Disinformation Campaigns

History and Concerns

Disinformation, as the postmodern art and science of weaponized communication, has its roots in the Soviet Union’s Cold War strategy of dezinformatsia, although attempts to deceive enemies by way of perception manipulation have been documented throughout military history (recall the Trojan Horse). In the United States, information warfare, a form of unconventional warfare, includes black propaganda (information designed to appear to be coming from one source when it is actually the production of a source antagonistic to the pretended source). Subsets of black propaganda are psychological operations (psy ops), which aim to influence receivers at the emotional or psychological levels, and disinformation campaigns, which aim to influence receivers through intentionally deceptive messages processed mentally.

Deployment of information warfare techniques, including disinformation campaigns, is problematic both legally and morally, although these practices are widespread globally because they are often quite effective. Under U.S. law, black propaganda and related covert actions are prohibited within the United States but may be conducted abroad. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), under the direction of the president and the oversight of Congress, has been authorized to carry out these “special activities.” Concerns about the morality of such activities are often discussed within the framework of just war theory and tradition.

How Disinformation Works

Human beings are quite susceptible to manipulation through the misuse of information, especially so in the wake of globally networked communication networks, postmodern notions of “authority” and “truth,” and, some would say, the dearth of training in critical thinking. Because certain conditions are prerequisites for humans to communicate meaningfully at all, this causes us to be infused with a certain level of gullibility that allows information manipulators to successfully influence our beliefs and actions.

The concept that defines this human tendency is known as truth bias. This phenomenon is well illustrated by Chico Marx’s question in the 1933 film Duck Soup, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Oddly enough, the answer is that we tend to disbelieve our own experiences and sensory evidence and accept claims that others make, even when those claims are contrary to our experiences. Another related theory is language philosopher Paul Grice’s cooperative principle, which assumes that individuals are working toward a common goal of developing understanding and creating shared meanings when they communicate. Four conversational maxims extend from that—quality, quantity, relation, and manner—and they instruct communicators to ensure that their contributions move the interaction toward the (assumed) shared goal of truth building.

In disinformation enterprises, the maxim of quality is deliberately violated; yet receivers are oriented to accepting these messages as true because, first, they are psychologically inclined toward belief and, second, fact checking the daily barrage of data people encounter is impossible. Since the 1980s, these notions have been examined and further developed by philosophers, linguists, sociologists, communication studies scholars, and information scientists.

A consequence of postmodern skepticism, competing truth claims, and mistrust of and challenges to traditional authority is the dilemma of what and whom to believe. In terms of government-initiated campaigns, the disinformation/conspiracy theory dialectic is often two sides of the same coin. For example, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, has been at the center of competing, evidence-based truth claims by experts and authorities on both sides since it occurred. Conspiracy theorists will often label information presented by power elites as nothing more than disinformation.

In instances where strong empirical evidence can be produced by both sides, each may claim that the other is promulgating disinformation. Claiming that evidence of wrongdoing is a disinformation strategy of the accuser has become a popular form of self-defense. Some skeptics claim that warning of disinformation is itself a form of disinformation. It is becoming increasingly difficult for information consumers to determine what is credible and what is not.

Disinformation Campaigns

Disinformation practices are not limited to governments; they are the coin of the realm in many corporate and nongovernmental organizational campaigns as well. Examples of disinformation campaigns, such as those that follow, can be helpful to recognize disinformation.

Government Campaigns

Present-day disinformation techniques have their origin in World War II operations by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain. Among the more successful of these were Britain’s Operation Fortitude, where the German army was diverted to the wrong landing point and directed away from Normandy, and Operation Mincemeat, where Axis troops were misled about the British invasion of Italy when a corpse dressed in a military uniform with false invasion plans in the pocket was deliberately left to wash up on a Spanish beach.

Soviet disinformation campaigns designed to discredit and undermine the United States, Israel, and the Catholic Church were described in detail by a former three-star general in the Romanian secret police who defected to the United States in 1978. Ion Mihai Pacepa detailed Soviet campaigns, which he helped plan and implement, to discredit Pope Pius XII; to employ 4,000 “agents of influence” in Arab countries as tools for creating anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-U.S. sentiments; and to institute numerous other activities that extend to the present time. By the same token, the United States spread disinformation in foreign media about internal strife and instability in communist regimes throughout the Cold War.

