Long before there were online trolls, and before Mark Zuckerberg was even born, Russian disinformation was enough of a worry in the US that it made the cover of TV Guide.
“Why American TV Is So Vulnerable to Foreign Disinformation,” the front page headline of the magazine’s June 1982 issue said.
Read today, the piece is a reminder that while the medium through which we are exposed to disinformation may have changed, many of the tactics and ends used by Russian trolls online are similar, whether during the 2016 election or now.
“They plant a story — totally fictitious — in a leftist paper in, say, Bombay,” the 1982 article’s author, John Weisman, wrote in it. “Then it gets picked up by a Communist journal in Rio. Then in Rome. Then Tass, the Soviet news agency, lifts it from the Rome paper and runs it as a ‘sources say’ news item. And soon the non-Communist press starts to pick up on it, using terms such as, ‘it is alleged that…” And thus an absolute lie gets into general circulation.”
The modern spread of disinformation follows a similar pattern, except rather than having to wait as a story takes weeks or months to jump from a newspaper in Bombay to mainstream outlets, online trolls, or intelligence agents — Russian or not — can spread information around the world in hours online.
First they plant stories on blogs that look like they are legitimate news sites, or decide to promote a real story that suits their purposes. Then they use fake accounts to amplify the story — repeatedly tweeting it, making it appear like it is being shared by real people, making it “trend” — until someone like a journalist, or maybe a politician, shares it and it goes into the mainstream.
“Basically what they are doing is exactly the same tactic except they are doing it on social media,” Weisman, who went on to write a number of spy novels, including New York Times bestsellers, and has retired as a journalist, told CNN Business on Monday.
Yet the Russian social-media campaign in 2016 caught everyone by surprise. Top executives at Facebook said they were not prepared for their platform to be used in such a nefarious way.
Weisman is not surprised. “I think actually we have a problem both in government and in the press of not knowing a lot of history,” he said. New companies, like Facebook and Twitter, lacked the “institutional memory” which could have helped them prevent history from repeating itself, Weisman said.
“Do you think he [Zuckerberg] ever considered what the Russians could do, or the Iranians could do, or the North Koreans could do, or even the Cubans could do, in putting together Facebook? I don’t think so,” Weisman said.
In 1982, Weisman wrote, “One of the most sinister attributes of disinformation is that it can be merged so easily with the truth.”
This too is a tactic that the social media trolls deployed. CNN has reviewed thousands of Facebook and Twitter posts sent by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll group with ties to the Kremlin, in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Often the group would amplify genuine talking points from real Americans on both sides of the political divide, but would also share explicit disinformation, like telling Americans they could vote by text.
The Russian group has created fake news websites, and sought to provide material and promotion support to political groups, including Black Lives Matter and anti-Muslim organizations. Last year, alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pled guilty to engaging in conspiracy against the US.
The efficiency and ease with which new technology lets foreign governments sow discord in the US may be the envy of former Soviet spies, who had to go to much greater lengths to achieve anything similar.
Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB agent who posed as a diplomat in the US during the Cold War, wrote in his memoir, “Attempting to show that America was inhospitable to Jews, we wrote anti-Semitic letters to American Jewish leaders. My fellow officers paid agents to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. Our New York station even hired people to desecrate Jewish cemeteries.”
Today’s online trolls can achieve the same effect, working to exploit and inflame racial, ethnic and religious tensions in the US, without ever leaving St. Petersburg.
Weisman says the US forgot, when Putin was elected president of Russia, that he was a “KGB guy.” We’d do well not to forget again, he said.