.
S

ince the outbreak of COVID-19, it has been fascinating to watch the spread and propagation of conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, its connection to seemingly unrelated technologies, and the extent to which sensible and otherwise rational people buy into these narratives. Even friends and family members can be fully convinced that the virus is linked to 5G technology or that it originated as part of a Chinese bio-weapons program. Celebrities are implying, suggesting, and, in some cases, outright connecting COVID-19 to 5G—leading to cell towers in the United Kingdom being set alight.  

Book Review: Active Measures—The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, By Thomas Rid (Cover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

At the same time, we are watching China take a page from Russia’s playbook and spreading alternative news stories where Beijing heroically overcame COVID-19 and is helping the world in its struggle against the disease. Chinese Communist Party officials are seen lambasting foreign governments for any criticism, demanding that they publicly thank China for aid purchased by the foreign capital. Simultaneously, Chinese Communist Party officials are trafficking in rumors and innuendo that the COVID-19 virus originated from U.S. Army soldiers, echoing a Soviet campaign, which tried to connect AIDS with the U.S. military.

Domestically, cries of “fake news” reverberate from the bully pulpit and it seems as though anyone with a Twitter account is an instant expert. One meme floating around the internet was of an official-looking badge titled “Facebook-Certified Epidemiology Expert.”

What is real, what is true, and how can you tell the difference sounds like a philosophical argument or debate. That is until you realize that this core question is the central feature of some of the most fascinating intelligence operations in history.

Thomas Rid’s “Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare” is quite possibly one of the most fascinating books published in some time and one that benefits from a fortuitous time in history. Rid examines active measures, their contexts, their aims, and impacts in incredible detail. Each chapter unveils a campaign cleverly crafted to exploit a target’s weakness, advance interest, and subvert the system to the attacker’s advantage.

At their core, active measures use liberal society’s openness and trust against itself, exploiting those strengths to subvert their foundations. The provenance of a document, the origin of a policy, the source of a movement—all are called into question. Schisms and splits within a society are exploited to advance an interest.

The 2016 Election

The 2016 election was, for most Americans, the first time they had been exposed to or became aware of active measures and foreign interference in our elections. It seems as though for the last four years, COVID-19 aside, nearly anyone talked about was related to or in some way connected to Russian interference in the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In that way, it is probably the most successful active measure campaign of all time. Rid masterfully details the technical ins-and-outs of the Internet Research Agency’s activities and the various hacking outfits of Russian intelligence, even at one point engaging with the “Guccifer”, a Russian intelligence officer posing as the hacker behind the Wikileaks release.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Rid’s analysis is that on the face of it, the Russian influence campaign on social media wasn’t all that effective in terms of impressions, likes, or shares. The post-election analysis suggested that several hundred million views occurred, but as he notes, that figure includes views after the campaign.

What makes the 2016 active measure effort so successful is how it first exploited existing divisions within American civil society—as all successful campaigns do—but second, how it became the dominant subject, subverting the national dialogue to a magnitude well beyond its relative investment.

To say America was and is a divided society is nothing new, but social media has allowed those divisions to become magnified, amplified, and highlighted to degrees never before possible. Indeed, it seems as though the thing that defines us is not what unites us as Americans, but what makes us into distinct political tribes—blue state versus red state, liberal or conservative, Fox News or MSNBC. Russia’s active measures campaign sought to highlight these divisions by feeding each side their preconceived beliefs and notions pitting law enforcement against “Black Lives Matter” activists, Christian against Muslims, etc.

One striking example offered by Rid is how the Internet Research Agency watched on a webcam as internet users went to a spot in Times Square expecting to get free hot dogs…there is truly no such thing as a free lunch.  

Despite the simple fact that the “metrics” of the campaign are fairly limited, its impact punched well above its weight and added to the echo chamber that developed in the United States on Russian interference. From the Mueller Investigation to the Intelligence Community’s report on Russian interference, to the talking heads and pundits, down to our families and friends, all anyone could talk about was what did the Russians do, and did they subvert our democracy. With a fairly (comparably) small investment, the Russians helped erode the bedrock of America, calling into question our trust in institutions, trust in processes, and trust in civil society.

What is real, what is true, and how can you tell the difference sounds like a philosophical argument or debate. That is until you realize that this core question is the central feature of some of the most fascinating intelligence operations in history.

What is real, what is true, and how can you tell the difference sounds like a philosophical argument or debate. That is until you realize that this core question is the central feature of some of the most fascinating intelligence operations in history.

