Before ‘fake news’, there was Soviet ‘disinformation’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 10:43pm

On July 17, 1983, a small pro-Soviet Indian newspaper called the Patriot published a front-page article titled “Aids may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments”. The story cited a letter from an anonymous but “well-known American scientist and anthropologist” that suggested Aids, then still a mysterious and deadly new disease, had been created by the Pentagon in a bid to develop new biological weapons.

The Patriot’s article was subsequently used as a source for an October 1985 story in the Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Soviet weekly with considerable influence at the time. The next year, it ran on the front page of a British tabloid. By April 1987, it was suggested that the story had appeared in the major newspapers of more than 50 countries. The problem? The story was patently false.

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In the parlance of 2016, we would probably refer to the Patriot’s front page story as “fake news”. It’s not so dissimilar to the flimsy or outright false stories that spread online in the United States this year. There may be a shared Russian link too: This week, a number of groups alleged that a Russian propaganda effort had helped spread these “fake news” stories to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton’s chances in the 2016 presidential election.

But during the height of the cold war, these false stories were referred to as something else: “disinformation”. That term came into use in the early 1960s, and came into widespread use in the 1980s. It is based upon a Russian word: dezinformatsiya.

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There’s little doubt that the US engaged in its own disinformation campaign, too. In 2000, The New York Times reported that the CIA’s covert 1953 operation to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh involved planted newspaper articles. Reuters later reported that after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the CIA would plant fake stories in other Muslim countries about “invasion day celebrations” at Soviet embassies.

“It’s regular intelligence procedure to try and influence a country’s policies through the press,” an unnamed former US intelligence ­officer said.