The Old and New Techniques of Dezinformatsjia

Photo: AP

Disinformation – or what the Soviet intelligence services called Dezinformatsjia – is at the origin of the phenomenon that we currently define – with oversimplification – fake news, spread to support or not voters’ or consumers’ specific choices, obviously both nationally and internationally. Nowadays, the “political market” is globalized exactly like the market of goods and services and hence all the tools available to a country and to its political elite need to be used.

Certainly, the intelligence agencies’ room for maneuver is currently much wider than it was at the time of the Cold War. Hence, many mass manipulation techniques, which in the past were specifically political, are now also commercial, behavioral, cultural, scientific or pseudo-scientific. They are closely interwoven, and the electoral or political manipulation operations often stem from commercial marketing techniques.

Dezinformatsjia, however, is always a “weak to strong” operation, i.e., a series of strategic and information actions that try to prevent the use of force by those who are tactically superior.

Those who have not enough missiles targeted against the enemy, or have not the maximum military efficiency, faces the opponent with psychological and propaganda techniques, which cost less and – by their very nature – do not trigger a conventional military countermove by the enemy against whom they are targeted. However, they can trigger an equal and opposite disinformation by the target country.

These are all “ironic” operations, in the etymological sense of the word. Irony comes from the Greek word eironèia, meaning “fiction, dissimulation, or to say the opposite of what you think.”

Just think of the great demonstrations against “Euromissiles” in the early 1980s – not foreseen by the Soviets, which put a strain on the huge intelligence network of the Warsaw Pact in Europe – or of the myth of the opening to dissent in the era of Khrushchev’s “thaw.” Or just think – as maintained by Anatoly Golytsin, the former KGB officer who defected to the USA – of the schisms between the USSR and Mao’s China, or of the transformation of the Komintern into Kominform, in which Yugoslavia secretly participated as well, even after the famous schism between Tito and Stalin.

According to Golytsin, a senior KGB officer, all the divisions within the Communist world were a huge and very long sequence of fake news. Westerners never believed him, but the predictive power of his book, New Lies for Old, published in the USA in 1984, is still extraordinary.

He foresaw the “liberalization” of the Soviet system and even its collapse, so as to be later reborn in a new guise. All true, until today.

But what is really Dezinformatsjia, i.e., the technique that is at the origin of fake news and of all current psycho-political operations?

For the KGB experts, disinformation is linked to the criterion of “active operations” (aktivinyye meropriatia), i.e., the manipulation and control of mass media; the actual disinformation, both at written and oral levels; the use of Communist parties or covert organizations. In this case, just think of all the organizations “for peace” or for friendship “among peoples,” as well as of radio and TV broadcasts.

“Active measures” even include kompromat, i.e., the “compromising material,” as well as damaging and disparaging information about Western agents or politicians’ involvement in sexual, illegal or drug-related affairs. This information is collected and used strategically across all domains, with a view to creating negative publicity.

An active kind of measure that we have recently seen at work against President Trump. Nevertheless, it has been implemented by his fellow countrymen, who, however, do not seem to be very skillful in the art of desinformatsjia.

It should be recalled that currently, a fundamental technique is to manipulate the opponents’ economies or to support guerrilla groups or terrorist organizations.

Manipulation of economies through statistical data or governments’ “covert” operations on stock markets, while support for terrorist groups, even those far from the state ideology, is provided through an intermediary that may be another state or a large company, or through bilateral financial transactions outside markets.

The Red Brigades, for example, initially trained in Czechoslovakia by passing through the Austrian woods at the border, owned by the Feltrinelli family.

When the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was found dead near an Enel trellis in Segrate, but long before the Italian police knew who had died on that trellis, the Head of the KGB center in Milan hastily went to report to the Soviet embassy in Rome.

Many friendly and enemy states, however, used right-wing and left-wing terrorism against the Italian Republic. The goal was clear: to destroy or annihilate a dangerous economic competitor, especially in Africa and in the East.

Dezinformatsjia, however, was institutionally targeted against what the Soviets called “the primary enemy,” namely the United States.

Under Stalin’s power – who was dialectically “superseded” by Khrushchev, always in contrast with true innovators – “active measures” also included assassinations.

I do not rule out at all that, in particular cases, this tradition has been recovered even after the death of the so-called “little father.”

As we can see, “active measures” – namely Dezinformatsjia – still has much to do with the contemporary world.

If we only talk about fake news, we cannot understand why it is spread, while if it is interpreted in the framework of the old – but still topical – disinformation strategy, everything gets clearer.

In the Soviet regulations of the 1960s, every KGB foreign branch had to devote at least 25% of its forces to “active measures,” while each residence had an officer specifically trained at Dezinformatsjia.

It should be noted that, in 1980, the CIA estimated the total cost of “active measures” at $3 billion, at least.

It was the real struggle for hegemony that the USSR was fighting, considering that the missile, nuclear and conventional balance of the two forces on the field did not permit a real military clash.

However, the result of the final clash would have been very uncertain.

Nowadays, every state produces fake news, as well as ad hoc opinion movements, and spreads agents of influence in the media, in universities, businesses, and governments.

Hence, the globalization of disinformation, not simply fake news, is the phenomenon with which we really have to deal.