Historical Context

Where Rid is at his strongest, and what is perhaps his greatest contribution, is in contextualizing the history of active measures, disinformation, and political warfare. Undoubtedly, a large portion of the readership will glom onto the chapters focused on the 2016 election and the Russian interference.

These are, without question, absolutely fascinating. Rid’s technical expertise is on full display and the story is riveting. The “troll factory” of the Internet Research Agency in some ways sounds like a Russian version of the “Office” with skiving off employees and low wages. But to focus only on 2016 would be a great disservice.

The stories Rid highlights, the campaigns he explores, and the curtain he lifts is simply fascinating. From the Tanaka Memorial, a forgery purporting to outline Japan’s imperial strategy, to the CIA-sponsored jazz and astrology magazines, to the book wars of the 60s and 70s, Rid offers incredible accounts of active measure campaigns from World War II to today.

The growth of Soviet (and now Russian) active measure efforts is intriguing. The bureaucratic maturation of disinformation to its senior service within the KGB illustrates the sheer importance Moscow placed on this type of campaign. Moreover, the extent to which the Soviet Union leveraged other communist services like East Germany’s Stasi, the Bulgarian Committee for State Security, and others is a noteworthy story in and of itself.

The genius of successful active measures is found in the simple fact that they seize upon existing schisms or fractures of the time within societies, or hot issues, and twist them to their ends. Did an anti-nuclear movement exist in Europe in the 70s and 80s? Of course. Did the Russians seize upon the movement and encourage the ascendancy of messages better suited to their aims of preventing the deployment of next-generation nuclear missiles to Europe from the United States, while presenting their missiles as a fait accompli? Absolutely.

The Generals for Peace movement, a collection of former NATO generals advocating for a nuclear freeze was an inspired active measures campaign aimed towards this effort, but backed by the foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi.

It is safe to say that the reader will be surprised to see a connection between Moscow-backed active measures campaigns and Kayne West. In discussing one of the Soviet Union’s most insidious and long-lasting campaigns, “Operation Denver”, linking the origin of AIDS with U.S. biological weapons programs—not that Moscow started the effort, merely took advantage of and ran with the narrative—Rid notes how the conspiracy theory found its way into a Kanye West lyric from his song “Heard ‘Em Say”… “And I know the government administered AIDS.”

The War of Ideas

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Soviet Union would never be able to win the war of ideas—liberal democracy, open society, and the freedom of speech were too powerful in the face of Marxist-Leninist authoritarianism. But at the time it didn’t matter. For the Soviets, all they had to do was chip away at the façade of the western liberal order, expose the hypocrisies—real or imagined—undermine the credibility of the United States and NATO, and feed into the preconceived notions of target populations.

Whether it was highlighting the appalling treatment of African Americans to African governments and delegations, stirring up anti-Semitism in Germany and abroad, fabricating grand imperialist schemes dictated by western corporations, or today, crafting elaborate false narratives of the CIA directing the Army to direct Ukrainian officers to carry out fake sabotage operations, a portion of the population will seize upon these stories or narratives because they fit their existing worldview.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is a statement early on in the book, that in the run-up to the 2016 election, experts grossly underestimated the ease with which an active measure campaign could occur and in the wake of that campaign, grossly overestimated its impact. And, in turn, by overestimating its impact, it created an echo chamber further magnifying its long-term effect. Suddenly the specter of the Internet Research Agency and Moscow was seen lurking behind every curtain and around every corner.

Measuring Impact

In reading Active Measures one is struck by the creativity of the campaigns undertook. The use of jazz magazines, astrology publications, outright forgeries but ones that are connected enough to reality to shift the narrative in one’s favor, is inspired. It is, of course, near impossible to provide a one to one cost/benefit relationship, and, as Rid notes, it is something that will become even more challenging going forward.

At the same time, one can’t help but wonder what the impact of these campaigns truly was at the end of the day. Rid notes this exceptionally well, discussing the challenge of measuring “success” and oneself not falling victim to one’s disinformation campaign. “The campaign was a total success”; well, of course, the originator of the active measure would say that, wouldn’t they—they better well justify the expense invested in the effort. “While notable, the campaign only had a marginal success”, the target would perhaps argue. Again, they would say that wouldn’t they?

With the 2016 election campaign, it is clear that the impact is not measured in views, clicks, likes, or shares, but in the simple fact that the entirety of the national conversation shifted to the Russian interference itself.

