The report detailed how Russia was suspected of using forgeries and planted stories to wreak havoc in the West during the Cold War through influence operations rather than with military might. And these tactics didn’t stop with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, social media and the cloak of online anonymity it provides have only made it easier and potentially more effective for governments and bad actors to engage in a similar playbook of dirty tricks — ranging from disseminating forged or hacked documents online to creating fake reporters to promote them.
Jack Barsky, a former KGB spy who lived undercover in the US in the 1980s, explained how it was done back in his day in an interview with CNN Business last year.
The KGB would take great care to furnish a convincing forgery of a US government document, often with the goal of implicating the US in something tawdry and designed to appear to confirm an existing conspiracy theory. That forgery would then be given to a sympathetic, unwitting reporter, sometimes from an obscure outlet in a far-flung corner of the world. It would be printed as news, and if the Soviets were lucky, it might eventually get picked up by more established outlets.
In the decades since, our lives have largely moved online — and so have Russia’s attempts at disinformation and meddling in US affairs.
The internet hasn’t just made it easier for Russia to create forgeries, it’s also helped in their ability to distribute documents, forged or stolen.
The Russian government denied its involvement in the hacks.
Brush, floss, rinse, repeat. This playbook is not one that is particularly difficult to emulate — and other groups are trying.
Indeed, CNN’s 1983 report included details about how audio of a purported call between then President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, according to the US government, the work of the Soviets. The report showed how audio of Reagan had been cut from elsewhere and spliced to make the forged tape sound convincing.
But the following year, the British newspaper The Observer reported Crass, a British punk rock band, had claimed responsibility for the tape.
In the murky world of deception, misinformation about disinformation is not unusual.
It later emerged the account was not run by Antifa at all, but instead by white supremacists apparently seeking to sow chaos, just as Russians have long done.
These efforts essentially follow a long history of disinformation that dates back much farther than many people may realize, according to Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
He warned that there is currently a culture of mistrust in major institutions — prime conditions to spread disinformation. Coupled with technological developments that make it easy to create and disseminate forged documents and fake news stories, it is almost, he said, a “perfect storm.”
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