James D. Watkins, a retired Navy admiral who later served as secretary of energy and also led presidential commissions on AIDS and ocean policy, hands President Ronald Reagan a report of the Presidential Commission on the AIDS Epidemic. (James D. Parcell/The Washington Post)
Alexander Poster is a historian at the United States Department of State who studies U.S-Latin American relations and non-military global issues. He recently published the article “‘Jonestown: An International Story of Diplomacy, Detente, and Neglect, 1973-1978’" in the journal ‘Diplomatic History.

Imagine a covert plan to weaken the United States, not through military sabotage or stealing state secrets, but simply through the manipulation of the news media. The plan involves foreign agents who write and disseminate false news articles with the aim of destabilizing American society and driving a wedge between the United States and its allies.

No, this isn’t a story about the 2016 election, but rather about how the Soviet Union capitalized on perceived American indifference toward the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and began disseminating “fake news” as part of a disinformation campaign that had major ramifications for American foreign policy — and may well still be influencing Russian-American relations .

To be fair, the Reagan administration was slow to act when it came to HIV/AIDS. In a news conference on Oct. 15, 1982, journalist Lester Kinsolving asked White House press secretary Larry Speakes whether President Ronald Reagan had any reaction given that “AIDS is now an epidemic.” Speakes provided a terrifyingly ignorant response: “What’s AIDS?”

When Kinsolving tried to explain the nature of the illness, noting that it was informally known as the “gay plague,” Speakes responded in jest, saying, “I don’t have it. Do you?” The fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been reporting on AIDS for more than a year apparently was not known in the White House. “There has been no personal experience here,” Speakes concluded.

The spread of AIDS within the United States and the negligence of the Reagan administration provided the Soviets with an opportunity at a moment when Cold War tensions were high. Noting that many Americans were distrustful of their government after the Vietnam War, and observing that HIV/AIDS was more prevalent in groups that were critical of Reagan’s policies, the Soviets decided that beginning a disinformation campaign about the origins of the disease could sow dissent within the nation and among U.S. allies.

Historian Thomas Boghardt said the campaign started on July 17, 1983, when a newspaper in India, the Patriot, published an anonymous letter from an “American scientist.” The scientist claimed that AIDS was an American biological weapon created at Fort Detrick, Md. A former Soviet bloc intelligence officer who corresponded with Boghardt noted that the disinformation campaign “virtually conceptualized itself” because of the controversy about AIDS within the United States.

The Patriot had a circulation of only 35,000, so the placement of the anonymous letter did not create the panic that Soviet agents had hoped for, but persistence paid off. Throughout the next three years, embassies across the world reported on newspaper articles that accused the United States of creating AIDS as a biological weapon. In November 1985, embassy officials in Nicaragua noted that pro-Sandinista publications were participating in the disinformation campaign and had run stories that Americans had tested AIDS on Haitians as well as “certain groups in North America.”

As HIV/AIDS spread rapidly in Africa, U.S. embassies complained to the State Department that the Soviets had blanketed the continent with disinformation. By 1986, newspapers in Nairobi; Lagos, Nigeria and Dakar, Senegal, had run stories that claimed that Americans had created the AIDS virus, that blood supplies from the United States were contaminated and that “the citation of Africa as the disease’s point of origin is some sort of Western conspiracy.”

Because up to one-third of urban-dwelling adults in Central and East Africa were infected by 1987, these articles generated reasonable consternation among African leaders. The State Department sent a telegram to all African diplomatic posts in August 1986 with talking points that rebutted these allegations and emphasized that blood originating from the United States was not infected.

The department sent a similar telegram to all of its diplomatic posts worldwide in December 1986 as disinformation continued to spread. The telegram asked posts to suggest means of “developing a counter strategy” as disinformation had become global and pernicious, and American officials seemed powerless to stop it.

By 1987, the narrative that Americans were carriers, if not creators, of a dangerous disease had taken hold to such an extent that officials in the Philippines expressed concern about U.S. servicemen at military bases in their nation. Central to their distress was the notion that Americans were spreading HIV/AIDS in the Philippines and that the epidemic “was not merely a public health problem” but a social problem, with Americans identified as agents of contagion. This conception posed political problems: The Filipino government proceeded to demand more funding for an anti-AIDS campaign from the United States as a result.

Despite the success of their disinformation campaign, the Soviet leaders began to change course in 1987, the same year they first acknowledged publicly that AIDS had spread to their nation. In a July 1987 meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chet Crocker, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin admitted privately that the Soviets had “only begun to understand the magnitude of the AIDS problem” and stated that he had “no difficulty” in admitting elements of the Soviet disinformation campaign were “foolish.”

In a meeting at the Soviet Embassy, State Department officials remarked that they welcomed newfound Soviet efforts to combat AIDS, but urged the Soviets to cease their “blatantly false allegations first.”

As a result of the changing Soviet posture, American policymakers were finally able to limit the damage of the Soviet disinformation campaign — but only because the Soviets sought to trade the campaign for scientific collaboration — a testament to how effective “fake news” can be.

In the years that followed, presidential administrations proved more responsive to the AIDS epidemic. President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative targeted AIDS in Africa and has since provided antiretroviral treatment to 7.7 million people and saved about 11 million lives.

Despite the American commitment to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, conspiracy theories remain. A quick search on the Internet will reveal numerous websites that assert that AIDS was, in fact, a biological weapon created at Fort Detrick. Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, its propaganda remains, as people worldwide — including Americans — still believe elements of its disinformation campaign about AIDS more than 30 years after it began.

One person who does not need to be convinced about the effectiveness of a disinformation campaign is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was a member of the KGB from 1975 to 1990, and was able to see firsthand the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic as well as Soviet efforts to indict the United States. Americans may never know for certain whether the success of the AIDS disinformation campaign has influenced Putin’s foreign policy, but at the very least, it is worth considering. And it is a reminder of the lasting effects disinformation campaigns can have, particularly when they play off existing divisions in the United States.

Primary documentation about the U.S. response to the AIDS epidemic can be found in the AIDS compilation of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States Series, located at http://bit.ly/2Gi7SI0

The views here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government.