During the Cold War, the Soviet apparatus spread the fake news of the CIA and FBI involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while the East German apparatus often spread news of Western politicians being members of Nazi hierarchies or about the pro-Nazi sympathies of Pope Pius XI.

It should also be noted that Andropov, who was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in 1982, had been the Head of the KGB First Chief Directorate, precisely the one that coordinated and invented all “active measures.”

At the time, Western newspapers were filled with news about Andropov as a “modernizer,” a reader of the American literature classics and a jazz lover.

Was it Dezinformatsjia? Obviously so, but no one answered that question, thus raising expectations – among the NATO European Member States’ peoples – about a sure “democratization” of the Soviet Union in the future.

Andropov, however, secretly believed that the United States would unleash a nuclear war in the short term against the USSR. Hence, this was the beginning of a long series of Dezinformatsjia hard operations right inside the United States.

Nevertheless, following the rules of “active measures,” they were not specifically targeted against the US military and political system, but against other targets apparently unrelated to the primary aim: the US responsibility for the (impossible) creation of the AIDS virus or – as the Soviet Dezinformatsjia always claimed – the “unclear” role played by CIA and FBI in the assassinations of J.F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or even the death of Elvis Presley.

A specific product for each public.

Hence, a fake storytelling is created – not a series of objective data – around a theme that is instead real, so as to reach the goal of a generic defamation of the primary enemy, where there is always a “bad guy” (obviously the US government and its agencies) and a “good guy,” that is the American people that must be freed from the bad guy holding them prisoner.

According to the theories of the great Russian scholar of myths, tribal rituals, folktales, and fairy storytelling, V.I. Propp, whose text “Morphology of the Folktale” was published in Leningrad in 1928, this is exactly one of the primary narrative elements of the folktale.

As in the case of KGB “active operations,” Propp’s scheme envisages some phases of construction of the myth or of the folktale: 1) the initial balance, i.e., the phase in which everything is devoid of dangers; 2) the breaking of the initial balance and hence the creation of the motive for the subsequent action; 3) the vicissitudes of the hero, who is the one who “restores order” after the natural twists and turns; 4) the restoration of balance, namely the conclusion.

Hence, the mythical and fairy mechanism concerns the archetypes of the human psyche, as described by Carl Gustav Jung.

This is the reason why, despite their evident counterfactuality, propaganda constructions work well and last well beyond the time for which they were thought and designed.

Active operations are modeled on the natural parameters with which the human mind works. When well done, said operations do not use abstract theories, cultural or sectoral models. They speak to everyone because they act on the unconscious.

It is no coincidence that currently the archetypal branding – i.e., the marketing system based on the 12 Jungian archetypes – is increasingly widespread.

It was created in 2001, several years after the fall of the USSR and in the phase in which the New World Order was strengthening.

Propp’s four elements work just as an “active measure,” based on four categories: 1) mastery and stability; 2) belonging; 3) change; and 4) independence.

It is easy to verify how these four categories of modern marketing (and of the archetypal tale) fully apply both to disinformation operations, which can often favor one of the four elements compared to the others, and to the actual political marketing.

Hence, politics, intelligence services’ propaganda, and marketing currently work on the basis of the same deep psychic mechanisms.

In the Soviet tradition, there is also a certain tendency to use Ivan Pavlov's psychology in the field of intelligence.

Pavlov developed the theory of “conditioned reflexes,” i.e., the psychic mechanism that is produced by a conditioning stimulus.

The experiment of the dog and the bell is well-known and needs no elaboration. It should be noted, however, that the conditioned reflex is triggered precisely when the food announced by the sound of the bell is no longer there, while the dog shows all the typical reactions of the animal in the presence of food.

Here, the “active measures” of disinformation create a conditioned reflex by connecting a country, a leader or a political choice to something universally negative which, however, has nothing to do with the primary object.

This connection becomes instinctive, automatic, obvious, and almost unconscious.

Just think of the automatism – once again artfully created – between the Italian intelligence services and the so-called “strategy of tension.”

The goal of perfect Dezinformatsjia is to create a Pavlovian conditioned reflex that works immediately and naturally as a Freudian “complex.”

Nevertheless, with a view to being successful, every fake news or message that is part of an “active measure” must have at least a grain of truth – otherwise, it immediately appears as an opinion or ideology, which is soon rejected by the subject.

This means they can be discussed and maybe accepted rationally, but the “active measure” must mimic an immediate, natural and pre-rational reaction. Otherwise it becomes traditional propaganda or part of an open debate, exactly the opposite of what it has to do.

Hence, the message must be processed with extreme care to reach the goal of any disinformation operation: to convey in the public “enemy” and/or in its ruling classes a message that – when well done – fits perfectly and unknowingly into the communication mechanisms of the “enemy.”

Western experts call this procedure “weaponization of information” or “fabrication of information.”

Nowadays, however, all information is distorted by the manipulation about the aims it must achieve – just think of the Italian and European debate on immigration from Africa.

Hence, also the West uses the weaponization of information – but, probably, it still uses it badly.

Hence we will never witness the end of fake news – which have always existed – but simply its refinement as real natural “states of mind” or, more often, as immediate reactions, such as those connected to a conditioned reflex artfully created.

In this case, there is no longer a difference between reality and imagination.

Fake news as fiction, we could say.

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