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Disinformation 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.
The term disinformation began as a term of Soviet tradecraft, first defined in the official Great Soviet Encyclopedia as "the dissemination (in the press, radio, etc.) of false information with the intention to deceive public opinion." 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."
Like propaganda, disinformation is designed to manipulate audiences at the rational level by either discrediting conflicting information or supporting false conclusions, and/or at the emotional level. A common disinformation tactic is to mix some truth and observation with false conclusions and lies, or to reveal part of the truth while presenting it as the whole (a limited hangout).
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 to defame West European politicians as former Nazi collaborators.
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." The understanding has broadened further to include military deception and political dirty tricks. The term is also applied to techniques used in commerce and government to try to undermine the position of a competitor. Another technique of concealing facts, or censorship, is also used if the group can affect such control but is not disinformation in the original sense. When channels of information cannot be completely closed, they can be rendered useless by filling them with disinformation, effectively lowering their signal-to-noise ratio and discrediting the opposition by association with many easily disproved false claims.
Disinformation 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.
An example of successful Soviet disinformation was the publication in 1968 of Who's Who in the CIA which was quoted as authoritative in the West until the early 1990s.
In 1992 the head of Russia foreign intelligence Yevgeny Primakov admitted the existence of Operation INFEKTION: an elaborate disinformation campaign which began in 1985, to influence world opinion to believe that the United States had invented the AIDS virus. This included the allegation that the purpose was the creation of an ‘ethnic bomb’ to destroy non-whites. 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.
- Ladislav Bittman, "The KGB and Soviet Disinformation: An Insider's View", Pergamon-Brassey's, 1985, ISBN 0080315720, pages 49-50
- Ladislav Bittman, "The KGB and Soviet Disinformation: An Insider's View", Pergamon-Brassey's, 1985, ISBN 0080315720, page 50
- Ladislav Bittman, "The Deception Game: Czechoslovak Intelligence in Soviet Political Warfare," Syracuse University Research Corporation, 1972, ISBN 0815680783, pages 39-78
- Richard H. Shultz and Roy Godson, "Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy," Pergamon-Brassey's, 1984, ISBN 0080315739, pages 37-38
- The Propagation and Power of Communist Security Services Dezinformatsiya, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence Volume 19, Issue 1, 2006
- J. Ransom Clark, "Crude, Anti-American Disinformation: "Geheim" and "Top Secret" Magazines: Purveyors of Crude, Defamatory Disinformation"
- U.S. Department of State. Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986-87. Washington D.C.: Bureau of Public Affairs, August 1987., pg. 34-35, 39, 42
- Pete Earley, "Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War", Penguin Books, 2007, ISBN 978-0-399-15439-3, pages 167–177
- AMBIO, AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment