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The English word disinformation is a loan translation of the Russian dezinformatsiya, derived from the title of a KGB black propaganda department. Joseph Stalin coined the term, giving it a French-sounding name to claim it had a Western origin. Russian use began with a "special disinformation office" in 1923. Disinformation was defined in Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1952) as "false information with the intention to deceive public opinion". Operation INFEKTION was a Soviet disinformation campaign to influence opinion that the U.S. invented AIDS. The U.S. did not actively counter disinformation until 1980, when a fake document reported that the U.S. supported apartheid.
The word disinformation did not appear in English dictionaries until the late-1980s. English use increased in 1986, after revelations that the Reagan Administration engaged in disinformation against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. By 1990, it was pervasive in U.S. politics; and by 2001 referred generally to lying and propaganda. In 2019, a national media figure, Chuck Todd, openly acknowledged that media had been manipulated by disinformation from the Trump administration, but a journalism project associated with New York University, PressThink, asserted that professional negligence was the root cause of the disinformation not having been addressed adequately.
The English word disinformation, which did not appear in dictionaries until the late-1980s, is a translation of the Russian дезинформация, transliterated as dezinformatsiya. Where misinformation refers to inaccuracies that stem from error, disinformation is deliberate falsehood promulgated by design. Misinformation can be used to define disinformation—when known misinformation is purposefully and intentionally disseminated. Front groups are a form of disinformation, as they fraudulently mislead as to their actual controllers. Disinformation tactics can lead to blowback, unintended negative problems due to the strategy, for example defamation lawsuits or damage to reputation. Disinformation is primarily prepared by government intelligence agencies. Another method that disinformation has been spreading is through the media, the term "fake news" has been on the rise and is described as intentionally incorrect and meant to mislead readers or viewers.
Usage of the term related to a Russian tactical weapon started in 1923, when the Deputy Chairman of the KGB-precursor the State Political Directorate (GPU), Józef Unszlicht, called for the foundation of "a special disinformation office to conduct active intelligence operations". The GPU was the first organization in the Soviet Union to utilize the term disinformation for their intelligence tactics. William Safire wrote in his 1993 book Quoth the Maven that disinformation was used by the KGB predecessor to indicate: "manipulation of a nation's intelligence system through the injection of credible, but misleading data". From this point on, disinformation became a tactic used in the Soviet political warfare called active measures. Active measures were a crucial part of Soviet intelligence strategy involving forgery as covert operation, subversion, and media manipulation. The 2003 encyclopedia Propaganda and Mass Persuasion states that disinformation came from dezinformatsia, a term used by the Russian black propaganda unit known as Service A which referred to active measures. The term was used in 1939, related to a "German Disinformation Service". The 1991 edition of The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories defines disinformation as a probable translation of the Russian dezinformatsiya. This dictionary notes that it was possible the English version of the word and the Russian language version developed independently in parallel to each other—out of ongoing frustration related to the spread of propaganda before World War II.
Ion Mihai Pacepa, former senior official from the Romanian secret police, said the word was coined by Joseph Stalin and used during World War II. The Stalinist government then utilized disinformation tactics in both World War II and the Cold War. Soviet intelligence used the term maskirovka (Russian military deception) to refer to a combination of tactics including disinformation, simulation, camouflage, and concealment. Pacepa and Ronald J. Rychlak authored a book titled Disinformation, in which Pacepa wrote that Stalin gave the tactic a French-sounding title in order to put forth the ruse that it was actually a technique used by the Western world. Pacepa recounted reading Soviet instruction manuals while working as an intelligence officer, that characterized disinformation as a strategy utilized by the Russian government that had early origins in Russian history. Pacepa recalled that the Soviet manuals said the origins of disinformation stemmed from phony towns constructed by Grigory Potyomkin in Crimea to wow Catherine the Great during her 1783 journey to the region—subsequently referred to as Potemkin villages.
In their book Propaganda and Persuasion, authors Garth Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell characterized disinformation as a cognate from dezinformatsia, and was developed from the same name given to a KGB black propaganda department. The black propaganda division was reported to have formed in 1955 and was referred to as the Dezinformatsiya agency. Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Colby explained how the Dezinformatsiya agency operated, saying that it would place a false article in a left-leaning newspaper. The fraudulent tale would make its way to a Communist periodical, before eventually being published by a Soviet newspaper, which would say its sources were undisclosed individuals. By this process a falsehood was globally proliferated as a legitimate piece of reporting.
According to Oxford Dictionaries the English word disinformation, as translated from the Russian disinformatsiya, began to see use in the 1950s. The term disinformation began to see wider use as a form of Soviet tradecraft, defined in the 1952 official Great Soviet Encyclopedia as "the dissemination (in the press, radio, etc.) of false information with the intention to deceive public opinion." During the most-active period of the Cold War, from 1945 to 1989, the tactic was used by multiple intelligence agencies including the Soviet KGB, British Secret Intelligence Service, and the American CIA. The word disinformation saw increased usage in the 1960s and wider purveyance by the 1980s. Former Soviet bloc intelligence officer Ladislav Bittman, the first disinformation practitioner to publicly defect to the West, described the official definition as different from the practice: "The interpretation is slightly distorted because public opinion is only one of the potential targets. Many disinformation games are designed only to manipulate the decision-making elite, and receive no publicity." Bittman was deputy chief of the Disinformation Department of the Czechoslovak Intelligence Service, and testified before the United States Congress on his knowledge of disinformation in 1980.
