Disinformation – Is a pen more powerful than a sword at times?

Facts, in my opinion, don’t matter much these days and can be readily countered with a simple “what is it” query.

There are distractions for practically every topic, including the need to fix the economy, combat climate change, alleviate refugee misery, and cope with war.

The “simpler” past, in which the world was divided into two ideologically opposed camps expressing instantly recognisable ideals of modernity and government, has long passed. Naturally, Cold War propagandists twisted the facts to sell their ideas.

However, the facts were respected. As we enter the “post-truth era,” it appears that disseminating misinformation is the only game in town.

Is it correct or incorrect? The fight against misinformation

Today, it is clear to all of us that spreading false information is a low-cost, simple, and highly mobile tactic that is difficult to detect.

Certain techniques and methods may appear to be unique.

Understanding the methodologies, on the other hand, provides insight into their potential efficacy and explains why a competitor could employ unique strategies in the realm of information operations.

Competing disinformation attempts will harm the economy, business, and life if effective mitigation measures are not put in place.

There is no vaccine that can protect against incorrect information.

Nonetheless, historical lessons provide insight and encouragement for countering the expansion of hostile information operations.

I previously covered this topic in the post “Misinformation vs. Disinformation: Differences” where I observed that because the information environment is constantly changing, it can be difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is untrue. This is especially true for the numerous types of information that may be accessible on the internet, such as incorrect and misleading information.

But first, let’s go back to the beginning of the counter-disinformation campaign: the Cold War.

Most CIA covert operations used misinformation tactics as a common approach, and the Soviet Union elevated the practise to an art form during the Cold War.

Journalist for Agents

During the Cold War, journalists were used as influence brokers.

A foreign journalist would manufacture reports favouring the opposition, either because they were paid to do so or because they despised a regime that had harmed their family.

Using the media to influence a country’s political system is a standard intelligence operation; the Russians, Americans, British, and French have all done it, and everyone does it.

That’s how things used to be done.

Cold War propaganda was essentially “truth campaigns” or struggles for people’s hearts and minds centred on a simple binary decision.

On the one hand, Americans applauded democracy and the free market while portraying totalitarian communist authority as a threat to all forms of freedom. In contrast, the Soviets emphasised social justice while emphasising the disastrous consequences of capitalism-induced inequality.

Journalists had an important role in this.

The effectiveness of both American and Soviet propaganda, however, was predicated on relative truth: for example, it could not be contested that individual freedom was poorly recognised in the Soviet bloc.

Poverty and homelessness were other visible consequences of capitalism’s shortcomings. Effective Soviet and American propaganda did not require the development of new facts, but rather a focus on the most convenient ones.

Disinformation happens when a government plants a false report in a newspaper while concealing the authorship. When it publicly presents false “alternative facts,” this is disinformation.

Strategy and tactics for disinformation

While disinformation is receiving a lot of attention in the media right now, it can be difficult to define.

It is best defined as the deliberate dissemination of incorrect, misleading, or distracting information. To be effective, it must be untraceable to a government, which usually necessitates the cooperation of a clandestine intelligence outfit.

It is distinct from propaganda, which is designed to persuade, and misinformation, which is false or misleading information distributed freely and publicly by a government.

Disinformation has been employed in warfare for a long time.

On the other side, it experienced unprecedented institutionalisation in the twentieth century.

In Soviet Russia, the Bolsheviks expanded on the deception methods used against them by their tsarist predecessors. Following that, the Bolsheviks used deception in their political war against both internal and external ideological opponents.

The foreign intelligence branch of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, later renamed the KGB, had a disinformation unit from the start.

During World War II, Soviet Russia and the other major warring nations used deception in their military endeavours.

Following the dissolution of the wartime Grand Alliance, its members — the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union – used deceit as part of their respective ideologically driven Cold War grand designs in the postwar years.

Although Kremlin misinformation tactics were similar to Western deception efforts throughout the Cold War, they differed in scope, breadth, and type. British and American intelligence used disinformation to aid clandestine operations tactically.

