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Friday, November 16, 2018
This week, the New York Times released a well-researched, well-produced series of three videos on Russian and Soviet disinformation activities against the US and the rest of the world.
It is a useful and cogent summary of activities that any self-respecting Russophile needs to understand. Because, while one can love and respect Russian culture, history, music, literature, art, etc., one cannot overlook that Russia's Powers That Be (KGB, FSB, Kremlin, siloviki, oligarchs) have interests that are distinctly their own and that diverge with that of the Western democracies.
The videos are each about 15-20 minutes long and are presented in a cogent, offbeat style, relying on the testimony of defectors and experts, journalists and historians, and painting a sobering picture of where we are today and how we got here.
Episode 1 looks at the spies who invented Fake News, and at Operation Infektion, a seminal case of 1980s Soviet disinformation that spun the lie that the AIDS virus was a biological weapons experiment gone wrong.
Episode 2 shows how there are Seven Commandments for a successful Fake News campaign and how this Soviet/Russian playbook has been used time and time again in the Russian intelligence agencies' "long game" against the West. Oh, and how the internet has changed the scale of the game.
Pay attention especially to the quote about RT: "80% of their coverage is actually excellent coverage. And because 80% of the time they are doing quality journalism, when 20% of the time they are not, that enables people to say, 'Well, no, look at this. We are journalists, we have policies, we know what we are doing.'"
And to the final quote by a former Soviet spy:
"Fighting war on the battlefield is the most stupid and primitive way of fighting a war. The highest art of warfare is not to fight at all, but to subvert anything of value in your enemy's country. Anything. Put white against black, old against young, I don't know, wealthy against poor and so on. It doesn't matter, as long as it disturbs society, as long as it cuts the moral fiber of the nation, it is good. And then you just take this country, when everything is subverted, when the country is disoriented and confused, when it is demoralized... and then the crisis will come..."
Episode 3, the Worldwide War on Truth, looks at how the US ignored Soviet disinformation for 30 years, from the 1950s to the 1980s, before belatedly deciding to fight back in this game of information whack-o-mole. Meanwhile, active measures, as a government sponsored form of information terrorism, has spread around the globe, and fighting it has become increasingly difficult.
One solution may be found in those countries that have been dealing with Soviet/Russian intelligence games longer than anywhere else: in Eastern Europe. Yet we are hindered by the financial incentives of social media and by our sadly under-informed leaders.
The conclusion of the third episode is worth quoting here in full and ruminating on:
"Here's the thing about democracies: they can't function unless we all agree on a basic set of facts. We can't debate anything, health care, immigration, gun control, unless we are aligned, left and right, about what is actually true. Disinformation pollutes those waters, confusing us, so we end up disputing facts instead of discovering solutions. And as we spiral downwards, together, our adversaries applaud from behind the curtain. And here is the kicker: the things that make democracy good - living in an open society, with a free press and political diversity- those are the things, weirdly, that make us vulnerable. Any country with an authoritarian leader, and limited freedom of speech, they're the ones with the advantage right now. Which kind of raises the question that maybe only history can answer: Can the good guys ever win?"
The answer? The film's interviewees assert that things are only going to get worse before they get better, that disinformation is not going to go away. It has simply been too effective. Two more salient quotes:
"It is only when we quit the game, quit trying to expose them, that we lose. As long as we can expose them, they are losing."
"We're in this for the long haul whether we like it or not."