Disinformation may include distribution of forged documents, manuscripts, and photographs, or spreading dangerous rumours and fabricated intelligence. A major disinformation effort in 1964, Operation Neptune, was designed by the Czechoslovak secret service, the StB, to defame West European politicians as former Nazi collaborators.
The extent of Soviet disinformation covert operation campaigns, came to light through the defections of KGB officers and officers of allied Soviet bloc services from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Disorder during the fall of the Soviet Union revealed archival and other documentary information to confirm what the defectors had revealed. Stanislav Levchenko and Ilya Dzerkvilov defected from the Soviet Union and by 1990 each had written books recounting their work in the KGB on disinformation operations.
In 1961, a pamphlet was published in the United Kingdom titled: A Study of a Master Spy (Allen Dulles), which was highly critical of then-Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles. The purported authors were given as Independent Labour Party Member of Parliament Bob Edwards and reporter Kenneth Dunne—when in actual fact the author was senior disinformation officer KGB Colonel Vassily Sitnikov.
According to senior SVR officer Sergei Tretyakov, the KGB was responsible for creating the entire nuclear winter story to stop the deployment of Pershing II missiles. Tretyakov says that from 1979 the KGB wanted to prevent the United States from deploying the missiles in Western Europe and that, directed by Yuri Andropov, they distributed disinformation, based on a faked "doomsday report" by the Soviet Academy of Sciences about the effect of nuclear war on climate, to peace groups, the environmental movement and the journal AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment.
During the 1970s, the U.S. intelligence apparatus paid little attention to try to counter Soviet disinformation campaigns. This posture changed in September 1980 during the Carter Administration, when the White House was subjected to a propaganda operation by Soviet intelligence regarding international relations between the U.S. and South Africa. On 17 September 1980, White House Press Secretary Jody Powell acknowledged a falsified Presidential Review Memorandum on Africa reportedly stated the U.S. endorsed the apartheid government in South Africa and was actively committed to discrimination against African Americans. Prior to this revelation by Powell, an advance copy of the 18 September 1980 issue of San Francisco-based publication the Sun Reporter was disseminated, which carried the fake claims. Sun Reporter was published by Carlton Benjamin Goodlett, Presidential Committee member of the Soviet front group the World Peace Council. U.S. President Jimmy Carter was appalled at these lies and subsequently the Carter Administration displayed increased interest in CIA efforts to counter Soviet disinformation.
In 1982, the CIA issued a report on active measures used by Soviet intelligence. The report documented numerous instances of disinformation campaigns against the U.S., including planting a notion that the U.S. had organized the 1979 Grand Mosque seizure, and forgery of documents purporting to show the U.S. would utilize nuclear bombs on its NATO allies.
Operation INFEKTION was an elaborate disinformation campaign which began in 1985, to influence world opinion to believe that the United States had invented AIDS. This included the allegation that the purpose was the creation of an 'ethnic bomb' to destroy non-whites. In 1992, the head of Russian foreign intelligence, Yevgeny Primakov, admitted the existence of the Operation INFEKTION disinformation campaign.
In 1985, Aldrich Ames gave the KGB a significant amount of information on CIA agents, and the Soviet government swiftly moved to arrest these individuals. Soviet intelligence feared this rapid action would alert the CIA that Ames was a spy. In order to reduce the chances the CIA would discover Ames's duplicity, the KGB manufactured disinformation as to the reasoning behind the arrests of U.S. intelligence agents. During summer 1985, a KGB officer who was a double agent working for the CIA on a mission in Africa traveled to a dead drop in Moscow on his way home but never reported in. The CIA heard from a European KGB source that their agent was arrested. Simultaneously the FBI and CIA learned from a second KGB source of their agent's arrest. Only after Ames had been outed as a spy for the KGB did it become apparent that the KGB had known all along that both of these agents were double agents for the U.S. government, and had played them as pawns to send disinformation to the CIA in order to protect Ames.
The European Union and NATO saw Russian disinformation in the early 21st century as such a problem that they both set up special units to analyze and debunk fabricated falsehoods. NATO founded a modest facility in Latvia to respond to disinformation and, following agreement by heads of state and governments in March 2015 the EU created the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, which publishes weekly reports in its website "EU vs Disinfo". The website and its partners identified and debunked over 3,500 pro-Kremlin disinformation cases between September 2015 and November 2017.
Russia during this period used its television outlet RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency. When explaining the 2016 annual report of the Swedish Security Service on disinformation, representative Wilhelm Unge stated: "We mean everything from Internet trolls to propaganda and misinformation spread by media companies like RT and Sputnik." RT and Sputnik were created to focus on Western audiences and function at the standards of Westerners, RT tends to focus on how problems are the fault of Western countries.