The Kremlin used disinformation to achieve a geopolitical goal: to destabilise the society of its “Main Adversary,” the United States, and to disrupt relations between it and other Western nations. It did so to defend its strategic interests from perceived US and NATO aggression.

In response, Western intelligence agencies used covert, unrecognised propaganda to widen schisms in Soviet and Eastern Bloc groups.

However, unlike Soviet intelligence in the West, these intelligence organisations were unable to undertake information warfare behind the Iron Curtain since they were police nations with no press or expression freedom.

Thus, there was a fundamental gap between Soviet and Western deceit during the Cold War.

Furthermore, Soviet “political warfare” at home was extended into international disinformation campaigns against Western nations, with the former Soviet Bloc populace serving as the primary targets of Soviet active measures.

During the Cold War, Western governments did not use deception as effectively against their own citizens.

Are Cold War reprisal measures still effective in the digital age?

The digital revolution of today constitutes the most significant transformation in the history of ideas being transferred since the creation of the printing press in the fifteenth century, which created decades of social turmoil and contributed to civil wars in both Europe and the New World.

Perhaps it is too early to predict how social media will affect society in the future.

Never before has so much information been made available to so many people as a result of the internet. 90% of the world’s data was created in the two years before 2018.

The exceptional and exponential data surge has altered both the distribution and consumption of information. As a result, it is tempting to conclude that the history of misinformation from pre-digital times does not apply to the present.

Nonetheless, the history of deceit throughout the Cold War provides useful insights.

In every aspect of our life, we draw lessons from the past, including what went well and poorly, as well as any lessons that might be applied to the present. On a daily level, we use history in this way.

“Actionable measures”

During the Cold War, the KGB utilised a range of “active measures” to try to influence world events. They were covert, aggressive weapons of Soviet foreign policy, aimed to destabilise international relations, disparage Soviet enemies, and sway foreign governments’ policies in favour of Soviet programmes and aims.

Active measures included a variety of covert operations such as manipulating the media, forming fictitious groups, fabricating documents, conducting influence operations (via bribery, blackmail, and defamation of opponents), and carrying out “special actions” with varying degrees of violence.

To put it plainly, they participated in what Moscow called “political warfare.”

The KGB & GRU are focused on active measure

Service A, a unique section inside his overseas (previously “First Chief”) Directorate, was in charge of them. In the 1950s, Service A was given its own Directorate, or Department, within the KGB in acknowledgement of its importance.

KGB political officers stationed abroad were expected to dedicate around 25% of their time to active measures, indicating the importance placed on them by the “Centre,” the KGB headquarters in Moscow.

Following that, the KGB emphasised the importance of proactive measures even more.

President Putin, a former KGB officer skilled with Soviet active measures, has updated the old KGB craft’s harmonics for the current digital era.

However, since the Cold War’s conclusion, the information environment that Russia and other countries use to distribute false information has evolved dramatically.

Lies are spreading faster than they have ever before in history. Real groups are no longer required to propagate misleading information, as they were during the Cold War; instead, fictional Twitter and Facebook pages are the new front for misinformation.

Worse, when it comes to new technology, people in Western countries appear to be more likely to believe factually incorrect information, garbage, on the internet.

Unlike during the Cold War, any effective effort to combat misinformation in today’s climate will require the incorporation of technology and social media corporations, as they have provided platforms for the spread of misinformation.

Disinformation poses fundamental concerns for civilisations such as factual accuracy, which will require societal efforts and extensive education to overcome rather than spies and their covert weapons.

In the age of social media and the internet, it appears that asking questions and expressing disagreements has become commonplace.

It is difficult to imagine any facts or concepts that can be debated without causing harm. Beliefs are now absolute, but facts are no longer.

As a result, the stakes are higher for everyone who believes that the world is not flat.

Fortunately, they remain the majority.

This post was written by Mario Bekes