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The long history of Russian disinformation targeting the U.S.

From Pizzagate to George Soros conspiracies, “fake news” has become a noxious presence in public discourse, especially since the 2016 presidential election. A recent New York Times video series explores the long history of Russian disinformation and its origins in what the Soviets dubbed “active measures.” Nick Schifrin speaks to Adam Ellick, who created the series, for more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, two cyber-security firms reported that hackers believed to be associated with Russian military intelligence targeted American think tanks, media outlets, and the U.S. military with fake e-mails. They were designed to look like the State Department's spokeswoman had sent them.

    Nick Schifrin is back now with a conversation he recently had with a journalist and filmmaker who's looked into the ongoing campaign of what Russia calls active measures.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When you hear the term fake news, you probably think about how it's used often today by President Trump, but it's actually an old term used by the Soviet Union as a reference to disinformation campaigns that the Soviets and now the Russians have long used to destabilize the West.

    It worked before, and it's working again now.

    That is the tale told by "Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation From Cold War to Kanye," a riveting three-part series released by The New York Times' Adam Westbrook and Adam Ellick, who joins me in the studio now.

    Adam, great to see you. Thanks for being here.

  • Adam Ellick:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, there's a lot of talk about Russian disinformation, of course, in 2016, even 2018, but this started long before, as your film demonstrates.

    And I want to show a clip from the film that starts with two KGB defectors who said disinformation had one goal.

  • Yuri Bezmenov:

    To change the perception of reality of every American, to such an extent that, despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their country.

  • Man:

    Within the KGB is a department that specializes in planting false stories and forged documents.

  • Man:

    We know it was run from Department A right to the top of the KGB, and it had a multimillion-dollar budget.

  • Man:

    At least 15,000 who in the Soviet Union and outside of the Soviet Union are involved in that kind of actions on regular, daily basis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fifteen thousand people creating disinformation stories as seemingly crazy as: The U.S. created AIDS.

  • Adam Ellick:

    And many of them were super creative. We're talking about planting fake stories in communist newspapers in India, in South America.

    We looked at the AIDS campaign, which was launched in 1984. And we found newspaper clippings planted by the Soviets about this story in 80 different countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Did it work? I mean, did those stories end up in the U.S. press?

  • Adam Ellick:

    They worked, in the sense that they were toxic, and they were successful in that they sowed chaos.

    And even some of the cases, like the AIDS one that we examined, there are millions of Americans who still believe in that hoax today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Another conspiracy is, JFK was killed by the CIA, also created by…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Adam Ellick:

    Soviet origin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about the responses to that, because for a long time, the U.S. didn't know what to do. And then President Reagan came along, right?

  • Adam Ellick:

    Yes, President Reagan change the policy when it came disinformation.

    Before Reagan, the thinking went that, if you respond to a fake news story, you dignify it. And that's actually something we have heard a lot in the past few years. But Reagan came in and started throwing punches right away.

    And his policy was basically, we're going to take this on, and we're going to expose it. And he started a team in the State Department called the Active Measures Working Group.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Active measure being the term that the Soviets used to describe their own campaign.

  • Adam Ellick:

    Exactly, their disinformation campaigns.

    And this was basically a counter group. It wasn't funded lavishly. Some of the people worked part-time, but they were really motivated by truth. And they worked day and night, putting out the fire hose of falsehoods put out by the Kremlin.

    It was a painstaking process. It took them six years to debunk the AIDS conspiracy. But they did it with many, many reports.

    And one of the really heartwarming scenes in our film is, we interviewed a woman who's now retired, but she led that team in the 1980s. And she tells a story that that report ended up in the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev, the premier of the Soviet Union at the time, and he was forced to apologize about the AIDS conspiracy to Reagan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's fast-forward to today, and perhaps some of the solutions to fake news, some of the solutions to disinformation today.

    And I want to play a clip to tee that conversation up from right near the end of your series.

  • Man:

    And here's the kicker. The things that make democracy good, living in an open society, with a free press and political diversity, those are the things, weirdly, that make us vulnerable.

    Any country with an authoritarian leader and limited freedom of speech, they're the ones with the advantage right now, which kind of raises the question that maybe only history can answer. Can the good guys ever win?

  • Kathleen Bailey:

    You absolutely never win, never.

  • Dr. Claire Wardle:

    This problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

  • Man:

    The next few years are going to be worse than the last few years.

  • Ladislav Bittman:

    And they will continue using it, regardless of what we say here in the discussion, regardless of the outcome of the discussion and investigation.

  • Kathleen Bailey:

    But we will not always be losers in this game. There will be victories here and there. It's only when we quit the game, quit trying to expose them, that we lose.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    "It's only when we quit the game that we lose."

    So there's a lot of talk about the media aspect to try and solve this, right, fact-checking, media literacy, good journalism. Then, of course, there's the social media aspects, the tools that the Russians and others have used to spread disinformation much faster now than they have in the past.

    Can social media companies do this alone?

  • Adam Ellick:

    Certainly not.

    I think they have failed at that opportunity over the past four years. These attacks started in 2013, 2014. And they have taken some baby steps, but it's not enough and it's not being treated with the urgency that the — that the crisis demands.

    So I think it's time for the government to get involved.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. doesn't think this way, does it? It doesn't think of disinformation as some kind of battlefield, right, whereas Russia does think of it that way.

  • Adam Ellick:

    Yes, and it's not military warfare, but it's still warfare. It's disinformation warfare.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's certainly how the Russians see it.

  • Adam Ellick:

    Oh, for sure. I mean, they operate in a constant state of wartime.

    And we — our politicians are elected for idle peacetime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The way they define that wartime, the adversary is still the United States and the West, and an attempt, whether it's disinformation or military, right, to try and weaken the transatlantic alliance and try and weaken the United States and the West from within.

  • Adam Ellick:

    Yes.

    As the old spies will tell you, America is target number one, enemy number one. And when you can fracture and weaken Western countries, both from their international alliances and even within by sowing chaos, then you can bully countries one-on-one, as opposed to taking on the entirety of the West, when it's unified.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that is what disinformation does, right?

  • Adam Ellick:

    Very effectively.

    I don't want to simplify the solution, but it's one that we need to be grappling with much more aggressively, as opposed to the current state of American politics, which is even trying to come to terms whether or not these attacks happened.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Adam Ellick with The New York Times.

    The film is "Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation From Cold War to Kanye,"

    Thank you very much.

  • Adam Ellick:

    Thanks for having me.

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