Class 1. Operation Infektion: A Case Study
The Russian disinformation operation that is the gift that keeps on giving
If you are just joining The Freedom Academy, welcome! As a reminder, this post is a standalone “lesson” and you do not need to be caught up to follow along. I’ll reference any previous posts that offer relevant background, and you can always visit the syllabus and catch up at your own leisure. All class posts have an audio recording (see bottom) if you prefer to multitask while listening to me lecture!
So let’s get started. There are a lot of players in the disinformation game today, but I think the best place to start a course on it is with the pros: The KGB. Your assignment for today is to watch this New York Times video:
I love this video because it not only highlights some key tactics used in disinformation operations, but also provides a good baseline for understanding how today’s technology and information ecosystem has made the ease, reach, and effectiveness of these types of activities exponentially more effective.
Before diving into those tactics, however, a little bit of historical background, drawn from Chapter 22 of Thomas Rid’s Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (if you have the book, please do read the whole chapter!):
Rid notes that in the early 1980s, the United Nations launched an investigation into the Soviet Union’s use of chemical weapons against muhajideen fighters in Afghanistan. The bulk of the U.N.’s evidence had been collected and provided by the United States (which was secretly funding the muhajideen and had an interest in curbing the Soviet Union’s actions); it was also being released to the public, damaging the U.S.S.R.’s international standing. Operation Infektion was one of a series of active measures that the Soviet Union undertook to deflect attention from itself by accusing the U.S. of creating biological weapons. (Talk about projection!) One story that seemed ripped straight out of a comic book was the claim that the CIA was producing weaponized mosquitos at a malaria research lab in Pakistan. Another accused the CIA of being behind an outbreak of dengue fever in Cuba. Neither of these gained significant traction.
One interesting point Rid observes is that for the Soviet Union, exposure of these disinformation campaigns carried little risk — and could even further its objectives. He writes, “Even if the Soviet claim that the CIA was developing chemical weapons in Lahore was revealed as fake, that revelation would make it easier for the U.S.S.R. to claim that the CIA’s reports of Soviet chemical weapons in Afghanistan were equally made up.” We’ll see later in the course how Russia enjoyed a similar win-win scenario in its 2016 election interference — pulling it off furthered their preferred candidate; exposure would undermine trust in the integrity of the electoral process.
But back to Operation Infektion. The video illustrates that the initial article from the Patriot went dormant for a few years before resurfacing again. Rid connects this to an accusation made by the U.S. in 1985 that the Soviet Union was in noncompliance with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Basically, as with the weaponized mosquitos and dengue fever, the purpose of Operation Infektion was to discredit the United States and reverse the accusation.
In assessing Operation Infektion’s success, we can home in on five areas that facilitated the operation: 1) ease of entry (into the information ecosystem); 2) offering nuggets of truth; 3) an extended time horizon; 4) repetition; and 5) low levels of trust. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Ease of Entry
India was a popular seeding ground for KGB active measures, for a few reasons. For one, as the KGB spies in the video note, third world countries offered easier penetration of media outlets and greater plausible deniability for the true source of stories. Importantly, though, India — the world’s largest democracy — has a robust free press. Creating a new front outlet like the Patriot (which Rid notes was funded by the KGB for the purpose of publishing KGB propaganda and disinformation) is easier in an open society with a commitment to free expression. Add to this that India’s media ecosystem has many English language outlets, offering a convenient entry point for disinformation to get picked up by the west.
Nuggets of Truth
Zombie mosquitos are a bit far-fetched, but in the early 1980s, the idea that the CIA might be conducting experiments using biological agents wasn’t completely bonkers. During the 1975 Church Committee oversight hearings, then CIA director William E. Colby testified to Congress about various covert activities the CIA had undertaken over the previous decades which were outside the scope of its legislative charter — the so-called “family jewels.” These included coups, attempted assassinations, and, you guessed it, clandestine drug experiments on human subjects (including unwitting U.S. citizens). Known as MK-Ultra, the CIA operation conducted studies on mind control, brainwashing, and psychological torture, often using psychotropic drugs like LSD and heroin. (For more on the CIA and the family jewels, I highly recommend the documentary The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby (2011)).
The U.S. also has an ugly history of human experimentation on Black Americans. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted nonconsensual experiments on 600 Black men at the Tuskegee Institute, to study the effects of untreated syphillis.
