Over the last year we have heard news reports about how the United States created the Ebola virus, how the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks in New York, and how the United States singlehandedly manufactured the crash of the Russian ruble. These strange and outrageous claims came not from the dark corners of Internet chatrooms but from a major global news empire financed by the Kremlin. Russia is currently waging an all out war against the West—an information war. Using a variety of tactics and outlets, Russia spreads disinformation and propaganda in order to sow confusion and misunderstanding in the West and around the world. Its mass media tactics have only ramped up in recent months.
Russia’s current propaganda campaign has its roots in the Soviet practice of dezinformatsiya, which manipulated media in order to “defame an adversary and ultimately cause the adversary to reach . . . decisions beneficial to Soviet interests.” KGB agents would often distribute forged documents and photographs and create and spread misleading rumors in order to disrupt the decisions of western countries, exacerbate conflicts between nations, strain alliances, and obscure the real intentions of the Soviet Union. In the 1960’s the KGB conducted a disinformation campaign that became widely popular, claiming the CIA was involved in the JFK assassination, and in the 1980’s the KGB spread rumors about how the United States invented AIDS/HIV as a biological weapon.
The end of the Cold War did not mean an end to the threat of dezinformatsiya. Indeed, information now spreads faster and reaches more people than ever before. The proliferation of online blogs, video sharing technology, and the 24-hour news cycle succeeds in bringing more information to more people, but also increases the reach of those who would use the news to distort and confuse. What KGB agents were once able to accomplish with a few newspapers can now be multiplied tenfold between YouTube, cable news, and various online media.
Apart from increased speed in the spread of disinformation, the main difference between Soviet dezinformatsiya and the new age propaganda is that during the Cold War the truth mattered. The Soviet Union was preoccupied with proving that what they were saying was true. Nowadays, the Kremlin does not even seem to care if its claims are proven wrong or just plain ridiculous; the object of post-Soviet dezinformatsiya is not to convert, but simply to obfuscate. British journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s recent book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Permitted” details this topsy-turvy state of affairs in Russia today.
Today’s disinformation is not aimed at convincing people that Russia is telling the truth, but to distract the viewers. “The point of ideas and language are not what they represent, but what function they fulfill.” The Kremlin has perfected the art of mixing entertainment with emotional manipulation. Its propaganda is used to entertain the audience, to “keep the viewer hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid.”