Later in the 21st century, as social media gained prominence, Russia began to use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation. Facebook believes that as many as 126 million users have seen content from Russian disinformation campaigns on its platform. Twitter has said that it has found 36,000 Russian bots spreading tweets related to the 2016 American election. Elsewhere, Russia has used social media to destabilize former soviet states such as Ukraine and other western nations such as France and Spain.
The United States Intelligence Community appropriated usage of the term disinformation in the 1950s from the Russian dezinformatsiya, and began to utilize similar strategies during the Cold War and in conflict with other nations. The New York Times reported in 2000 that during the CIA's effort to substitute Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for then-Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh, the CIA placed fictitious stories in the local newspaper. Reuters documented how, subsequent to the 1979 Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan during the Soviet–Afghan War, the CIA put false articles in newspapers of Islamic-majority countries, inaccurately stating that Soviet embassies had "invasion day celebrations". Reuters noted a former U.S. intelligence officer said they would attempt to gain the confidence of reporters and use them as secret agents, to impact a nation's politics by way of their local media.
In October 1986, the term gained increased currency in the U.S. when it was revealed that two months previously, the Reagan Administration had engaged in a disinformation campaign against then-leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. White House representative Larry Speakes said reports of a planned attack on Libya as first broken by The Wall Street Journal on August 25, 1986 were "authoritative", and other newspapers including The Washington Post then wrote articles saying this was factual. U.S. State Department representative Bernard Kalb resigned from his position in protest over the disinformation campaign, and said: "Faith in the word of America is the pulse beat of our democracy."
The executive branch of the Reagan administration kept watch on disinformation campaigns through three yearly publications by the Department of State: Active Measures: A Report on the Substance and Process of Anti-U.S. Disinformation and Propaganda Campaigns (1986); Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986–87 (1987); and Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1987–88 (1989).
Disinformation first made an appearance in dictionaries in 1985, specifically Webster's New College Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary in 1985. In 1986, the term disinformation was not defined in Webster's New World Thesaurus or New Encyclopædia Britannica. After the Soviet term became widely known in the 1980s, native speakers of English broadened the term as "any government communication (either overt or covert) containing intentionally false and misleading material, often combined selectively with true information, which seeks to mislead and manipulate either elites or a mass audience."
By 1990, use of the term disinformation had fully established itself in the English language within the lexicon of politics. By 2001, the term disinformation had come to be known as simply a more civil phrase for saying someone was spouting lies. Stanley B. Cunningham wrote in his 2002 book The Idea of Propaganda that disinformation had become pervasively utilized as a synonym for propaganda.
The authors of a 2006 book about psychopathy in the workplace, Snakes in Suits describe a five-phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power. In phase three, manipulation, the psychopath will create a scenario of "psychopathic fiction"—where positive information about themselves and negative disinformation about others will be created, casting others in roles as a part of a network of pawns or patrons to be utilized and groomed into accepting the psychopath's agenda.
Pope Francis criticized disinformation in a 2016 interview, after being made the subject of a fake news website—during the 2016 U.S. election cycle he was falsely said to support Donald Trump. He said the worst thing the news media could do was spread disinformation, that it was a sin, comparing those who spread disinformation to individuals who engage in coprophilia.
In a contribution to the 2014 book Military Ethics and Emerging Technologies, writers David Danks and Joseph H. Danks discuss the ethical implications in using disinformation as a tactic during information warfare. They note there has been a significant degree of philosophical debate over the issue as related to the ethics of war and use of the technique. The writers describe a position whereby the use of disinformation is occasionally allowed, but not in all situations. Typically the ethical test to consider is whether the disinformation was performed out of a motivation of good faith and acceptable according to the rules of war. By this test, the tactic during World War II of putting fake inflatable tanks in visible locations on the Pacific Islands in order to falsely present the impression that there were larger military forces present would be considered as ethically permissible. Conversely, disguising a munitions plant as a healthcare facility in order to avoid attack would be outside the bounds of acceptable use of disinformation during war.
There is a broad consensus amongst scholars that there is a high degree of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda online; however, it is unclear to what extent such disinformation has on political attitudes in the public and therefore political outcomes. This conventional wisdom has come mostly from investigative journalists, with a particular rise during the 2016 US election: some of the earliest work came from Craig Silverman at Buzzfeed News. Cass Sunstein supported this in #Republic, arguing that the internet would become rife with echo chambers and informational cascades of misinformation leading to a highly polarised and ill-informed society.
However, research done on this topic points less clearly in this direction. For example, internet access and time spent on social media does not appear correlated with polarisation. Further, misinformation appears not to significantly change political knowledge of those exposed to it. There seems to be a higher level of diversity of news sources users are exposed to on Facebook and Twitter than conventional wisdom would dictate, as well as a higher frequency of cross-spectrum discussion. Other evidence has found that disinformation campaigns rarely succeed in altering the foreign policies of the targeted states.
There are four main methods of spreading disinformation recognised in academic literature:
In fact, the word disinformation is a cognate for the Russian dezinformatsia, taken from the name of a division of the KGB devoted to black propaganda.
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