With search engine optimization, “impressions,” and other social media buzzwords and phrases, measuring impact will be exceptionally challenging, but equally in greater demand. The quantification of active measures campaigns will almost certainly be in as much demand as the impact of Instagram’s influencers.

The very thing that makes our society so quintessentially American—free speech, the community of ideas, a spirited and open dialogue—is the very thing that makes it so vulnerable to active measure campaigns.

If there is a weakness in Rid’s book—and it is stretching to find one—it is in the absence of a path forward or recommendations. Indeed, this could be a symptom of spending too much time in Washington DC as the reviewer has, where every document is expected to, having identified the problem, articulate solutions.

Throughout the book Rid notes how, at various times, Congress held public hearings on Soviet active measures, highlighting forgeries and fakes. The FBI for its part diligently pursued counterintelligence cases against Soviet and now Russian intelligence officers involved in these campaigns.

For journalists, the future looks to bring even greater challenges in sifting through what is a genuine leak, a planted story, or outright disinformation. With the demands for a near-constant news cycle or perpetually breaking stories, at a time when newsrooms are being shaved to the bone, journalists are hard-pressed to deep dive into the origin of a story or its provenance. The urge to “break” a story will undoubtedly overtake the need for due diligence and proper vetting.

As Rid notes, during the Edward Snowden leaks, the story of alleged monitoring of the cell phone Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, appeared. At face value, it would seem that the story came from Snowden’s illegal leaks, but it may well have been planted by Moscow to amplify the effect of the core leaks.

For Rid, the prognosis is not optimistic. The barriers to entry for active measure campaigns have greatly reduced with the advent and exponential growth of the Internet and social media. It is far cheaper and easier to wage such a campaign. But, as he notes, these present new challenges. For attackers, active measures are harder to control and harder to assess—gone are the days of a magazine with measured circulation. For the victim, it is more difficult to determine what is an active measure campaign, what is fake news, and then have to determine which is which—it’s even harder to counter.

In addressing the threat of disinformation, one could end up eroding the very thing that makes America, America—the free exchange of ideas and the freedom of speech. In the words of the president, “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” At the same time, we as a country must be aware of the threat posed by, but not exaggerate the impact of, active measures. Here, Rid is an excellent guide and Active Measures is well worth a read.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

April 30, 2020

Book Review: Active Measures—The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, By Thomas Rid (Cover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

S

ince the outbreak of COVID-19, it has been fascinating to watch the spread and propagation of conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, its connection to seemingly unrelated technologies, and the extent to which sensible and otherwise rational people buy into these narratives. Even friends and family members can be fully convinced that the virus is linked to 5G technology or that it originated as part of a Chinese bio-weapons program. Celebrities are implying, suggesting, and, in some cases, outright connecting COVID-19 to 5G—leading to cell towers in the United Kingdom being set alight.  

Book Review: Active Measures—The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, By Thomas Rid (Cover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

At the same time, we are watching China take a page from Russia’s playbook and spreading alternative news stories where Beijing heroically overcame COVID-19 and is helping the world in its struggle against the disease. Chinese Communist Party officials are seen lambasting foreign governments for any criticism, demanding that they publicly thank China for aid purchased by the foreign capital. Simultaneously, Chinese Communist Party officials are trafficking in rumors and innuendo that the COVID-19 virus originated from U.S. Army soldiers, echoing a Soviet campaign, which tried to connect AIDS with the U.S. military.

Domestically, cries of “fake news” reverberate from the bully pulpit and it seems as though anyone with a Twitter account is an instant expert. One meme floating around the internet was of an official-looking badge titled “Facebook-Certified Epidemiology Expert.”

What is real, what is true, and how can you tell the difference sounds like a philosophical argument or debate. That is until you realize that this core question is the central feature of some of the most fascinating intelligence operations in history.

Thomas Rid’s “Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare” is quite possibly one of the most fascinating books published in some time and one that benefits from a fortuitous time in history. Rid examines active measures, their contexts, their aims, and impacts in incredible detail. Each chapter unveils a campaign cleverly crafted to exploit a target’s weakness, advance interest, and subvert the system to the attacker’s advantage.

At their core, active measures use liberal society’s openness and trust against itself, exploiting those strengths to subvert their foundations. The provenance of a document, the origin of a policy, the source of a movement—all are called into question. Schisms and splits within a society are exploited to advance an interest.

