Disinformation (Still) Makes The World Go ‘Round

Ever heard the one about the Pope who helped Hitler? You have? Congratulations, then you are privy to one of the most infamous and successful pieces of Soviet disinformation campaigns. (And if you haven’t or don’t know the story that well, please read Ion Pacepa’s “Disinformation”.)

In a nutshell, disinformation is an act of deliberately spreading false or distorted information with deceptive purpose in mind. Some great examples of disinformation include smear campaigns designed to attack the character of an undesirable person. It could also include planting deliberately misleading facts in the media or passing them to intelligence or law enforcement. Additionally, disinformation campaigns may include bringing in red herrings, largely irrelevant, though not necessarily fabricated, information to mislead the truthseekers and send them down the wrong path.

The Soviet Union was the grand master of this strategy. Its intelligence success lay not so much in spectacular espionage or carefully planned operations, but in muddying waters to the point that even the most discerning scholars and intelligence specialists cannot always differentiate truth from fabrications. (One needs only to think of the Yuri Nosenko story for a great example of such historical obfuscation). Where truth begins, speculation continues, and disinformation ends the story is increasingly more difficult to tell at a period in time when spreading rumors, fearmongering, and defamation have become easier than ever before thanks to the Internet, proliferation of alternative media sources, the short span of public attention, and an aversion to fact-checking.

The past, however, can and should be our guide in understanding what happens when a society’s willful blindness allows disinformation to spread. In the case of the Soviet Union, the balance of blatant, crude, traditional propaganda and the subtleties of disinformation, hijacking of human rights and nationalist movements through seeming sympathy, and discreditation of critics and anyone who saw through these games, like Whittaker Chambers, brought about its domination of the informational sphere. The Soviet Union and its affiliates in the West assumed control of the flow of information in seemingly free countries. They managed to infiltrate various levels of power at different times, from the State Department to Hollywood, the academia, the media, and even the intelligence. And the best part of spreading false stories, non-starters, and grossly exaggerated reports was that no one suspected what you were doing. Information warfare, at the time, was fought at the level of cheese cartoons and primitive animation. Dropping off mountains of leaflets or villifying the enemy over the radio seemed the most obvious way of fighting psych ops, strengthening friends, and demoralizing the enemy.

Yet the Soviet Union accurately perceived that the West’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness – its openness to new ideas and sympathy for non-Western perspectives. Infiltrating such a system did not take grandiose scheming or particular ingenuity. Recruiting “fellow travelers” unfamiliar with the reality of the Soviet system and preying on their perceptions of the flaws in Western society was only a matter of manipulation and time. Paying off some people, blackmailing others, promising all sorts of fantastical things to the rest – and USSR had its ready-made agents of influence in every social circle it wanted to penetrate.

Producing distorted, self-serving, doctored version of the information it wished to see out did not take much. Many in the leftist media sympathized with Communist ideals and were willing to take shortcuts on accuracy or to suppress alternative voices in order to expedite the goals of the Revolution. Academics, particularly after Vietnam, swallowed the bait with gusto, and proceed to preach diluted socialist principles to the impressionable young minds seeing to involve themselves in meaningful causes. Nationalist movements, eager for financial support and validation, likewise welcomed their deceptive overlords with open arms. The Soviet Union consistently used the same strategies in every arena, yet its supporters, allies, and sympathizers refused to acknowledge the obvious = that they were being used, lied to, and that anything they did played into the the hands of an expansionist regime looking to increase its spheres of influence wherever possible. Thus even what its beneficiaries perceived as information, was actually disinformation even for them. They were never meant to become independent self-sufficient entities, despite loud proclamations to the contrary. Nationalist movements were there to serve the Soviet Union’s interests, and would either forever remain pawns in its hands, important agents of influence, and in essence, colonies, from which the Soviet Empire would profit or they would be discarded the moment they were to assert their independence or seek to find their own way.

In pursuit of its vision of global dominance, the Soviet Union spared no efforts in defaming its perceived adversaries — a tactic which led to a self-perpetuating cycle of aggression and stand-offs in what would have otherwise been largely irrelevant and forgotten places. The spread of lies and fabrications about the enemy third-world republics with limited access to alternate sources of impressions about the outside world worked well to ensure that the Soviet Union’s patronage and protection would be welcomed, and that the West would be rebuffed. Spreading virulent anti-Semitic propaganda within the PLO, for instance, ensured that the movement would not seek alliance with Israel, but rather serve Soviet Union’s interest in creating an additional layer of conflict and a wedge issue that would drive and galvanize tensions in the Middle East for decades to come, importing the Soviet Union a leading role with the Arab states and the support for their nationalist ambitions.

