During the 2016 American presidential elections there were charges of Russian interference in the campaign. That led to an unprecedented investigation into the use of social media like FaceBook and YouTube by foreign nations. Not surprisingly (to those who remembered Soviet Cold War intelligence operations) if was found that Russia was covertly using American social media for a lot more than trying to influence the outcome of elections.
More familiar to cold war veterans was the Russian use of social media to influence American public opinion of the U.S. military and the effectiveness of new weapons. Case in point was the source of many (hundreds or more) videos posted on YouTube implying that the new American F-35 stealth fighter was a failure. As the F-35 entered service in 2016, especially in foreign air forces (like Israel) the pilot reports (very positive) were at odds with all this social media videos (very negative.) This was apparently a classic Russian application of dezinformatsiya (disinformation) to try and discourage public support for continuing to develop and build the F-35. It also made the embarrassing (not going well) Russian effort to develop the Su-57 stealth bomber.
Foreign government, especially potential F-35 customers, paid more attention to pilot reports and the results (like increased orders and new customers like Germany) puzzled many English speakers, particularly Americans, exposed to all the Russian dezinformatsiya on YouTube and believing it.
When the Cold War ended in 1991 and the Soviet Union disappeared many Western intelligence agencies thought they had seen the last of Soviet maskirovka (“masking”) and dezinformatsiya operations. That was an unrealistic expectation as the Russians are reviving these deception practices and, as has been noted since the 1990s, several surviving communist government (like China and North Korea) never stopped using the maskirovka and dezinformatsiya techniques they had learned from their Soviet patrons and their own history. East Asian have numerous surviving ancient documents demonstrating that the value and use of deception and deceit goes back a long way.
One rather obvious example of how Russia has revived its classic dezinformatsiya was recently seen when Russia accused the United States of committing atrocities in Syria by using American warplanes disguised as Russian ones while bombing civilians, hospitals and the like. To carry out this dezinformatsiya the Russians used photos from an American pilot training exercise in which some F-18s, which are somewhat similar in appearance to Russian Su-30s, were given a Russian Air Force paint job and flown by American pilots who knew Russian fighter tactics and techniques. This was part of the “dissimilar training” the U.S. Navy revived (from a World War II practice) in the late 1960s to better prepare American pilots to deal with North Vietnamese fighter aircraft encountered over North Vietnam. This led to regular Red Flag and Top Gun training programs that evolved as potential enemy air forces did. The Russians claimed these photos showed American aircraft operating over Syria and bombing forbidden (by international law) targets, in order to blame Russia.
This was classic Soviet era dezinformatsiya and it still works, especially when you are not looking for it, as was the case with the F-35 smear campaign. Most people were not fooled by the Syrian F-18 campaign but enough were to make it worth the effort. The less obvious F-35 campaign was a lot more successful until it was detected and revealed. As Russia itself began using these techniques again most Western intel analysts were somewhat mystified because they had not seen this sort of thing at all (if they were young) and the older intel experts had not seen it done to this degree since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still around and using these techniques heavily used right up until the end. But that was before the Internet and social networks. For professional liars the Internet was a gold mine.
The Soviets pioneered the use of specialized organizations developing and deploying dezinformatsiya. A similar but even larger one Soviet government agency was created for maskirovka. This agency planned and carried out large scale deceptions of American photo satellites. In addition to concealing weapons, their performance, and movements the Soviets also used satellite deception to mislead the West on how their troops would operate in the field. Several times a year the Soviets would hold large scale maneuvers. Each of these exercises would involve many divisions, plus hundreds of aircraft and helicopters. Satellite photos of these maneuvers were thought to reveal tactics the Soviets were going to use in future wars. But the Soviets knew when American satellites were coming over and sometimes arranged displays of tactics they had no intention of using. Naturally, this made it more difficult for the Western intelligence analysts to figure out exactly what the Soviets were planning. That, of course, was the sort of confusion the Soviets wanted to create with these little deceptions. The current Russian government is reviving a lot of Soviet era organizations and practices because they have discovered maskirovka and dezinformatsiya still work on the West.
After 1991 this inherent fondness for maskirovka and dezinformatsiya was great news for a lot of former KGB (Russian CIA/FBI/secret police) employees who eventually found new jobs doing what they had done before the Soviet Union imploded. In part that’s because of new technology. 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. Since then 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 and fatalities. The Soviets were calling most of the shots during this long 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). The Russians had, as they had during the Cold War, quietly taken advantage of the relative anonymity of Internet, especially on Western social media, to launch many dezinformatsiya that went (or still are) undetected.
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 (or the CIA or whatever). Most of the disinformation was small scale 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. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), 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 was not completely free of biases and favoritism towards special interests. In most countries, the bias and special interest control is much stronger. That eventually happened in the United States, about a decade or so after the Cold War ended.
Yet in all countries the local media was, 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. That has changed as traditional print and TV news media were supplanted by Internet based sources but disinformation is still available as a tool.
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 socialists) 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. Russia has yet to recover from that.
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. Now, however, the large scale deception organizations are being revived.
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.