The 2016 Election

The 2016 election was, for most Americans, the first time they had been exposed to or became aware of active measures and foreign interference in our elections. It seems as though for the last four years, COVID-19 aside, nearly anyone talked about was related to or in some way connected to Russian interference in the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In that way, it is probably the most successful active measure campaign of all time. Rid masterfully details the technical ins-and-outs of the Internet Research Agency’s activities and the various hacking outfits of Russian intelligence, even at one point engaging with the “Guccifer”, a Russian intelligence officer posing as the hacker behind the Wikileaks release.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Rid’s analysis is that on the face of it, the Russian influence campaign on social media wasn’t all that effective in terms of impressions, likes, or shares. The post-election analysis suggested that several hundred million views occurred, but as he notes, that figure includes views after the campaign.

What makes the 2016 active measure effort so successful is how it first exploited existing divisions within American civil society—as all successful campaigns do—but second, how it became the dominant subject, subverting the national dialogue to a magnitude well beyond its relative investment.

To say America was and is a divided society is nothing new, but social media has allowed those divisions to become magnified, amplified, and highlighted to degrees never before possible. Indeed, it seems as though the thing that defines us is not what unites us as Americans, but what makes us into distinct political tribes—blue state versus red state, liberal or conservative, Fox News or MSNBC. Russia’s active measures campaign sought to highlight these divisions by feeding each side their preconceived beliefs and notions pitting law enforcement against “Black Lives Matter” activists, Christian against Muslims, etc.

One striking example offered by Rid is how the Internet Research Agency watched on a webcam as internet users went to a spot in Times Square expecting to get free hot dogs…there is truly no such thing as a free lunch.  

Despite the simple fact that the “metrics” of the campaign are fairly limited, its impact punched well above its weight and added to the echo chamber that developed in the United States on Russian interference. From the Mueller Investigation to the Intelligence Community’s report on Russian interference, to the talking heads and pundits, down to our families and friends, all anyone could talk about was what did the Russians do, and did they subvert our democracy. With a fairly (comparably) small investment, the Russians helped erode the bedrock of America, calling into question our trust in institutions, trust in processes, and trust in civil society.

What is real, what is true, and how can you tell the difference sounds like a philosophical argument or debate. That is until you realize that this core question is the central feature of some of the most fascinating intelligence operations in history.

What is real, what is true, and how can you tell the difference sounds like a philosophical argument or debate. That is until you realize that this core question is the central feature of some of the most fascinating intelligence operations in history.

Historical Context

Where Rid is at his strongest, and what is perhaps his greatest contribution, is in contextualizing the history of active measures, disinformation, and political warfare. Undoubtedly, a large portion of the readership will glom onto the chapters focused on the 2016 election and the Russian interference.

These are, without question, absolutely fascinating. Rid’s technical expertise is on full display and the story is riveting. The “troll factory” of the Internet Research Agency in some ways sounds like a Russian version of the “Office” with skiving off employees and low wages. But to focus only on 2016 would be a great disservice.

The stories Rid highlights, the campaigns he explores, and the curtain he lifts is simply fascinating. From the Tanaka Memorial, a forgery purporting to outline Japan’s imperial strategy, to the CIA-sponsored jazz and astrology magazines, to the book wars of the 60s and 70s, Rid offers incredible accounts of active measure campaigns from World War II to today.

The growth of Soviet (and now Russian) active measure efforts is intriguing. The bureaucratic maturation of disinformation to its senior service within the KGB illustrates the sheer importance Moscow placed on this type of campaign. Moreover, the extent to which the Soviet Union leveraged other communist services like East Germany’s Stasi, the Bulgarian Committee for State Security, and others is a noteworthy story in and of itself.

The genius of successful active measures is found in the simple fact that they seize upon existing schisms or fractures of the time within societies, or hot issues, and twist them to their ends. Did an anti-nuclear movement exist in Europe in the 70s and 80s? Of course. Did the Russians seize upon the movement and encourage the ascendancy of messages better suited to their aims of preventing the deployment of next-generation nuclear missiles to Europe from the United States, while presenting their missiles as a fait accompli? Absolutely.

The Generals for Peace movement, a collection of former NATO generals advocating for a nuclear freeze was an inspired active measures campaign aimed towards this effort, but backed by the foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi.

It is safe to say that the reader will be surprised to see a connection between Moscow-backed active measures campaigns and Kayne West. In discussing one of the Soviet Union’s most insidious and long-lasting campaigns, “Operation Denver”, linking the origin of AIDS with U.S. biological weapons programs—not that Moscow started the effort, merely took advantage of and ran with the narrative—Rid notes how the conspiracy theory found its way into a Kanye West lyric from his song “Heard ‘Em Say”… “And I know the government administered AIDS.”

