22. Disinformation: A Russian Tradition?

Aleksei Navalny was poisoned last year and is now, according to his doctor, in critical condition in a Russian prison. All of this serves as a reminder of the "dirty tricks" for which Russian secret police are known. Is this reputation in fact deserved?

Yes. The use of secret police goes back at least to ancient Sparta, but since early Tsarist times Russian regimes have specialized in "active measures" to disrupt real or presumed foes, internal or external. In the sixteenth century Ivan the Terrible had his "oprichniki" who terrorized Russian nobility -- in that case usually not by subtle methods but by outright assassination.

But let's focus on the particular subject of "disinformation": the spreading of fake news designed to destabilize and demoralize other regimes and societies. The Tsarist secret police is credited, for example, with the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purports to reveal a Jewish plot for world domination and is still widely distributed and believed in parts of the world..

This fake document appeared around 1904, and within a few years the source from which it was adapted -- a satire of Napoleon III -- was revealed. But the lie always travels faster and further than the truth. Henry Ford was among those who funded its wide circulation. The Protocols were part of the general transformation of antisemitism from religious prejudice to justification for eliminating an insidious threat.

But Soviet secret police continued such practices. According to some sources, it was none other than Stalin who coined the term "dezinformatsiya," before the cognate term entered Western languages. From the 1920s, the precursors of the KGB used a variety of false reports, fake documents, and other "active measures" to discredit enemies and sow discord.

The KGB, as the Soviet secret police, had a special department for planting false information around the world, with some 15,000 agents in and out of the government taking part. It has been estimated that its reach extended to some eighty countries around the world.

One of the stories with unusual staying power was that the United States created the AIDS epidemic. This, too, is still widely believed by millions.

Vladimir Putin, it should not be forgotten, was a KGB agent before becoming President of post-Soviet Russia. There is little doubt that he sees disinformation -- and dirty tricks more broadly -- as normal instruments of state policy.

The explosion of social media has been a Godsend for disinformation, widely enlarging the channels by which fake news circulates. This is the background for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, confirmed by numerous official investigations. By one account, about 126 million Americans saw fake Russian-generated "news" -- such as Hillary Clinton hiding severe health problems -- on Facebook alone.

U.S. intelligence concluded, as early as January 2017, that the disinformation campaign against Clinton had been ordered by Putin himself. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 26 Russians for their role in trying to influence the outcome of the election.

Did the Russian interference in fact tip the scales for Trump, given the close outcome in the electoral college? The election was determined by thousands of votes in three key states. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says that it "strains credulity" to believe that the Russian efforts did not turn the election.

Given the attention paid to Russian complicity following the 2016 election, they were more circumspect in 2020 (more on that another time?). But President Biden is amply justified in "getting tough" with Russia. Enough already.