .

LONDON (Bywire News) - Much has been made of Russian disinformation over the past few years, but as some fantastic investigation work from the New York Times showed, it is nothing new. 

Disinformation was a common tool for the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. In the 80s ‘Operation Infektion’ run by East German Intelligence officers, spread a conspiracy theory about the origins of AIDS. The virus which was sweeping the world was, according to the theory, the result of biological weapons experiments run by the United States. 

The theory capitalised on another idea going around that Reagan’s slow response to the virus which disproportionately affected gay men was part of a government sponsored aggression against the gay community. 

The KGB picked up on this and added a location into the mix: Fort Detrick where scientists had conducted experiments on biological weapons during the 50s and 60s. A memo sent from East German police through Bulgarian intelligence, stated the mission’s goal as being “to generate, for us, a beneficial view by other countries that this disease is the result of out-of-control secret experiments by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon involving new types of biological weapons.”  

The campaign started with a letter in a small New Delhi newspaper called Patriot. It ran in the July issue of 1983 and carried the headline: “AIDS May Invade India: Mystery Disease Caused by U.S. Experiments”.

Patriot was chosen because it had no apparent links to the Soviets (although it was later found to have Soviet linked funding) and because it was an English language newspaper with a global reach. 

The strategy was simple and relied on basic weaknesses in the human psyche. Identify a point of conflict, spot inconsistencies in the media and fill them with meaning. 

Soviet media began covering the theory. The journal Literaturnaya Gazeta published a paper titled “Panic in the West or What Is Hiding Behind the Sensation Surrounding AIDS.” It quickly gained worldwide attention and was repeated by the press and right-wing politicians.

Even as late as the 2000s South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki was citing the paper as a reason for rejecting the use of antiviral drugs to fight AIDs. In 2005 Kanye West rapped: “And I know that the government administered AIDS.”

The modern lie

The same principle has appeared more recently with home grown conspiracy theories such as birtherism started by Trump and right-wing groups in the US against Barack Obama. Once again Russia picked up on an existing conspiracy theory, repeated it in their own press and bounced it back into the West. 

This time, though, they had an added ally: social media. It served as a superhighway for disinformation which reached a peak during the last US presidential election. Even with that, these theories needed fertile ground in which to thrive. Had it not been for the toxic, divisive and partisan nature of political discussion, this would have been little more than whistling in the breeze. 

Instead, it met a population eager to believe. As with the later claims about the election people latched onto the birther conspiracies not because they believed them but because they matched with their political tribe. 

That’s why people were chanting either ‘stop the count’ or ‘count the votes’ depending on which version of reality matched their political goals. 

Russia, as they did, in the 80s has seen those fractures and given them extra spice. However, this time, this has a more global and transatlantic feel. From the election of Donald Trump in the US to Brexit in the UK or the Presidential election in France which pitted Macron against the far-right challenge of Marine le Pen, Russian sources have been spreading their infectious seeds of disinformation. 

However, what is not entirely clear is if they have succeeded or failed. It depends on what they are trying to achieve. 

If, for example, Russia hoped the election of Donald Trump would soothe relations, be the end of NATO, or lift international sanctions they were to be disappointed. 

However, if they were there to sow discontent and division, they got it spot on. If it were to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency in revenge for 2012, then it was a success. The aim is not for the lie to be believed but for people to distrust what they read and hear. The strategy came into play most vividly with the conspiracy theories flying around the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 270. 

Rumours abounded across social media including: Ukrainians trying to assassinate Putin, to a lost and confused World War II battalion which popped out of the forests to bring it down. The aim is not to believe there are forgotten bands of war vets bringing down passenger planes but to throw enough disinformation into the air so that, when the truth hits the media, it became just one of a number of competing conspiracy theories vying for attention. 

Disinformation isn’t new. However, by looking back at its history, we can learn how it spreads, why it’s so appealing and how we can defeat it in the future. 

 

(Written by Tom Cropper and Michael O'Sullivan)

Donate

Bywire will email you from time to time with news digests, stories & opportunities to get involved. Privacy .