That’s the lesson of Thomas Rid’s superb new book, “Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare.” The manipulators were opportunists: They poked at the holes and fissures in our political life and helped turn our simmering rage into a boil. But we did most of the work for them, as we amplified Moscow’s leaks and lies in the aftermath of its 2016 covert action and agitated ourselves into a state of near-hysteria. Russia set loose a virus, but we journalists and citizens, ever more obsessed with Russian “meddling,” were the mules who carried it.
The Russians had us pegged. Consider “John Davis,” one of their most popular fake conservative accounts on Twitter. His biography said he was from “Texas, USA” and listed his credentials: “Business owner, proud father, Christian, patriot, gun rights, politically incorrect. Love my country and my family . . . #WakeUpAmerica.” His profile picture showed a white guy with a pit bull on his lap, in front of a banner image of a Smith & Wesson 45. After a shooting in Orlando, he posted “IslamIstheProblem.”
But “John Davis” (and his equally stereotyped African American counterpart, “@BlacktoLive”), along with the hundreds of other Russian fake accounts, didn’t win the 2016 election for Donald Trump. Their goal, according to a Russian internal document quoted by Rid, was to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.” I guess you could say the Russians succeeded. But they had good material to work with; the American body politic was rotting from the inside out.
Rid’s achievement in this book is that he places our crazy, upside-down politics in a coherent historical context. The digital tools of our adversaries may be new, but the mission of manipulation is as old as the spy business. Make your enemies doubt and disable themselves, so you can win without fighting. As Rid explains, “The goal of disinformation is to engineer division by putting emotions over analysis, division over unity, conflict over consensus, the particular over the universal.”
Among specialists who follow Russian disinformation, Rid is well-known for his technical expertise and analysis, but this book should bring him the wider acclaim he deserves. He did some breakthrough investigative work in July 2016 that exposed the transmission belt between the Russian GRU intelligence front known as Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks. When he pressed the supposed hacker about WikiLeaks, the Russian intelligence officer posing as Guccifer answered: “Yeah man, i sent them emails.”
Rid provides the best narrative I’ve read anywhere of how the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016 was run from the GRU in Moscow and the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. Anyone who reads this account and doesn’t conclude that the Russians played the Trump campaign like a violin has a tin ear. But the deeper value of Rid’s book is that it takes us to the beginnings of modern manipulation, when Moscow created “The Trust,” a fake pro-Tsarist movement in the 1920s that allowed Moscow to watch, mislead and ultimately subvert its adversaries.
America learned to play this game during the Cold War, sometimes to an absurd extent. To undermine the psychological stability of East Germany, for example, the CIA thought it would be useful to create a glossy women’s magazine, a jazz magazine and an astrology magazine.
Disinformation is a chess game, tit for tat, my fake for yours. The KGB bankrolled magazines and newspapers with the party line in the 1940s and ’50s; the CIA funded its own network of “cultural freedom” publications. When the Russians published a list of CIA officers, the FBI countered by helping a Readers Digest writer produce an exposé of Russian operations. Soviet communism, a miserable mess of corruption and stagnation, was never going to win this competition of ideas, but the Russians took some nasty shots. A particularly odious example was the KGB’s “Operation Denver,” which aimed to spread the lie that AIDS was “the result of out-of-control secret experiments by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon,” according to a KGB memo quoted by Rid.
Communism collapsed, but Russia’s covert attempts to destabilize America continued, with Moscow seizing any opportunity. To exploit fears of terrorism, Russian intelligence created a fake “CyberCaliphate,” Rid explains. When Edward Snowden’s leaks of National Security Agency operations rocked American intelligence, Rid reports that there were questions among Western intelligence officials whether Russia had amplified the damage by spreading the story that the NSA had bugged Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Rid quotes the German attorney general’s conclusion that a supposed tasking order for the Merkel intercept published in the German press “did not originate from an NSA database.”
Rid challenges the guardians of fact in the news media to think more carefully about how easily journalists can be manipulated in this post-truth age. As he says, there are two kinds of truth: one driven by facts, the other by belief. The fact-based narrative is democracy’s foundation; emotional, partisan commentary can be its undoing. The disinformation specialists widen dissent though “temptations, designed to exaggerate, designed to give in to prejudice, to preformed notions — and to erode the capacity of an open society for fact-based, sober debate.”
As foreign intelligence agencies seek to shape America’s political reality, citizens may become so hardened and skeptical that they stop trusting anyone, concluding that it’s all just “fake news.” That’s the real affinity between American demagogues and Moscow. They both traffic so much in disinformation that an exhausted, disoriented public doesn’t know what to believe.
The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare
By Thomas Rid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 513 pp. $30