In 2014, Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine drove me to enter the field of disinformation research. Humiliated by the PR failure of its 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Kremlin had been quietly growing its global media influence and information strategy, in an effort that initially attracted little attention from the United States or other Western countries. With Ukraine, Putin was ready: Russia launched a massive disinformation campaign to justify the annexation of Crimea, undermine Western support for Ukraine, and engineer distrust and dissensus both among allies and within individual countries. The effort was intended to weaken transatlantic unity and, crucially, to paralyze our ability to defend our national interests. It was an early taste of what was to come, and I feared (rightfully) that the West was unprepared to confront Moscow’s resurgent global ambitions to destabilize the post-World War II democratic order and usher in a new “multipolar” era of authoritarian impunity.
Dezinformatsiya, as it is called in the original Russian, refers to a specific practice of psychological warfare or “active measures” developed by the early Soviet KGB, aimed at weakening foreign adversaries through information manipulation. Under Putin, Russia has resurrected disinformation as a core part of its international intelligence strategy, and presciently adapted the practice, beginning in the early 2010s, to the digital domain. The provenance of the term is important: by historical definition, disinformation is a tool of foreign political warfare.
Aside from a handful of Cold War dons and family and friends in Eastern Europe, almost no one I spoke to in 2014 had heard of disinformation. Trump had not yet mainstreamed his “fake news” rhetoric, and panicked prognostications about the advent of a “post-truth world” were almost two years away, pending Brexit and the 2016 election. [Continue reading…]