The idea of lies is as old as humanity itself. There are always undercurrents, jealousies, and rivalries that wreak havoc in society, prompting people to tell everything from a tainted version of a story to an outright lie. Subterfuge, drama, and vindictiveness have led to a history of misinformation that has left a path of destruction each time it appears. From the reports of battles won on the Egyptian pyramids to the first printed piece that included widely exaggerated claims, misinformation has been part of almost every culture. We rely on our critical thinking to act as a filter bubble, and that doesn’t always work.
The ability of misinformation to retain its power falls on the fact that the core of the stories typically appeals to popular prejudice. A sermon in Trent, Italy in 1475 blamed Jews for killing a 2 ½-year-old boy and drinking his blood for Passover. This lie led to an uprising that involved the arrest and torture of the entire Jewish community, with fifteen Jews burned at the stake. The Nazis relied on the same spread of antisemitism that led to the deaths of millions of Jews, and then followed with the gypsies, the intellects, Professors, members of the media and finally anyone that didn’t agree with their agenda.
Publications Can Spread Misinformation Faster
From a print standpoint, we can pretty much say that misinformation was launched the moment that Johannes Gutenberg put his printing press into action in 1439. Finding “real news” was scarce during that time and keeping the attention of the people often meant including eye witness accounts as well as leaked documents from religious and political sources. It wasn’t until the 17th century that historians stepped in to verify the published news by including footnotes and sources. In 1610, the trial of Galileo finally established a desire for news that was scientifically verifiable, catapulting the creation of news sources that were more scholarly in nature.
But if we take a hard look at the reason that misinformation exists, it’s because it is typically a lot more interesting than reality. People are drawn to gossip, here say, and scandal, as it brings a sense of excitement into the stories and their lives. As various countries expanded in sea voyages, publications began to appear with tales of sea serpents and monsters. Natural disasters were often attributed to a variety of religious reasons, and the more tantalizing the story, the more they sold.
The years before to the French Revolution were an explosion of science and enlightenment, and yet even during that time pamphlets showed up in Paris from separate political camps contradicting each other with details regarding the almost bankrupt government. It took verifiable account leaks for the general public to figure out the financial state of affairs, but by that time all were reasonably skeptical.
We may look to our own Founders with reverence, and yet when he saw a need to stir the pot for revolution, Ben Franklin created his personal stories of propaganda regarding Indians murdering and scalping as they worked with the soldiers of King George III of Great Britain. But Franklin wasn’t the only one to concoct outrageous stories, other leaders of the revolution began publishing propaganda stating that King George was sending soldiers to slaughter the patriots of our developing country. This story generated the type of outrage to get support for the revolution and people to enlist.
Over the years we have found that sensationalism sells and this brought about the rise of the tabloids that spout some of the most outlandish tales. The same concept launched what is known as “yellow journalism,” using false narratives, fake interviews, and made up information just to create interest. We saw a combination of this type of so-called journalism merged with the reporting of the daily news, with bogus stories set up to get papers to sell.
It took a population many years to filter through all of the outright lies and misinformation to attempt to find the kernels of truth. However, the ebb and flow of popularity brought with it extremism such as the McCarthy Era and fear of communists around every corner and each new war with unreliable reasons for involvement.
The Russian Plan to Undermine Democracies with Fake News
During the Cold War, the Kremlin created a strategy to spread misinformation at such a scale that they devoted over 15,000 people to the project. Called a “political virus,” it wasn’t until members of the KGB defected to the U.S. that we began to realize the full depth that the Russians had taken. This plan was at the top of the KGB/Kremlin chain and had over multi-million dollar budget.
Information reported by former KGB; Name/Definition:
Ideological subversion aka Active Measures: Covert operations that involve strategic lies to change the perception of reality for Americans, to such an extent that despite the abundance of information no one can come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families or their country.
Disinformation: distort information that is secretly leaked into the communication process to deceive and manipulate. Not to be confused with propaganda, which attempts to change existing opinions. KGB agents were required to develop volumes of submissions as part of their job description, which equated to 25% of their time.
Years were devoted to the crafting of misinformation as well as disinformation that could cause considerable harm and ultimately divide people and nations. Some of the most notable results of Active Measures and disinformation:
1983 AIDS were developed by a U.S. government lab to develop new and dangerous biological weapons and to eliminate black people. (known as “Operation Infektion”)
CIA was responsible for the assassination of JFK
CIA was involved in assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II
Rich Americans involved in buying children for organ harvesting.
Catch politicians by establishing a house of ill-repute in Germany
PizzaGate: accusing Hillary Clinton of running a child trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza shop.
