Disseminated by social media and platforms such as Google (as well as more traditional media outlets), disinformation (or black propaganda or ‘fake news’) has become a significant feature in the complex landscape of modern international politics in recent years. With the modernisation of media and mass communication, covert online techniques have been used to influence all kinds of democratic processes, including elections. But disinformation campaigns have been around for some time, well before the era of bots and trolls and algorithmically curated news feeds.
The rationale of disinformation is simple – it’s false information that is spread deliberately to deceive and sow discord among particular communities or sections of communities.
Back in the 1980s, before the paradigm shift of computer-related technology, Operation INFEKTION was a notorious disinformation campaign run by the KGB. Aimed at fostering anti-American feeling around the globe, the Russian secret service agency placed articles in newspapers suggesting that HIV had been created as a bioweapon in the US Army’s biological weapons research facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
In May 1983, when AIDS was first attributed to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), there was obviously a lot of serious conjecture concerning its origin. Articles published throughout the Soviet Union and other communist countries focused on the research of Jakob Segal, a Russian-born German biology professor, who published a pamphlet entitled ‘AIDS—Its Nature and Origin’, in which he and his co-authors claimed that HIV had been created by splicing together two other viruses and had subsequently been spread via experiments on prison inmates.
Conspiracy theories quickly flourished implicating the US government’s role in the AIDS crisis and some of them continue to be repeated today. In 2005, a study revealed that 15% of African Americans believed that AIDS was a form of genocide against black people. Other AIDS conspiracy theories have abounded and have since been discredited by the mainstream scientific community.
In some ways, you could say the story foreshadows the current debate surrounding the origin of COVID-19.