Information Warfare: Disinformation Powered By The Internet

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July 12, 2015: Since the Cold War ended in 1991 a lot of former KGB (Russian CIA/FBI/secret police) employees eventually found new jobs doing what they had done before the Soviet Union imploded. That’s because the 1990s were when the Internet blossomed into the World Wide Web. At the same time a lot of the deception and information manipulation the KGB long monopolized was now legal for civilian firms as well in Russia and China. So over the last two decades many KGB media specialists have gone commercial and trained a new generation of Internet savvy manipulators and often ended up working for the government again, as contractors rather than uniformed employees. 

Spreading lies and rumors is a long standing practice in wartime. But in pre-Internet days it was developed into a fine art by the Soviets during the Cold War. This conflict, which raged (or simmered) from 1948 to 1989 (or 1991, take your pick) never saw the main antagonists (America and the U.S.S.R) fighting each other directly, but rather it was a war of proxies. Other nations provided the battlefields while other peoples provided most of the fighters. The Soviets were calling most of the shots during this conflict even if they were not firing them. While both sides used the media and propaganda the Soviets were enthusiastic users of a particular form of media deception called disinformation. This is the old "repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth" routine, distributed via press release and planted media stories. On the Internet we call people who do this “trolls” (or worse).

Disinformation is an ancient deception technique, but never has it been used so widely and for such a long time to keep numerous small wars going and generate such levels of hostility towards ones opponent. These fighters were not risking their lives for the Soviet Union but for a myriad of local causes. The Soviet disinformation program was intended to keep everyone in a combative mood and pursuing goals that meshed with the Soviet Union’s foreign policy.

Some of the disinformation was pretty outrageous, such as the planted story that AIDS was invented by U.S. military researchers. Most of the disinformation was more minor, and locally relevant, in nature. The Soviets had a large bureaucracy, and equally vast budget, to buy the services of local journalists worldwide. The stories supplied would generally cast aspersions on the actions or motives of the U.S. government and Americans in general. While the Soviets were generally inclined to shovel out lies and half-truths pell-mell, they also had specific programs to bring down governments friendly to the West or, more importantly, to prop up the morale of rebels, revolutionaries, and terrorists fighting for a Soviet approved objective. Al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups have tried to use the same tactics but have not been nearly as deft and successful at it as the Soviets were.

What made the Soviet program unique was its global nature. The Soviets were quick to realize that the media in most countries was not as independent as in the United States. In fact, the U.S. media was something of an exception. In most nations the media are, like the first newspapers in the 18th century the creatures of one special interest group or another. It was in America that the "independent" media was invented, and even the U.S. media is not completely free of biases and favoritism towards special interests. In most countries, the bias and special interest control is much stronger. Yet in all countries the local media is, like it (or agree with it) or not, the primary source of information for the population. Compared to America, the rest of the world's journalists are not well paid (even by local standards). Thus it is common for journalists to accept "gifts" (or outright bribes) in return for writing certain stories or slanting their reporting a certain way. The Soviets took advantage of this and their local agents (who were often not Russians) were liberally supplied with cash in order to buy the media attention they needed. The American CIA engaged in the same practice but the Soviets were much more aggressive, generous and successful in this area.

While many journalists worldwide admire the American model for media independence, the Soviets realized that they didn't have to buy a lot of journalists in order to give their agenda sufficient exposure. Most of the Soviet disinformation was purposely developed as sensational stuff. The Soviets knew what kind of stories played best in the media and this is what they provided. This was the importance of the large disinformation staff back in Moscow. Stories that played on local fears were favored. For example, over the years, the CIA was played up as the cause behind just about everything that people feared, up to and including the weather and earthquakes. In typical Russian fashion, the Soviets would plant dozens of stories in different countries all hitting the same invented idea from a different angle. That way, the press in one country could cite a Soviet story planted in another country to back up their local "reporting." The Soviets also made the most of some outrageous story appearing in the Western press (whether it was a Soviet plant or not), by planting more outrageous versions and elaborations via the more pliable journalists of other nations. The Soviets realized that the media had become a global system and that there was a great deal of "follow the leader" (or "steal from another newspaper," depending on how you look at it) going on. The Soviets also knew that correcting an inaccurate story was nearly impossible. Once the lie gets loose, you can never correct the misinformation that then forms in so many people’s minds. Once the Internet came along, these techniques became easier and cheaper to use.

The "Big Lie" was something that was created in this century as media grew in importance. The Nazis get a lot of credit for starting it, but it was actually the Bolsheviks (the earliest incarnation of the Communists) in Russia that first used it so effectively at the end of World War I. Indeed, the term "Bolshevik" is Russian for "majority," a title the Communist minority among the Russian socialists gave themselves as they set out to seize control of Russia during World War I. The Communists kept repeating the term Bolshevik (even when it was obvious they were a small minority of the Russian socialist party) and eventually more and more people just took it for granted that the Communists were the majority, the Bolsheviks. And soon they were in control of the nation. And at that point they were still a minority, which is why they kept on killing off Russians (into the early 1950s) who actually or potentially thought differently.

Western countries only slowly became aware of what the Soviets were doing. The Voice of America and the BBC World Service radio broadcasts were intended to counter the Soviet disinformation. But these efforts met with limited success. Imaginative lies travel faster and more widely than does the more mundane truth. Politicians in all nations know and take advantage of this fact. "Negative campaigning" is often little more than a disinformation campaign.

The only positive side of disinformation is that, eventually, most people catch on and no longer believe the lies. But this takes time, often decades. And the turnaround has to take place separately in each media area. That is, while people may begin to see through the local disinformation campaign in one area, people in a neighboring nation could still be under the spell of the clever forgeries. The Soviet Union and its East European satellite nations saw their web of disinformation come apart during the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 will long be seen as the moment when the tower of deceit came undone. But in actuality, the process of disintegration took place over several years. And for many years to come there will still be people in those formerly Communist countries who will continue to believe the lies, even if the majority does not.

The deception technique of disinformation had a palpable effect on dozens of battlefields during the Cold War and after. Thousands of pro-Communist fighters believed, to the death, in the tangle of disinformation the Soviets had created. Without such motivation, many of these wars, rebellions, and uprisings would not have happened. Information is power, even false information. And this translated into firepower for decade after decade. It has happened again and this time the true-believers are Islamic radicals. Russia, China and many Western nations have disinformation operations that exploit the Internet to get their version of reality to as many people as possible. The long term impact of all this is as yet unknown. 

 


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