“Disinformation” is a common term at present, in the media, in academic and political discourse, along with related concepts like “fake news”. But what does it really mean? Is it different from misinformation, propaganda, deception, “fake news” or just plain lies? Is it always bad, or can it be a useful and necessary tool of statecraft? And how should we deal with it?
There are no straightforward answers not least because each of these terms provokes a subjective reaction in our minds. Misinformation could be the wrong information put out by mistake, but Disinformation sounds like a deliberate strategy of deceit. Propaganda might be intended to persuade, maybe exaggerated but essentially harmless; or it could be used by an authoritarian state to brainwash its people. In 1948, the Foreign Information Research Department (IRD) was set up in the UK to combat aggressive Communist propaganda, issuing or sponsoring its own propaganda in return: was one of these bad, and the other good? Former CIA analyst Cynthia Grabo said that if propaganda was true, it was public diplomacy; if false, disinformation. Things are not that simple.
Deception is another tricky term. It might seem little different from lies or fake news, but in a military context its meaning can be positive, even celebratory. Think of Operation Fortitude, designed to make Hitler believe the Allied invasion in June 1944 would not be in Normandy; or Operation Desert Deception, executed in the run-up to the First Gulf War to convince the Iraqis the Coalition would attack from a different direction to the one it actually came from. Both these operations involved subterfuge, media manipulation and decoy tactics—lies in fact, disinformation used by the good guys. And if we accept that disinformation can be used for “good” purposes, we are even further into the realm of subjective judgement.
There is nothing new about all this, of course. Disinformation is an ancient concept: Thucydides, for example, identified the deliberate manipulation of information to influence decision-making, and the distorting effects of political polarisation on truth and democracy; Plato thought it was fine for rulers to lie to the populace in the interests of public safety and state security. Both agreed that the intention of those disseminating the information makes a difference, and this is a useful lesson for us today: it is important to try and work out the intent of the source of the disinformation. For example, when considering how to deal with alleged Russian disinformation activity, it is vital to try and see how things look from Moscow, to understand the motivation without necessarily accepting the premise.
The Zinoviev letter is a classic piece of disinformation: probably forged, this document was passed through secret service channels and leaked to right-wing interests during the British General Election campaign of 1924 to damage the Labour Party. One aspect of the affair brings us back to the present day and illustrates the dangers of disinformation. In 1924, the Foreign Office drafted a letter of protest to the Soviet government, in response to what it called an unwarranted act of provocation and interference in the British political process. The evidence (including Russian evidence) suggests that the Politburo initially had not the slightest idea what the British were talking about (one of the reasons to believe the Letter is a forgery). But the Soviet leaders decided very quickly how to respond: firstly, deny everything; secondly, suggest that the British themselves must be responsible for the forgery. This is a classic response, today as well as in 1924. Denial of guilt and an attempt to deflect blame back on the accuser is no guarantee of truth or falsehood in any disinformation campaign. It is a recognised tactic that apart from anything else is intended to convince the domestic audience of what a state wishes its people to believe. Obviously, this is easier to bring off in an authoritarian state, where the media may be constrained, but it can be adopted anywhere.
Today, the speed of communications, social media, international and political instability and a range of other factors combine to create an environment where disinformation can flourish and be used by a range of actors as a tool of policy. There is no point in throwing up our hands in outrage and pretending only bad guys use it. Disinformation is part of strategic communications, of contemporary statecraft. We all need to be on the lookout. In the ancient world, philosophers argued that political authority depends on citizens who think, judge and fact-check for themselves. Defence against disinformation means understanding what might happen if information is compromised, collaborating with others to identify the risk and working together to mitigate it. Recognition of disinformation, and accepting shared responsibility for the risks it brings, is an essential tool in the box of those seeking to protect themselves against it.
Featured image credit: “A man with “fake news” rushing to the printing press, 7 March 1894″ by Frederick Burr Opper. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.