New Russian disinformation campaigns prove the past is prequel

New Russian disinformation campaigns prove the past is prequel

Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren write:

On Dec. 13, 2023, Lauren Witzke, a documented QAnon promoter and former Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Delaware, posted a barrage of criticism toward Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter. The post suggested Zelenskyy was preparing to retire to a $20 million home in Vero Beach, Florida, and claimed that “our leaders are buying mansions for elite leaches who facilitate their money laundering operations and crimes against the American people … CUT OFF UKRAINE!” The post included images of the home in Florida and Zelenskyy’s U.S. naturalization papers.

Witzke’s post was grounded in a lie, the result of very purposeful narrative laundering (that is, the process of hiding the source of false information). This particular laundering campaign is affiliated with the Russian government and aimed largely at undermining Western support for Ukraine. While many who read Witzke’s message rightly questioned it, it was nonetheless reposted more than 12,000 times and viewed (by X’s metric) nearly 10 million times. The narrative was shared in thousands of other posts across platforms, before and after Witzke, including by those who unknowingly linked directly to a covert Russian outlet.

Lies don’t have to be good to be effective. For those who wanted to believe this story, it was easy to do so. Its considerable success didn’t result from typically expected tactics, however. It wasn’t spread using an army of social media bots or an AI-generated video of Zelenskyy. This campaign relies on individuals like Witzke, unknowing dupes with influence and credibility in their online communities.

Since 2016, conversations about disinformation have focused on the role of technology—from chatbots to deepfakes. Persuasion, however, is a fundamentally human-centered endeavor, and humans haven’t changed. The fundamentals of covert influence haven’t either.

The Soviet Union’s most infamous disinformation campaign was Operation Denver, sometimes referred to as Operation INFEKTION, an active-measures campaign created to persuade the world that the United States was responsible for the creation of the AIDS virus. The effort began in 1983 with the planting of a fictitious letter entitled “AIDS may Invade India.” This letter was sent to the editor of The Patriot, an Indian newspaper that was created some years earlier by the KGB for the purposes of spreading pro-Soviet propaganda. The letter claimed it was written by a fictional American scientist and revealed that the AIDS virus originated in the United States, created at the chemical and biological warfare research facility located in Fort Detrick, Maryland. This letter was then cited in later KGB efforts to spread the story. Forty years on, the narrative spun by Operation Denver is still widely believed in some communities, particularly by those inclined to view the U.S. government with suspicion. [Continue reading…]

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