The murky world of active measures has been at least defined since the middle of the last century when the Soviets codified this crafty practice of political warfare.
An early success was Operation Trust, when a fake network of anti-Bolshevik underground organizations collectively known as ‘The Trust’ (originally dubbed the ‘Monarchist Association of Central Russia’) operated between 1921 and 1926.
In effect, it was the counter-intelligence equivalent of a fly trap, with unwitting victims, most notably Boris Savinkov and Sidney Reilly, paying with their lives. The initiative, led by the KGB's predecessor, the Cheka, wasn’t just a success because enemies of the Soviets were ensnared, but because of the confusion, mistrust and disorientation it induced.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when disinformation or ‘dezinformatsiya’ campaigns really took off, something Colonel Rolf Wagenbreth, director of Department X of East German foreign intelligence, described as his “favorite pastime”.
The playbook reemerged in 2015 and 2016 mostly thanks to the popularity of social media platforms. Also, because of substantial advancements in technology, you no longer needed the mass manpower and resources of a nation state to launch such an offensive. In our era of “fake news”, the modern-day disinformation super-spreader can be a lone operator aggravating political parties, charities and businesses from their bedroom.
Vice’s David Gilbert, who has a background in cyber-security journalism, has been following this phenomenon on-and-off since around the last US election and focused solely on the disinformation beat in the run-up and after the latest White House vote.
“What [initially] interested me most was stuff outside the US, including Myanmar, The Philippines and [disinformation incidents] across Southeast Asia,” he told FN. “The [2016 US Election] wasn’t of interest to me because it was so heavily reported on.”
But since last year he has been a lot more focused on America, covering how the technology giants (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube/Google mostly) are dealing (or, arguably, not dealing) with the disinformation and misinformation threat.
The US election disinformation patch has been a full-time gig for Gilbert since around the first-half of October and he plans to cover the beat “for the foreseeable future”. A newsletter was mooted among the Vice team, but the idea was dropped once it became apparent it would be “too much work”.
Gilbert, who has the advantage of waking before his competitors, peers and colleagues because of his base in Ireland, bounces and generates ideas off some of the Vice journalists working on extremism and other domestic issues within the US.
“I think what’s really misunderstood [with disinformation], especially in the US, is what is happening at the moment is so absolutely ludicrous and off-the-wall” he said, warning that disinformation had become “mainstream” in America.
A recent poll from Pew Research put Gilbert’s comments into perspective, with only 21% of Trump voters saying that the election was run and administered well. He subsequently takes great care when reporting on disinformation, trying to avoid amplifying any mistruths, conspiracy theories or modern myths.
“There’s quite a lot of stuff that you just won’t report,” Gilbert said.
“If there are disinformation campaigns that are widespread and viral, you are less in danger [of hyping it up] but you have to debunk it clearly [in the copy]..it’s a hard balancing act to get right, but there are some basic tactics to adopt, such as not linking directly to fake tweets and not linking to fringe forums.”
The news media has long been a target and sometimes a vector for disinformation campaigns, an experience that Gilbert can directly relate to. “You get DMs and emails with ‘here’s a tip’, with people trying to suck you in,” he revealed. ‘Caution’ is his watchword.
As for the popularity of the content he produces, Gilbert said Vice’s audience, who read tech-focused vertical Motherboard, is somewhat “predisposed” to the disinformation beat and articles on the QAnon conspiracy theory and its followers (he recently fingered Trump attorney Sidney Powell as a supporter) almost always prove to be popular.
So when, if ever, will all this “ludicrousness” die down? “It’s still going to be a story until at least the inauguration [on 20 January 2021],” Gilbert predicted.
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