The War of Ideas

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Soviet Union would never be able to win the war of ideas—liberal democracy, open society, and the freedom of speech were too powerful in the face of Marxist-Leninist authoritarianism. But at the time it didn’t matter. For the Soviets, all they had to do was chip away at the façade of the western liberal order, expose the hypocrisies—real or imagined—undermine the credibility of the United States and NATO, and feed into the preconceived notions of target populations.

Whether it was highlighting the appalling treatment of African Americans to African governments and delegations, stirring up anti-Semitism in Germany and abroad, fabricating grand imperialist schemes dictated by western corporations, or today, crafting elaborate false narratives of the CIA directing the Army to direct Ukrainian officers to carry out fake sabotage operations, a portion of the population will seize upon these stories or narratives because they fit their existing worldview.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is a statement early on in the book, that in the run-up to the 2016 election, experts grossly underestimated the ease with which an active measure campaign could occur and in the wake of that campaign, grossly overestimated its impact. And, in turn, by overestimating its impact, it created an echo chamber further magnifying its long-term effect. Suddenly the specter of the Internet Research Agency and Moscow was seen lurking behind every curtain and around every corner.

Measuring Impact

In reading Active Measures one is struck by the creativity of the campaigns undertook. The use of jazz magazines, astrology publications, outright forgeries but ones that are connected enough to reality to shift the narrative in one’s favor, is inspired. It is, of course, near impossible to provide a one to one cost/benefit relationship, and, as Rid notes, it is something that will become even more challenging going forward.

At the same time, one can’t help but wonder what the impact of these campaigns truly was at the end of the day. Rid notes this exceptionally well, discussing the challenge of measuring “success” and oneself not falling victim to one’s disinformation campaign. “The campaign was a total success”; well, of course, the originator of the active measure would say that, wouldn’t they—they better well justify the expense invested in the effort. “While notable, the campaign only had a marginal success”, the target would perhaps argue. Again, they would say that wouldn’t they?

With the 2016 election campaign, it is clear that the impact is not measured in views, clicks, likes, or shares, but in the simple fact that the entirety of the national conversation shifted to the Russian interference itself.

With search engine optimization, “impressions,” and other social media buzzwords and phrases, measuring impact will be exceptionally challenging, but equally in greater demand. The quantification of active measures campaigns will almost certainly be in as much demand as the impact of Instagram’s influencers.

The very thing that makes our society so quintessentially American—free speech, the community of ideas, a spirited and open dialogue—is the very thing that makes it so vulnerable to active measure campaigns.

If there is a weakness in Rid’s book—and it is stretching to find one—it is in the absence of a path forward or recommendations. Indeed, this could be a symptom of spending too much time in Washington DC as the reviewer has, where every document is expected to, having identified the problem, articulate solutions.

Throughout the book Rid notes how, at various times, Congress held public hearings on Soviet active measures, highlighting forgeries and fakes. The FBI for its part diligently pursued counterintelligence cases against Soviet and now Russian intelligence officers involved in these campaigns.

For journalists, the future looks to bring even greater challenges in sifting through what is a genuine leak, a planted story, or outright disinformation. With the demands for a near-constant news cycle or perpetually breaking stories, at a time when newsrooms are being shaved to the bone, journalists are hard-pressed to deep dive into the origin of a story or its provenance. The urge to “break” a story will undoubtedly overtake the need for due diligence and proper vetting.

As Rid notes, during the Edward Snowden leaks, the story of alleged monitoring of the cell phone Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, appeared. At face value, it would seem that the story came from Snowden’s illegal leaks, but it may well have been planted by Moscow to amplify the effect of the core leaks.

For Rid, the prognosis is not optimistic. The barriers to entry for active measure campaigns have greatly reduced with the advent and exponential growth of the Internet and social media. It is far cheaper and easier to wage such a campaign. But, as he notes, these present new challenges. For attackers, active measures are harder to control and harder to assess—gone are the days of a magazine with measured circulation. For the victim, it is more difficult to determine what is an active measure campaign, what is fake news, and then have to determine which is which—it’s even harder to counter.

In addressing the threat of disinformation, one could end up eroding the very thing that makes America, America—the free exchange of ideas and the freedom of speech. In the words of the president, “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” At the same time, we as a country must be aware of the threat posed by, but not exaggerate the impact of, active measures. Here, Rid is an excellent guide and Active Measures is well worth a read.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.