In other words, the central idea of Operation Infektion was temporally and substantively “close enough” to real historical events to make it believable. In fact, Rid observes that the Patriot piece cleverly invoked the CIA’s past and “was a masterfully executed disinformation operation: comprising 20 percent forgery and 80 percent fact, truth, and lies woven together, it was an eloquent, well-researched piece that gently led the reader, through convincing detail, to his or her own conclusion.”
The time of inception to when the AIDS story was “mainstreamed” on the CBS Evening News was a span of five years. This really highlights how, in the analog age, disinformation operations were a long game: An intelligence service had to count on factors beyond its control, such as other, more mainstream outlets picking it up and amplifying it beyond the reader base of the initial publications. This underscores why these operations were essentially a throw-spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach; as noted above, the AIDS story was one in a line of several similar (but failed) attempts. In addition, the KGB allowed the initial piece to marinate in the background until circumstances made it useful to resurrect again. (We’ll discuss in future weeks why this kind of “long game” — which has no guarantee of success and is difficult to measure in terms of effectiveness — makes such operations very different from and ill-suited to the U.S.’s intelligence approach.)
One key to the conspiracy theory underlying Operation Infektion taking root in the public imagination was that it was repeated so many times in so many different places — two hundred times in eighty different countries! Research has shown that repetition makes information more credible: This is known as the illusory truth effect: Repetition is so powerful that individuals can perceive information to be true even when the source is not credible and even if they know from prior knowledge that the information is false. In the case of Operation Infektion, repetition — particularly across global media outlets — would have especially impacted journalists’ perceptions: The fact that so many other publications had reported “the story,” for example, would have likely impacted the vetting process of the CBS Evening News to determine whether it was credible enough to include it in its programming. “Virality,” therefore, is a key ingredient in allowing disinformation to take root — and underscores why counter narratives are so important in the information space.
Low Levels of Trust
In a couple of weeks we’ll watch a video lecture given by Yuri Bezmenov (one of the former KGB spies in the New York Times video) in which he says one thing that is apropos here: “You cannot subvert an enemy that isn’t willing to be subverted.” Which is to say that your target has to have vulnerabilities that are ripe for exploitation. Here is where the U.S.’s history of discrimination against marginalized groups can become a national security threat.
According to Rid, the theory that the U.S. created the AIDS virus was one that was emerged organically in the American gay community itself. He writes that the theory was floated by the editor of a gay periodical, Charley Shivley:
Shivley knew that AIDS had primarily affected Haitian immigrants, that it was alleged to have come from Africa, and that it affected gay men and drug users, and he knew that the U.S. government discriminated against all of these groups. He just connected the dots.
Similarly, Rid notes, an African American paper connected AIDS to the CIA, drawing upon the agency’s assassination attempt on Patrice Lumumba in Zaire. Basically, the KGB weaponized a belief that was already in circulation within marginalized communities. That the conspiracy theory was originally organic to the U.S. demonstrates how lived experiences and exclusionary practices (combined with the “nuggets of truth” mentioned above) can increase the susceptibility of a target population to disinformation. We’ll discuss the deterioration of trust — both social trust (trust in each other) and government trust — throughout this course, and how it can provide a fertile breeding ground for disinformation and conspiracy theories to emerge and take root.
To bring today’s lesson full circle, in March 2020 China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lijian Zhao, tried to get in on the action and reprise the KGB’s success with Operation Infektion, tweeting out a similar conspiracy theory that the U.S. created COVID-19 (down to the detail that it was supposedly developed at Ft. Dietrick, the same military lab referenced in the 1982 Patriot article). Zhao (who has close to 2 million followers) has since been retweeted over ten thousand times and his claim has been repeated by dozens of Chinese officials in over a hundred different languages.
Of course, propagating conspiracy theories during a global pandemic can boomerang back on the propagator: In this case, resulting in greater vaccine hesitancy among China’s own citizens. As this article in Foreign Policy observed, “Like a virus, information cannot be controlled once it reaches the general population, and as it spreads, it can mutate in never intended ways.”
Just to get a discussion flowing, I’ve posted a few questions below if you’re inclined to comment. We can also pick up when we do our Zoom office hours for paid subscribers next week (TBA)!
1. How has today’s technology impacted the five factors above and changed the landscape for disinformation operations? Which one has it impacted the most?
2. How would a belief in the conspiracy theory advanced by Operation Infektion harm U.S. interests, both at home and abroad?
3. What are some current disinformation narratives that capitalize on cleavages between groups and low levels of trust with other citizens and the government?