‘Falsehood Flies, and Truth Comes Limping After It’

This article features our client Jamie Fly and was originally published here.

The Russian government has various means of attack: assassination, invasion, annexation. But don’t forget dezinformatsiya, i.e., disinformation, which the Kremlin has practiced for almost a hundred years. A special disinformation office was set up in 1923.

“Misinformation” is an innocent mistake: You report that Mr. Smith lives on Elm Street when he in fact lives on Maple Street. On learning of this error, you correct it. “Disinformation” is not innocent. It is a lie, intended to achieve a political end.

Recently, I talked with two experts on the subject: Jamie Fly and Thomas Kent. The former is a veteran foreign-policy official and think-tanker; the latter is a veteran newsman. Both are American. And both are former presidents of RFE/RL, that combination of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. In September, Fly gave testimony on disinformation before Congress; Kent has gone and written a book — Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation.

Russia is not the Soviet Union, thank heaven. But some things have carried over, including disinformation. “The skills were retained,” says Tom Kent, and “the understanding of information as a tool of state policy remains the same.”

It is just a tool, mind you. “There is nothing sentimental about information,” says Kent — not in the eyes of the Russian government. It is one more means of accomplishing a goal. Another tool in the toolkit, or weapon in the arsenal.

Disinformation is a cheap weapon, too. “They used to say that chemical weapons were the poor man’s atomic bomb,” Kent notes. “Maybe information weapons are the poor man’s chemical weapons.”

Not that the Kremlin has been shy about using chemical weapons. In March 2018, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were victims of Novichok; in August of this year, Alexei Navalny was the victim of the same. All of them survived, amazingly. (Dawn Sturgess, a British woman who was a collateral victim of the attack on the Skripals, did not.)

One question is, why would Russia want to engage in an information, or disinformation, war? That is a complicated question, in addition to a good one, and a proper answer would require a book or two. Suffice it to say now: Russia is down in the world, with its empire lost, its population draining away, and its economy weak. If Russia wants to trip up the West, there is hardly a better way than disinformation, with the strife it sows.

But why would Russia want to trip up the West, when there are so many problems at home — on Russian soil — to tackle? This one, we will have to leave to those books, and in particular their psychological analyses.

In Cold War days, Soviet disinformation specialists had some great successes, including the AIDS hoax: the contention that this virus was concocted by the U.S. government for the purpose of decimating black Americans, along with gays, intravenous-drug users, and other “undesirables.” Many Americans bought this, including celebrities such as Spike Lee. The effects of this lie linger to this day.

Stay on the subject of viruses: Shortly into the current pandemic, the U.S. State Department issued a report saying that Russia, China, and Iran — a natural axis — were putting out a line: The coronavirus is an American bioweapon. Russian disinformation artists have been keen to say that U.S. soldiers, serving in NATO units, are spreading the virus. One Russian TV network — Zvezda, operated by the ministry of defense — alleged that Bill Gates was behind it all.

As Jamie Fly points out, the pandemic is a playground for disinformationists. Authoritarian regimes can distract from their own failures — public-health and otherwise — by assigning blame to democracies, chiefly the United States. Russia has also seized the chance to pit allies against one another.

For example, Russian disinformationists put out the word that Poland was preventing Russian supplies from reaching Italy. This was early in the pandemic, when Italy was especially hard hit. The supplies were masks, ventilators, and the like. The Russian-planted stories were false, but they succeeded in creating anger and suspicion in Italy.

One big difference between the information war of yore and the information war now is speed. It took a while for Moscow’s AIDS hoax to build. It started in an Indian newspaper (the Patriot) and went from there, newspaper to newspaper, until Spike Lee and the rest were amplifying it. Now, Russia “bombards” you with disinformation, as Fly says, in a “constant assault.” Central and Eastern European countries are particular targets.

Thomas Kent quotes Jonathan Swift: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”

From no single office does all disinformation flow. As Kent writes, “the Kremlin grants substantial freedom to a dizzying variety of government agencies, oligarchs, social-media influencers, populist haranguers, and for-profit entrepreneurs to create information products that serve Kremlin interests.”

Nor is Moscow pushing a single line, or ideology, or point of view. In Argentina, Russian disinformationists are happy to align with Peronistas on the left and religious conservatives on the right. In the United States, they are happy to support Black Lives Matter and to oppose it. What they are after is strife. Confusion. The sharpening of divisions.