Ultimately, the Soviet Union was mired in its own problems and faulty geopolitical ambitions and strategy, but not before causing a lot of damage in international relations, wreaking havoc everywhere it went, and strengthening increasingly radicalized elements in assorted states, that would not go away. Though eventually, the Soviet Union fell apart, its disinformation legacy remained fruitful and multiplied in a variety of contexts. Some of favored Soviet agents, such as Alinsky, forever changed the discourse and methods of left-wing activists in the United States. Later, these methods found their way into the newest fad – an assortment of human rights organizations, heavily influenced by assorted political agenda, and supported, even in Israel, by entities and governments, for whom scruples served no purpose, but disinformation was a sure way of promoting their interests.

This brings us to today. And today disinformation is as widely used as ever before, and with equal success. Let’s not discuss the mud-slinging during the current US presidential election, where mutual accusations of dirty tricks, combined with actual dirty tricks, create an inextricable web of intrigue and misconceptions that are nearly impossible to unravel. Instead, let’s take a look at the several key world players struggling for international dominance – the old, painfully familiar Russia, its eternal frienemy Iran, Iran’s Sunni counterpart Turkey, and the ever-pragmatic China. All of these countries employ disinformation as part of their attempts to legitimize their activities both internally and abroad. They employ official propaganda outlets (RT, Sputnik, PressTV, etc), which brainwash the populations at home, and provide the official points of view along with libelous accusations against their opponents mixed into lethal concoction of editorialization and complete fiction. The lines between official focus on certain issues and the sometimes heavy-handed and sometimes subtle manipulation of the way those issues are presented warrants a more in-depth discussion.

The subtlety and the undertones of various articles or presentations may often get lost on people unfamiliar with the subject matter, and thus conversion of the innocent may occur. More interestingly, however, is the effect such outlets have on those groups that are already predisposed to particular perspectives, though not necessarily for the same reasons as the puppet masters. Prime example would be the way Sputniknews, a propaganda outlet from Russia, has been attacking Turkey after the fallout following Russia’s breach of Turkish air space and the downing of the Russian plane. The attacks have been consistent and increasing in their vehemence against Erdogan’s administration. They have included accusations of the regime’s collusion with ISIS, corruption, plans of interference in Syria, etc. Simultaneously, Sputnik has attacked the West for failure to protect Kurds and to destroy ISIS, while portraying Putin as the great savior of Syria and Kurds, who only has their best interests at heart. The fact that the whole situation most benefits Iran’s and Russia’s plans for Syria, and disregards the mass civilian casualties Russia has been willing to inflict, is what contributes to making this coverage not only bombastic propaganda but actual disinformation.

And some articles appear to have outright fabrications, or at the very least, distortions of the sort that play into the hand of Russia’s current stand on Turkey, but also bring over the minority whose alliance is needed at the moment, over to its side.For those who followed the events in that part of the world closely over the past couple of years, it will come as no surprise that prior to the airplane takedown, Russia had fairly decent relations with Turkey, engaged in trade, had nothing bad to say about Erdogan’s sympathy for ISIS and assorted other terrorist organizations, and had no special interest in Kurds. It is only when Russia needed to show its strength in the face of Erdogan, as well as to promote its own strategy in Syria, that Kurds suddenly found Putin’s media lavishing attention on their cause, expressing sympathy for the plight of their brethren in Turkey, and engaging in closer level of cooperation. The purpose of disinformation here, is not only to make the world more sympathetic towards Russia vis-a-vis Turkey, not only to lend the world’s support to Russia’s position in Syria, but also to appeal to the Kurds in a way that Kurds, already predisposed to be suspicious of West’s apparent disinterest in their mass casualties, would find timely, necessary, and helpful. Never mind that Russia has been conducting indiscriminant carpet bombings, which may well, one of these days accidentally cause mayhem in the Kurdish territories. Never mind that Russia’s close ally in this engagement, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has never supported the idea of a Kurdish state. One of the purposes of disinformation is to give people what they want to see and hear at the time they want or need to see or hear it the most, thus pushing them towards positions that would otherwise remain ambiguous.

