An exposition on THe forEign informatioN mAnipulation and interference​

disinformation

This blog analyses the concept of disinformation and its evolution from 1920 to 2010. 

Author: Anna Pomortseva, European Organisation for Security  Reviewers: Elodie Reuge and Kristian Reeson, European Organisation for Security; Dr Beki Hooper, Dr Richa Kumar and Dr David Wright, Trilateral Research.

Disinformation is not a modern phenomenon and has been around as an intrinsic part of human nature as we tend to privilege information aligning with our belief systems. However, current disinformation is unique in its speed and scale with the use of modern-day technological capabilities. As a term, disinformation refers to “false information that is deliberately passed on with the intention to deceive or otherwise cause harm.” It gained popularity around 2010, largely because of public concern around the spread of disinformation on social media. However, the concept of disinformation did not begin with social media.

While the term “disinformation” was coined in the 20th century, the notion of disinformation, comparable to propaganda, has existed for millennia. It was first mentioned in British and American dictionaries in the 1980s. Previously, it might have appeared as different terms, such as “propaganda,” “fake information,” “fake news,” or “foreign influence.” The word “disinformation” itself may derive from the KGB’s black propaganda department, operated by the Soviet Committee for State Security. During the Cold War, the KGB used disinformation as a strategic tool to undermine trust in Western institutions and to influence public opinion globally. This strategic manipulation of information was intended to create confusion, distrust, and division among the populace of rival nations.

Disinformation, as a deliberate tactic, has long been utilized by states to influence public opinion and manipulate geopolitical dynamics. For example, the researchers Aristides Mahairas and Mikhail Dvilyanski presented in their Cyber Defense Review that the establishment of the Soviet Union’s Disinformation Office under the KBG in 1920 aimed at spreading “dezinformatsiya” to discredit the emigre groups in France by luring emigrant activist back. This early use of disinformation was a strategic effort to sway public opinion and destabilize opponents, thereby extending the Soviet sphere of influence during a period of intense political upheaval and ideological conflict.

With the technological advancements, disinformation transformed in its creation and its  spread. The rise of radio, television, and print media provided new platforms and methods for disseminating false information on a larger scale. Governments and other actors refined their techniques, using propaganda to influence public opinion during World War II, the Cold War, and other significant historical events. The invention of the internet, and then of social media in more recent years, revolutionized the speed and efficiency of information spread. Disinformation, for the first time in history, could be spread to millions of people with a single click.

There is currently a surge in the spread of disinformation. Livingston and Bennett argue that this surge correlates with the dysfunction of democratic institutions, starting with the 2008 global financial crisis. In stable institutional settings, citizens tend to trust their government as a reliable source of information. However, when this trust is undermined by events such as the global financial crisis, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and contentious political elections, the system of public order—represented by citizens, institutions, and both public and private bodies—becomes harder to manage.

In the security sector, disinformation is of great concern, particularly because foreign agents can strategically use it to manipulate the opinions and decisions of other countries’ citizens for their own geopolitical gain. The rise of social media has exacerbated this issue, making foreign interference much easier to execute and much harder to detect and counteract. Generative AI has further enhanced the spread of disinformation on social media platforms, allowing for the rapid creation and dissemination of false information.

In the current climate of political confrontation between the West and Russia, Middle East tensions, and the tensed relationship between China and the US, it is crucial to present fair observations to the public. Disinformation thrives on disorder and uncertainty—and it also creates the same, so there is a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Policymakers must develop strategies to mitigate its impact and foster a more informed and resilient society. Detecting and educating citizens on how to recognize and respond to disinformation is a central goal in the security sector, aiming to prevent manipulation and maintain public order.

Ultimately, understanding the evolution and mechanisms of disinformation is key to combating its spread and influence in our increasingly interconnected world. The challenge lies not only in detecting false information but also in educating the public to critically evaluate the information they consume.

If you would like to find out more about the methods we are developing, you can follow us on LinkedIn or email us at athena.comms@trilateralresearch.com. If you want to stay up to date with the project as it develops, you can sign up to our mailing list here

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