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Examining Russian Disinformation


When we look at Russian interference in the affairs of other countries, including ours, we should keep in mind how unsurprising it is. They've been doing it for a long time, and they do it well. Thomas Rid is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of International Studies. He always keeps one particular story in his back pocket as an example.

THOMAS RID: The KGB, the Russian intelligence service, started the story in a very professional way, started the rumor that HIV/AIDS is an American bioweapon designed to kill Africans. There is no substance whatsoever to this story. It's wrong. But it was a very powerful myth, if you like, that I think, still today, some people believe is true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thomas Rid testified at one of the Senate Intelligence Committee's first open hearings on the current Russian disinformation campaign. But he stresses how much further back Russian efforts go.

RID: It starts with World War I. They ramp up their decentralization skill and really train that muscle in the '50s, '60s and '70s and really perfect the art in the '80s. The old goal, really, that emerged in the '50s already was to drive wedges into existing cracks, to drive wedges in order to weaken your adversaries - so in this case today, the United States. An old method to do that was to enhance frictions between, for example, ethnic groups.

One example during the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 - there was an operation that the KGB pretended to be the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK. And they published a leaflet, and they sent it to African athletes at the Olympics, threatening them with horribly racist cartoons of Africans hanging from a tree, depicting a lynching. And, of course, that had an effect because there was an existing problem that was actually there, and they tapped into that emotion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's jump to today. Obviously, social media has made this easier, fomenting these divisions. How and when did Russia in your view realize that this was a way to do what they've always been doing, which is to try and act offensively against a perceived rival?

RID: It appears that the Panama Papers story, which broke on the 3 of April...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this was a story that showed a lot of secret accounts - and in the particular case of Russia, were linked to friends of Vladimir Putin's?

RID: Yeah, so, you know, basically, it was - corruption was revealed. And it appears that President Putin believes that Panama Papers was an American operation to smear him. I don't think it was, and we have no evidence that it was. But it appears that Russian leadership wanted to retaliate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that date is when exactly?

RID: So the Panama Papers was on April 3, 2016. Four days later, Putin mentions it in a Q&A with journalists. And another five days later, we see the first logistics preparation for the hack-and-leak operation, the leak operation especially, that then led to the DNC documents being dumped.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've spoken to other experts in this arena, and they say this is an ongoing operation. Obviously, we've seen evidence of that post the election, that there has been activity online. Why are they continuing that?

RID: One, it's something that they've done for a very long time. They have reactivated this old skill, and they still have the muscle memory to get it to work. Social media and the internet more broadly are basically paradise for disinformation. You look at WikiLeaks, and it's basically the dream come true of disinformation operatives. Suddenly, you have a technology that's purpose-built to obfuscate sources and to help dump large volumes of compromising information into the public.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the genie can't be put back in the bottle. I mean, it seems like this technology is out there. It's being used. And even after all the warnings that we have gotten, it continues to be wielded quite effectively. If this is a conflict between Russia and the United States in this arena, as it used to be in the Cold War, what can the United States do to protect itself from this?

RID: I think the United States was caught flat-footed in 2016 when the operation started, the hack-and-leak operation. The election interference started on June 14, the public part of it June 15, actually. And it took the intelligence community a very long time to react to this, until October 7. So I think today a lot of people have their eyes on the ball. They realize election-voting infrastructure is vulnerable. You know, there's this old expression from the Iraq War. IEDs, improvised...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explosive devices.

RID: ...Explosive devices. Yes. There was left of boom, the boom itself and right of boom. And I think the same distinction applies to hacking an election. There are vulnerabilities before the vote, during the vote and after the vote, when the vote is counted, for example. And I think people are beginning to tackle these vulnerabilities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thomas Rid is a professor of strategic studies with Johns Hopkins University. Thanks so much for coming in.

RID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.