U.S. response was the Active Measures Working Group, a small group of people that tracked and exposed the Russian disinformation; pulling out falsehoods one at a time. It came in front of Mikhail Gorbachev, and finally, Gorbachev apologized for using this form of weapon and indicated that he would have it stopped.
But it didn’t.
The Russians continued to spread misinformation but with layers and levels that were a lot more sophisticated. The one thing that the Western World had not counted on was Vladimir Putin. He was part of the initial misinformation program, and when he came into power, he continued to use this as a single powerful tool to divide and conquer.
Experts in the U.S. have been trying to bring attention to this long-held playbook of the Russians. They have developed a list of 7 steps that the Russians use to create the perfect fake news:
⦁ Look for cracks and social divisions in the society that can be exploited so that they lose trust in one another.
⦁ Create a large lie that is so outrageous that no one thinks that it could be made up.
⦁ Wrap the lie around a small kernel of truth.
⦁ Hide the origins of the story so that it appears to come from another location.
⦁ Find a “useful idiot” which is someone that unwittingly takes the message from the Kremlin without realizing that they are doing it.
⦁ If the story circles back to the origins by fact finders: Deny-Deny-Deny
⦁ Play the long game by accumulating the operations over a period of years so that they result in a major political and social impact.
Russia Uses Every Division as a Powerful Tool
The ability for Russian hackers to breach the Hillary Clinton campaign emails offered a plethora of data to be used to design specifically targeted attacks. These had more than a grain of truth and yet could be manipulated to include only those pieces that matched the misinformation agenda. U.S. Intelligence identified the hacker as Guccifer 2.0, working as a GRU officer (Russia’s CIA) in the agency’s headquarters in Grizodubovoy, Moscow.
Follow this with the Wikileaks release of Hillary Clinton emails and the Russians synced over 50,000 fringe social media accounts, each one controlled by the IRA. The list of useful idiots that backed up the bizarre and strange misinformation stories lined up, and as the hackers were found out, all returned to rule number 6: deny-deny-deny.
During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election campaigns, Russia sent thousands of Facebook ads supporting Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. Anyone paying attention would have noticed that the ads were so extremely anti-Hillary and yet the same was being sent to both extreme sides. This was part of the art of subversion, and even the Russians didn’t think it would be as successful as it was.
Toxic Disinformation Can be Overturned
Russia has been using this same long game, misinformation approach since the 1950s, and yet the U.S. Government never took it seriously. Now that we have witnessed an all-out attack, the representatives that are interviewing the technology CEO’s lack even the most minimal understanding of the technology process itself. While there were attempts to address the problem head-on in the past, little funding and even fewer resources were devoted to the topic. The formation of the Active Measures Working Group did succeed in debunking quite a few of the misinformation campaigns, including Operation Infektion. However, exposing the lies doesn’t seem to be enough. The root deceit has been planted and appears throughout many of our social interactions. The more a bad story is repeated, the more real it becomes to all.
A few other countries that have been dealing with these problems for longer durations have created methods to overturn the misinformation game. Latvia has a popular program that does only one thing: expose Russian lies. They present and debunk the latest list of misinformation, and it seems to be working. The volatile relationship between the Ukraine and Russia has caused Ukrainians to produce their personal version of the same type of programming. The Czech Government has the Stop Fake News and identifies misinformation as a form of terrorism, Lithuania has thousands of volunteer cyber warriors that are taking on pro-Russian trolls, Scandinavian countries are leveraging the private sector to fight pro-Kremlin disinformation with consortiums, and Estonia has a digital national guard made up of thousands of volunteers to search out and expose the misinformation and their sources.
There are possible methods to meet the misinformation war, and we have found out that fighting back does work.
Fact checking and engaged citizens participating in the searching process will only go so far. At the core of the issue is the accountability of the technologies and social media companies. These platforms have ignored the signs and signals while they made profits from deliberate misinformation warfare. Improving the transparency for those buying the social media ads as well as fighting user anonymity are additional steps. We also desperately need qualified people in decision-making positions that understand the internet, social media, and the digital world from an organic viewpoint so that they be proactive in defense and debunking processes.
Without punishment, the criminals will continue to supply misinformation, and the social media platforms will comply with this because appeasing their shareholders is part of their business model. Changes must include punishment for those that deliberately participate in the misinformation war.
Past administrations didn’t take the Russian cyberwars seriously, and the current administration is fully aware of it, but are choosing to ignore it. President Trump has personally participated in a continuous string of lies and misinformation as well as playing the useful idiot by spreading the lies planted by the Kremlin. It appears that if there isn’t a significant shift in the landscape of the administration, cyberattacks will continue on an almost exponential basis.
If we don’t have government representatives that understand the intricacies and the threat, and won’t do anything about it, it is time to develop a private sector solution. This will be a product that analyzes the data and information and produces a true/false report that the average consumer can use and trust.