Disinformation (Russian: dezinformatsiya and dezinformatsia) is intentionally false or misleading information that is spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences. The English word, which did not appear in dictionaries until the late-1980s, is a translation of the Russian дезинформация, transliterated as dezinformatsiya. Disinformation is different from misinformation, which is information that is unintentionally false. Misinformation can be used to define disinformation — where disinformation is misinformation that is purposefully and intentionally disseminated in order to defraud.
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) called for the foundation of "a special disinformation office" for clandestine operations. The term was used in 1939, related to a "German Disinformation Service". Ion Mihai Pacepa, senior official from the Romanian secret police, said the word was coined by Joseph Stalin and used during World War II. In the book, Disinformation, Pacepa wrote Stalin gave the tactic a French-sounding name in order to put forth the ruse that it was actually a technique used by the Western world. Soviet intelligence used the term maskirovka to refer to a combination of tactics including disinformation, simulation, camouflage, and concealment.
Disinformation saw wider use as a term of Soviet tradecraft, defined in the 1952 official Great Soviet Encyclopedia as spreading "false information with the intention to deceive public opinion." As a result of the defections of KGB officers, more information about disinformation campaigns came to light during the late 1960s through the 1980s. Examples of prominent disinformation campaigns included the fraudulent publication in 1968 of Who's Who in the CIA, and Operation INFEKTION, a widespread attempt to influence world opinion to believe that the United States invented AIDS.
The U.S. government did not devote significant resources to countering disinformation campaigns during the 1970s; this changed during the Carter Administration in 1980 when a fake document reported the U.S. supported the Apartheid government in South Africa. President Jimmy Carter was shocked by the fabrications and afterwards the Central Intelligence Agency spent more efforts to counter Soviet disinformation. The U.S. engaged in disinformation campaigns of its own — notably during the during the CIA effort to substitute Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for then-Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh and in 1979 during the during the Soviet–Afghan War. Use of the term in the English language became more prominent in 1986 after revelations that the Reagan Administration government had engaged in a disinformation campaign against then-leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi.
Etymology and early usage
The English word disinformation, which did not appear in dictionaries until the late-1980s, is a translation of the Russian дезинформация, transliterated as dezinformatsiya. The word is distinguished from misinformation, which is simply information that is mistakenly inaccurate. Misinformation can be used to define disinformation — where disinformation is misinformation that is purposefully and intentionally disseminated in order to defraud. 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.
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), I. S. Unshlikht, 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 crucial 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. According to the 2003 encyclopedia Propaganda and Mass Persuasion, disinformation came from dezinformatsia, 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 probably a translation of the Russian dezinformatsiya. The dictionary wrote that it was possible the English version of the word disinformation and the Russian language version dezinformatsiya developed independently in parallel to each other — out of ongoing frustration related to the spread of propaganda pre-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 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 director William Colby explained how the Dezinformatsiya agency operated. Colby said that the Soviet disinformation bureau surreptitiously placed 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.
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 the period of 1945 to 1989, the tactic was used by multiple intelligence agencies including the Soviet KGB, British Secret Intelligence Service, and the American Central Intelligence Agency. 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 defect to the West publicly, 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.
As KGB tradecraft
The extent of Soviet disinformation came to light through 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 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 United States 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 September 17, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter representative 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 September 18, 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. President Carter was appalled at these lies and subsequently the Carter Administration displayed increased interest in Central Intelligence Agency 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 own allies within NATO.
Operation INFEKTION was an elaborate disinformation campaign which began in 1985, to influence world opinion to believe that the United States 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 Russia foreign intelligence Yevgeny Primakov admitted the existence of the Operation INFEKTION disinformation campaign.
In 1985, Aldrich Ames turned over 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 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 back 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 the KGB had known all along that both of these two agents were double agents for the U.S. government and played them as pawns to send disinformation to the CIA in order to protect Ames's secret cover.
In the post-Soviet era, disinformation evolved to become a key tactic in the military doctrine of Russia. Russia used disinformation to such a high degree during the early 21st century that both the European Union and NATO each took effort to set up special units to analyze and debunk fabricated falsehoods. NATO founded a modest facility in Latvia to respond to disinformation, and the EU created the European External Action Service which published weekly reports on disinformation tied back to the Kremlin. Methods used during this period of time by Russia included its Kremlin-controlled mouthpieces news agency Sputnik News and television outlet Russia Today (RT). 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."
United States use
The United States Intelligence Community appropriated usage of the term disinformation in the 1950s from the Russian dezinformatsiya, and began to utilize similar strategies. U.S. intelligence utilized the tactic during the Cold War and in conflict with other nations. The New York Times reported in 2000 that during the Central Intelligence Agency 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 countries with predominantly practitioners of Islam, inaccurately stating 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 a secret agent, as a way 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 government 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 25 August 1986 were "authoritative", and other newspapers including The Washington Post then wrote articles saying this was factual. United States Department of State 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 during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan kept watch on disinformation campaigns through three yearly publications by the United States 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).
English language spread
Disinformation first made an appearance in dictionaries Webster's New College Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary in 1985. In 1986 the term disinformation was not defined in books Webster's New World Thesaurus, or New Encyclopedia 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. In 2010, Microsoft Word software suggested the word misinforming when the user typed disinforming.
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 use of disinformation is occasionally allowed, but not in all situations. Typically the ethical test to consider is whether or not the disinformation was performed out of a motivation of good faith, and ethically acceptable according to the rules of war. According to 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.
Pope Francis, the 266th and current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, spoke out critically against disinformation in an interview on 7 December 2016. The Pope had prior experience being the subject of a fake news website fiction — during the 2016 U.S. election cycle he was falsely said to support Donald Trump for president. Pope Francis was interviewed by Tertio, the Belgian Catholic weekly publication, and said the singular worst thing the news media could do was spreading disinformation. The Pope said that amplifying disinformation instead of educating society constituted a sin. The interview was noteworthy for the crude nature with which the Pope referred to those who spread disinformation; he compared them to individuals who engage in coprophilia. It was initially thought this was an exaggeration from translation as the interview was conducted in Spanish, however later in the same interview the Pope compared disinformation consumers to coprophagy. The Pope apologized for the frank nature of his terms, saying it was important not to disregard the truth and spread slander. The Pope said: "Disinformation is probably the greatest damage that the media can do."
- 1995 CIA disinformation controversy
- Active measures
- Active Measures Working Group
- Black propaganda
- Counter Misinformation Team
- Denial and deception
- False flag
- Fake news website
- Fear, uncertainty and doubt
- Forgery as covert operation
- Information warfare
- Media censorship and disinformation during the Gezi Park protests
- Post-truth politics
- Operation INFEKTION
- Operation Neptune
- Operation Shocker
- Operation Toucan (KGB)
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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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