The proliferation of assorted lobby groups in the West have made disinformation a matter of fact in terms of appeals to Congress. Still, however, public opinion also matters to politicians in terms of getting election points, so actors seeking additional influence cannot rely on lobby firms alone to get what they want out of friends and adversaries. Thus media and information become important tools for influence seekers. None have been more successful in hijacking Western sympathies than the Khatami-Rafsanjani “Reformist” faction of the Iranian regime. To call a spade a spade, this group of people has been seeking power and influence by any means, and appearing moderate and creating an illusion of opposition in a totalitarian dictatorship has worked well given their intimate knowledge of what the West wants. And what the West wants is friends. Though the majority of Western think tanks have been suspicious of the Islamic Republic’s intentions, vis-a-vis the nuclear deal, and otherwise, the Obama administration, from the outstart was intent in rekindling a relationship with Iran, and balancing out the Sunni influence in the region with a strong Shi’a state. (Though if we are to be completely honest with ourselves here, Obama’s interest was not so much in the balance of interests, as in weakening Saudi Arabia and strengthening Iran = probably due to the potential future benefits he and his supporters would derive out of doing business with this increasingly globalized state).

Furthermore, Westerners are tired of wars, have a weak stomach for aggression and civilian casualties, are increasingly wary of the explosive seemingly unpredictable region that is a drain on resources and attention,  and just want something nice to happen already. Westerners want and like to believe into the inherent goodness of human beings. They want to believe that even the most seemingly evil regimes are not beyond redemptions, that there are good people everywhere, and that we are capable of identifying and working with the right partners. We seem to have this inherent need for willful blindness to the obvious, and an entirely rootless optimism that causes us to overlook important factors foreign to our culture and principles. For that reason, we are easily duped by seemingly subtle, but actually fairly obvious tactics, that the “Reformists” have been employing relentlessly for a number of years. Quite simply, their disinformation campaign has been clearly based off the Soviet line in these situations. Just as Soviet Union did, Iran utilized its poets, artists, filmmakers and others in support of its agenda. Not so with Saudi Arabia, which remains a much more closed society, and has successfully repressed any possibility of cultural criticism. How many non Islamic Saudi thinkers, poets, or musicians are we familiar with? I will skip the awkward pause, and give you the answer: NONE.  Iran, however, understood the importance of appearing a culturally sophisticated country and employing a variety of cultural icons who would benefit from official limelight while presenting the softer sides of Iran to the West. The “Reformists” took this idea a step further and used these cultural figures to promote their own causes and to create an appearance of a more moderate, organized opposition movements with its heroic dissidents = movie stars, directors, and writers = who are frequently arrested and serve some time in prison for going against the hard-line mullahs and IRGC.

They merely gave us what we wanted. They sent in the clowns. They succeeded in misleading us because we wanted to be misled. The disinformation campaign was fought on two fields – affirmatively, through feeding false information about the regime, its goals, and its political status to the gullible Western students, journalists, and experts, as well as by taking over influential positions where these influencers could continue spouting their line – and by suppressing any alternative voices both within Iran and in the West. How did they manage to shut everyone up? Quite easily – by maintaining links to the intelligence, and thus, sources of power in Iran – which allowed for an awkward in between position of being on a short leash, yet having enough power to suppress any actual opposition. In the West, it was also not too hard. Many Iranians with dual citizenships travel frequently to Iran, and should they start speaking out here, they would be under threat of arrest upon arrival in Iran, as would any remaining family members, or even close associates. Seems obvious enough, but additionally, discrediting and dividing remaining opposition served an important purpose as well – no one would be there to open the eyes of the Westerners to the fact that they were being shamelessly defrauded.

How to get to the point where these “Reformists” could pull so much wool everyone’s eyes without anyone suspecting a thing or ever addressing the issue? One, by giving people the kind of message they can live with – optimistic, realistic, hopeful, manageable, and most importantly, presenting a united front. That was done by consistently employing the same strategy of infiltrating key positions in the academia, reading into what the administration wanted to hear, working with the Iranians who could benefit from the status quo, and essentially misrepresenting their own nature in a way that those unfamiliar with Iranian politics and culture could find acceptable and not question. At the same time, aggressive tactics against helpless dissidents and trembling critics would be employed to keep them in a state of uncertainty and fear. For that reason, the “Reformist” activists who took over most well known Iranian human rights organizations, as well as took advantage of key partnerships with journalists and well meaning human rights activists, were able to control who gets to be printed and who does not. Legitimate dissidents would be faced with a wall of science and endless delays and excuses, while pro-Reformist “dissidents” would be vocally supported and lionized.  Worse than that, these activists would not be above engaging in crude but effective smear campaigns and character assassinations of the sort so near and dear to the Soviet hearts.  They would do so in ways that were subtle yet obvious.

