Many of the countless mesmerizing stories in the Mitrokhin Archive deals with the KGB’s disinformation campaigns, mostly to sway public opinion in various European countries. We, in the West with upper-case Freedom-of-the-Press were outraged to learn that the press sometimes was printing deliberately falsified information, planted, for money or otherwise, by the KGB. How Could They Do That.
Been following recent events on Twitter lately? Twitter is great for following up-to-the-minute events by hash tag, say, #NiceAttack, or #BatonRouge, or #Turkey in recent days. Seeing tweets by hash tag lets you break out of your usual filter/friend bubble, and read what others are saying that are far removed from what you usually see.
And some of what is being tweeted about current events is simply false.
- Some people apparently photoshop supposed tweets of others, and retweet them (as image), commenting “what an outrage that XYZ said this”. Few readers ever check whether XYZ indeed did say this, and if you can’t find the original tweet, the response is “they deleted it”. I have come across this kind of thing several times in the past week, and while I cannot prove it (the very point!), I strongly suspect that’s exactly what happened.
- Some people appear to make up logically-sounding theories with shock value, get them retweeted a lot of times because they are so shocking, and thereby sway public opinion just as much, or more so, than a KGB-planted article would have back then.
It would be easy to blame it all on the successor of the KGB and other three-letter agencies in other countries that presumably do, and always have done, what the KGB was accused of. But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think the general public has now entered the disinformation business: Dezinformatsiya has been democratized.
Imagine you really hate political candidate X. What’s easier: photoshop a tweet and claim they tweeted “Kill all people with beards”, or go door to door convincing your neighbors that X is no good and should not be voted for?
Finally, the observation that prompted this post: imagine you really hate Erdogan. It is really easy to claim that Erdogan set up today’s coup himself under a false flag, so he could crack down on the military and the opposition even further. It is easy, because it is so plausible, and because it’s an explosive, and thus very newsworthy and retweetable claim. Did you see that Tweet? It’s all over Twitter.
Now I have no love for Mr Erdogan, and I only use this incident as an example. But what happens if everybody gets into the disinformation business to further their ends just as easily as them posting their cat pictures? What if a significant percentage of supposed facts on current events are actually fiction, peddled by people with a stake? And perhaps get retweeted enough to constitute a kind of Sybil attack on the truth?
Could it happen? If so, could we detect it? And what then?