It is not so much that they are pushing an alternative truth, or a version of the truth. They are trying to cloud the very concept of the truth — the truth as something knowable. One “narrative” is as good as another, you see. Who’s to say what’s true?

In 2017, Roger Scruton wrote,

The concept of truth has been the victim of massive cyber-attacks in recent decades, and it has not yet recovered. The most recent attack has come from social media, which have turned the Internet into one great seething cauldron of opinions, most of them anonymous, in which every kind of malice and fantasy swamps the still small voice of humanity and truth.

Who is pushing back against Russian disinformation? Some governments are good at it, particularly those of the three Baltic republics and Sweden. They have had long experience of harassment (or worse) from Moscow. The British government is good at it too. For other governments, matters are more complicated. Italy’s, for example, has elements that are frankly pro-Kremlin.

Then there are “elves.” Santa’s helpers? No, more like democracy’s helpers. “Elves” is the nickname for voluntary organizations and individual volunteers who take it upon themselves to counter disinformation, in whatever ways they can. They go into the chatrooms, etc., to do battle. They point out the corruption of the Russian government. And they argue for democratic values over authoritarian ones. “Elves” are especially prominent, and effective, in Lithuania.

Many are the “NGAs,” as Tom Kent calls them: “non-government actors.” One such is Bellingcat, a collective of researchers in about 20 countries. In 2019, Bellingcat won a European Press Prize for identifying the agents who carried out the Skripal attack.

In the United States, there was the AMWG — Active Measures Working Group — established in 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration. Its mission was to counter Soviet disinformation. It was duly disbanded in 1992. By 2016, it was clear that something like the AMWG was again necessary. The Global Engagement Center was established in the State Department.

The United States has often been sleepy about Kremlin disinformation, but we Yanks have our moments. In 2014, State put out a fact sheet, listing ten false claims by Vladimir Putin. Its introduction began,

As Russia spins a false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine, the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, “The formula ‘two times two equals five’ is not without its attractions.”

The “radios” — RFE/RL, in particular — did critical work in the Cold War. Asked about the importance of the radios to the Solidarity movement in Poland, Lech Walesa said, “Would there be an earth without the sun?” RFE/RL is doing critical work today, too. This past August, in Minsk, democracy protesters stood outside state-media headquarters and chanted, “Radio Svaboda! Radio Svaboda!” (their way of saying “Radio Liberty”).

Bravely, many state-media employees quit their jobs, refusing to convey lies. The Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, asked the Kremlin for “teams” of journalists, or “journalists,” to replace them. The Kremlin obliged, in what has been called a “surge”: a surge of disinformation artists.

Though we have our moments, we are falling badly, badly behind in the information war, as Jamie Fly warns. We — not just the United States, but democracies and friends of democracy in general — are being outspent and outmaneuvered. We are barely in the game, barely participating.

Fly, Kent, and others point out a curiosity: In a war, you usually try to fight on your opponent’s territory, not yours. Yet this war is being fought almost entirely in the West, in the democracies. We take what defensive actions we can. What about “surging” information to the Russian people themselves, and to other people who are routinely misled by their state media?

There are objectors to this approach. Some say, “Who are we to preach, with all our problems?” Others say, “Better not poke the bear.” Yet the bear is aroused, regardless. And although the democracies aren’t perfect — there is no paradise on earth — democrats have a great and welcome story to tell.

Believe it or not, democratic values have to be argued for, generation after generation. Their opponents are tireless in arguing against them, or smearing them. If democrats were half as bold and energetic as anti-democrats, the world would be a brighter place.

In his book, Thomas Kent quotes Dmitri Teperik, the chief executive of Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security. Teperik advocates a “ruthless projection of truth” to the Russian people. That is an inspired, and inspiring, phrase: “ruthless projection of truth.” Jamie Fly, too, spoke of truth in his recent congressional testimony, citing Vaclav Havel — who grasped that truth is what authoritarians fear most, because it is a liberator of the human spirit.

Tanks, nukes, diplomacy, and many other things matter greatly in world affairs. But information and disinformation — these things are not to be ignored, because they move minds and therefore events, for better or worse.