Feeding incendiary documents to news outlets. Infiltrating activist groups. Sowing division and confusion. It might sound like a recap of Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 US election, but some of these same tactics were laid bare in a CNN television report on Soviet disinformation efforts back in 1983.
The report detailed how Russia was suspected of using forgeries and planted stories to wreak havoc in the West during the Cold War through influence operations rather than with military might. And these tactics didn’t stop with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, social media and the cloak of online anonymity it provides have only made it easier and potentially more effective for governments and bad actors to engage in a similar playbook of dirty tricks — ranging from disseminating forged or hacked documents online to creating fake reporters to promote them.
It’s this modern-day digital disinformation playbook that US intelligence agencies will almost certainly be watching out for ahead of November’s presidential election – especially after Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election caught the country off guard. But to fully understand Russia’s use of tactics like false news stories and leaked materials, it’s useful to examine the country’s long history of painstaking influence operations dating back to an analog era.
Jack Barsky, a former KGB spy who lived undercover in the US in the 1980s, explained how it was done back in his day in an interview with CNN Business last year.
The KGB would take great care to furnish a convincing forgery of a US government document, often with the goal of implicating the US in something tawdry and designed to appear to confirm an existing conspiracy theory. That forgery would then be given to a sympathetic, unwitting reporter, sometimes from an obscure outlet in a far-flung corner of the world. It would be printed as news, and if the Soviets were lucky, it might eventually get picked up by more established outlets.
Oleg Kalugin, another KGB agent who lived in the US undercover, recounted in his book “Spymaster” how the KGB paid Americans to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. This tactic had the potential to inflame tensions in the US and give the Soviet-controlled press a negative story to tell Russians back home about their capitalist foe.
In the decades since, our lives have largely moved online — and so have Russia’s attempts at disinformation and meddling in US affairs.
In groundbreaking work from the Atlantic Council and the online investigations company Graphika, researchers showed how a suspected Russian group has been distributing forged documents online over the past few years. These efforts included a fake letter purporting to be from a US senator and another letter designed to look like it came from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The same Russian group is believed to have been behind a fake tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio claiming that a purported British spy agency planned to derail the campaigns of Republican candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The fake tweet was picked up and falsely reported as real by RT, a Russian state-controlled news outlet. There’s no evidence of coordination between RT and the Russian group that promoted the fake tweet but RT did not issue a correction.
The internet hasn’t just made it easier for Russia to create forgeries, it’s also helped in their ability to distribute documents, forged or stolen.
This month, the British government said it was “almost certain” Russians sought to interfere in its 2019 election by leaking documents relating to a UK-US trade agreement on Reddit. The documents were held up by Britain’s opposition Labour Party — unaware of their origins — as the basis for allegations that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted to sell parts of the British National Health Service to American health providers.
Russia’s hand in the hack and leak of emails relating to the 2016 presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was well-established by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and assessments from the US intelligence community. In 2016, American news organizations, including CNN, reported the details of many of the hacked emails. Critics argued that by doing so, news outlets were helping the hackers achieve their objective; news outlets argued the materials were in the public interest.
The Russian government denied its involvement in the hacks.
If real reporters don’t take the bait, the internet allows for the creation of fake reporters. In 2016, the GRU — Russian military intelligence – used a fake persona named “Alice Donovan,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found. The same persona is believed to have posted articles to a popular independent American website.
And while Kalugin’s KGB comrades had to recruit Americans to draw swastikas on synagogues, the internet allows for a more sustained and pervasive form of pot-stirring. In 2016, Russians posed as real American activists online, even recruiting unwitting Americans to help run protests and stunts in US cities around the presidential election and divisive issues like race. In one known instance, Russian groups helped organize two opposing demonstrations to take place at the same time at the same location in Texas. The resulting images from events like these were used to further propagate covert online Russian campaigns.
Brush, floss, rinse, repeat. This playbook is not one that is particularly difficult to emulate — and other groups are trying.
Indeed, CNN’s 1983 report included details about how audio of a purported call between then President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, according to the US government, the work of the Soviets. The report showed how audio of Reagan had been cut from elsewhere and spliced to make the forged tape sound convincing.
But the following year, the British newspaper The Observer reported Crass, a British punk rock band, had claimed responsibility for the tape.
In the murky world of deception, misinformation about disinformation is not unusual.
At the height of this summer’s nationwide protests over racial inequality in the US, a Twitter account claiming to be Antifa, far-left activists, called for violence on America’s streets. The account was held up by President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., to support claims that Antifa is dangerous.
It later emerged the account was not run by Antifa at all, but instead by white supremacists apparently seeking to sow chaos, just as Russians have long done.
These efforts essentially follow a long history of disinformation that dates back much farther than many people may realize, according to Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Rid, who detailed the history of disinformation in his book “Active Measures,” told CNN that institutions have been engaging in disinformation campaigns for centuries and that many of the deceptive tactics used by the KGB and now used online predated the Soviet Union.
He warned that there is currently a culture of mistrust in major institutions – prime conditions to spread disinformation. Coupled with technological developments that make it easy to create and disseminate forged documents and fake news stories, it is almost, he said, a “perfect storm.”