In 1983, an anonymous letter from an author claiming to be an American scientist appeared in an Indian newspaper, asserting that the HIV virus raging across the world was a bioweapon released by the United States. Over the next several years, similar claims appeared in leftist and alternative newspapers around the world and ended up becoming widely believed among those predisposed to distrust the Reagan administration. As late as 2005, a study showed that 27 percent of African Americans still believed that HIV was created in a government lab.
We now know that these claims were part of a massive Soviet disinformation campaign. And as successful as this operation was, the methods it used look modest and primitive in the age of the Internet. During the 2016 election campaign, Russian intelligence used the same technique, known as “narrative laundering,” to inject its preferred stories into mainstream American media. In the 2016 disinformation operation, Russian intelligence officers and their proxies supercharged their misleading stories with real documents: emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. (Roger Stone, who has just been found guilty on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering, served as a conduit for some of that material.)
Our research, published in a report appearing this week, describes and analyzes the Russian narrative laundering playbook. It is quite possible that these exact techniques will be used again. And why shouldn’t they? We’ve done almost nothing to counter the threat.
At least we know the primary culprit: Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, GRU operatives used WikiLeaks and fake personas (“DC Leaks” and “Guccifer 2.0”) to disseminate the hacked emails, which came to dominate coverage in both traditional and social media. That is yet another lesson that has survived from Soviet days: Narrative laundering is especially effective when the stories are built on real documents. [Continue reading…]