Let’s take the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, once a reputable abode of scholars, who took note of sobering dissident stories, and published them for public utility and to assist the dissidents with getting their voices heard. In 2009, Obama, already in the midst of early outreach with Iran, cut funding to human rights organizations, including the Center. Later on, some of the funding was restored – but the structure of organization changed and “Reformist” supporters infiltrated the organization. The current director, Rod Sanjabi, proudly boasted of his work with NIAC and support of the nuclear deal. More importantly, however, is that this organization became known subsequently for suppressing the reports of the dissidents it deemed not Reformist-minded enough, or quite simply, a threat to its own interest. Its penchant for delay tactics made its entire existence an endless disinformation tactic, where voices of only the Rafsanjani faction members were heard. Stories of staunch critics of any form of Islamic government inside the country were deleted (like that of the noted Canadian activist Shabnam Assadolahi) or never printed at all, as in the case of Emad Tayefeh, a young secular liberal filmmaker, currently in Turkey and Kaveh Taheri, a leftist human rights journalist and activist, who has been waiting for his report for over two years now with no result. Numerous conversations with employees of this organization did not result in any progress with respect to their reports. On the contrary, in Kaveh’s case, as one can easily see from the above link, the Director of the Center used diversionary tactics in order not to respond to Kaveh’s inquiry and accusation, and instead to place him in bad light in public, thus discrediting the journalist, stuck without documents in Turkey and under threat of further persecution at any given moment.  Kaveh was approached by the Center for an interview upon his arrival in Turkey.

Why, you may ask, did the Center approach this man who has already been through so much pain and suffering in Iran, to document his story if they had no intention of ever publishing it, and furthermore, turned Kaveh’s request for his own report into a nasty public spectacle? The answer, to those at all familiar with authoritarian agents of influence, is simple. These centers serve as magnets for dissidents, seeking out ideological opponents, and keeping them under control – while not actually doing anything to help and creating various obstacles to keep them from getting any international recognition, resettlement, and help.

These cliques of activists may even threaten particularly naive recent arrivals with the fact that they allegedly have big connections in the United States or other Western countries that can make or break these dissidents’ lives, depending on whether they stay silent and obedient. They keep them in limbo, never quite saying no, but also never actually contributing anything of substance to the public arena. As with the fraudulent journalists, these human rights activists take advantage of the fact that these people, with broken lives, and frequently, broken bones, and even souls, have no one to assist them, no one to represent them, and certainly, no one to stand up for them. They lie, and they mislead, and at the end of the day, they reach their goal – to create a perfect picture of monolithic, homogeneous “opposition” of “moderate” Shi’a Muslims, who are ok with the Islamic Republic, as long as their own guys come to power and make some changes. Those changes, in reality, will be cosmetic at most. As we now know, under Rouhani, the number of political arrests and executions actually went up, particularly after the agreement over the nuclear deal came to be publicly recognized. But this is not what the naive, hopeful Westerners want to hear. Westerners want to hear that in a couple of years, things will start changing for the better. Westerners want to hear that the Rafsanjani clique supports something other than Khameneist level of repression – though, by their silence in the face of arrests, tortures, and executions of non-Reformists (leftisst, secularists, royalists, and religious and ethnic minorities) they actually express their support exactly for the same detestable policies. Westerners want to be lied to. They do not wish to deal with the horrifying fact that the Islamic Republic is one of the most bloodthirsty regimes on the planet, that it spares no one who stands in its way, and has no compulsion over using any number of dirty tricks to get its way.

Westerners want and need hope and possibility of a better future. That is the ultimate goal of disinformation – to provide false hope, an illusion of things being better than they actually are, to pain the regimes engaging in such tactics as somehow beneficent and benevolent. Disinformation peddles lies and illusions. The most successful manipulators know that naive, insecure, soft-hearted people have an inherent need to be liked, supported, loved, and cared for – even if ultimately, the lover, the supporter, the benefactor is also an abusive psychopath. What happens if someone is to stand up to these bullies and expose their methods? Be sure, that the moment anyone starts speaking out they will experience what dissidents in such countries experience on a daily basis – these nasty creatures will sting, they will start smear campaigns, if only in desperation – they will try to portray their critics as incompetent, incredible, and stupid. They will obfuscate, play games, fish for information, and derive sadistic small minded joy from additional delays and denials. However, once the cover is blown the cover is blown. Once you see through disinformation, you can never fall for it again. Once you learn the true nature of those who spread it, you can never believe or trust them, you can never support them, you can only fight them. Once their spell is broken, they have no more power over you. The power, then, is in your hands. And you must use it to expose it, and to free others from this cheap enthralling spell, wake them from their slumber.  Disinformation is a lie, and lie is slavery. Only recognizing truth can give us  freedom, hope, and possibility of change.

In the next article, I will examine why the West is reluctant to engage in disinformation.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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