The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before ‘fake news,’ there was Soviet ‘disinformation’

A photograph of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin lies on a floor outside a courtroom in Moscow, on Oct. 13, 2009, (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

On July 17, 1983, a small pro-Soviet Indian newspaper called the Patriot published a front-page article titled “AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments.” The story cited a letter from an anonymous but “well-known American scientist and anthropologist” that suggested AIDS, then still a mysterious and deadly new disease, had been created by the Pentagon in a bid to develop new biological weapons.

“Now that these menacing experiments seem to have gone out of control, plans are being hatched to hastily transfer them from the U.S. to other countries, primarily developing nations where governments are pliable to Washington's pressure and persuasion,” the article read.

The Patriot's article was subsequently used as a source for an October 1985 story in the Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Soviet weekly with considerable influence at the time. The next year, it ran on the front page of a British tabloid. After that, it was picked up by an international news wire. By April 1987, it was suggested that the story had appeared in the major newspapers of more than 50 countries.

The problem? The story was patently false.

A variety of credible experts quickly came out to say that the idea that AIDS had been deliberately or inadvertently created in a laboratory was ridiculous; even the president of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences went on the record saying AIDS was of natural origin. Yet even after the Cold War was over and the threat of AIDS became more widely understood, the idea that the disease was man-made persevered around the world.

The conspiracy theory even persisted in the United States: A 2005 study found almost half of African Americans believed that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was man-made.

In the parlance of 2016, we would probably refer to the Patriot's front page story as “fake news.” It's not so dissimilar to the flimsy or outright false stories that spread online in the United States this year. There may be a shared Russian link too: This week, a number of groups alleged that a Russian propaganda effort had helped spread these “fake news” stories to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton's chances in the 2016 presidential election.

But during the height of the Cold War, these false stories were referred to as something else: “disinformation.”

That term came into use in the early 1960s, and came into widespread use in the 1980s. It is based upon a Russian word: Dezinformatsiya. According to Ion Mihai Pacepa, a high-ranking official in Romania's secret police who defected in 1978, the French-sounding word was invented by Joseph Stalin after World War II. A definition from the 1952 Great Soviet Encyclopedia called it the “dissemination (in the press, on the radio, etc.) of false reports intended to mislead public opinion” and suggested that the Soviet Union was the target of such tactics from the West.

In his book “Disinformation,” Pacepa wrote that the Soviet manuals he read as a young intelligence officer described disinformation as a tactic used by Moscow with roots in Russian history. According to Pacepa, these manuals suggested the history of the tactic lay in the fake pasteboard villages that 18th-century nobleman Grigory Potyomkin had built in Crimea to impress Russian leader Catherine the Great during her visit in 1783. (Ironically, that story itself is now considered largely apocryphal, but the phrase “Potemkin Village” remains in use as a description of government falsehoods.)

Even so, there's little doubt that the United States engaged in its own disinformation campaign, too. In 2000, the New York Times reported that the CIA's covert 1953 operation to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh install Mohammed Reza Pahlavi involved planted newspaper articles. Reuters later reported that after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the CIA would plant fake stories in other Muslim countries about “invasion day celebrations” at Soviet embassies.

“You would try and recruit a journalist and he would become an agent of influence,” an unnamed former U.S. intelligence officer told Reuters of the practice. “The Russians did it, the Brits do it, the French do it — it's regular intelligence procedure to try and influence a country's policies through the press.”

However, the scale of the Soviet efforts appears to have dwarfed others. A number of other stories have been linked to Soviet “misinformation” over the years — the idea that the CIA was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy is one, for example. The AIDs story is especially notable because Yevgeny Primakov, a former intelligence chief who later went on to become a post-Soviet prime minister, told Russian reporters in 1992 that the KGB really did orchestrate the whole thing.

The truth is, that may be overselling it. In a 2009 issue of Studies in Intelligence, a journal published by the CIA, historian Thomas Boghardt noted that theories about the U.S. government creating AIDS predated any KGB manipulation. In the end, Boghardt noted, even in the perhaps less chaotic pre-Internet media world, the Soviets ultimately had little control over a rumor they'd helped spread.

“Once the AIDS conspiracy theory was lodged in the global subconscious, it became a pandemic in its own right,” Boghardt wrote. “Like any good story, it traveled mostly by word of mouth, especially within the most affected subgroups. Having effectively harnessed the dynamics of rumors and conspiracy theories, Soviet bloc intelligence had created a monster that has outlived its creators.”

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