The Watergate debacle made it known that some of President Richard Nixon’s reelection operatives engaged in “dirty tricks” (disinformation strategies). In 1986, a disinformation campaign, planned or actual, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency was made public by The Washington Post, and a similar report relative to Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein was published during the George H. W. Bush presidency. In late 2014, at about the same time when searchable Project Blue Book (the U.S. Air Force UFO [unidentified flying object] compendium) files were made public on the Internet, the CIA took responsibility for the majority of UFO sightings from 1954 to 1974.

“It was us,” they said, claiming that they encouraged UFO stories to camouflage tests of the U2 spy planes. In terms of the conspiracy theory/disinformation dialect, believers in “ancient alien” theories, Men in Black (alien enforcers), and alien abductees believe that this recent CIA claim is, itself, the disinformation and that the UFO reports were the actual information. Other conspiracy/disinformation debates in the United States center on a variety of issues related to the War on Terror, including the events of September 11, 2001.

Health and Environment Campaigns

When the AIDS crisis began in the 1980s, a disinformation campaign by the Soviet spy organization KGB, named Operation INFEKTION, planted news reports that the United States had developed the virus as part of a biological weapons program. Similar stories have emerged related to Lyme disease. The tobacco industry’s “spin” (disinformation) campaign to conceal the health dangers of smoking was revealed in lawsuits and satirized in the 1994 novel and subsequent film Thank You for Smoking. Practitioners of alternative medicine, including alternative cancer treatments, naturopathy, and homeopathy, claim that disinformation campaigns have been translated into public and corporate policy and have unfairly and wrongly denied their veracity, preventing people from accessing and benefiting from alternative health providers.

Finally, concerns for the environment linked to economic interests have generated the practice of greenwashing, which occurs when a firm markets its products with false claims as to the ways its products or practices are environmentally friendly. An example is the placard found on the pillows in many hotel rooms that claims that asking guests to reuse towels throughout their stay is a way to lessen the negative impact on the environment, when it is actually a strategy to reduce the costs of labor, utilities, and supplies needed to wash them each day.

Leslie Reynard

See also Cold War ; Intelligence Community ; Iran-Contra Affair ; 9/11 ; Propaganda ; Russia ; Totalitarian Surveillance Societies

Further Readings

Block, Marylaine. “Gullible’s Travels: Marylaine Block Shows How to Teach Students to Guard Against Misinformation, Disinformation, and Spin on the Net.” School Library Journal, v.48/5 (2002).

British Library Board. “Learning Disinformation” [Interactive website linked to video]. http://www.bl.uk/learning/cult/disinfo/disinformation.html (Accessed October 2017).

Fallis, Don. “Floridi on Misinformation.” Etica & Politica/Ethics & Politics, v.13/2 (2011). http://www2.units.it/etica/2011_2/FALLIS.pdf (Accessed October 2017).

Jackson, Brooks and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. un-Spun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. New York, NY: Random House, 2007.

Keshavarz, H. “How Credible Is Information on the Web: Reflections on Misinformation and Disinformation.” Infopreneurship Journal, v.1/2 (2014). http://eprints.rclis.org/23451/1/How%20Credible%20is%20Information%20on%20the%20Web.pdf (Accessed October 2017).

Moran, Richard. “Getting Told and Being Believed.” Philosopher’s Imprint, v.5/5 (2005).

O’Neill, Barry. A Formal System for Understanding Lies and Deceit. Paper presented at the Jerusalem Conference on Biblical Economics, Jerusalem, Israel, June 2000. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (Accessed October 2017).

Pacepa, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai and Ronald Rychlak. Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism [Audiobook]. WND Books, 2013.


DeSmogBlog Project—Clearing the PR Pollution That Clouds Climate Science: http://www.desmogblog.com

Greenwashing Index: http://www.greenwashingindex.com/about-greenwashing