Every national government, like every major corporation, has to make a concerted effort to control perceptions—both internally and externally. For a government, internal communications are often ripe with propaganda. Whether it’s encouraging you to support a war effort, steering you toward a specific political party, or trying to convince you that the people in power have your best interests at heart, an integral part of domestic communications is swaying the populace toward the policies of the powerful. It’s not as evil as it sounds—it’s literally the basis of our political system.
OK, so maybe it is as evil as it sounds, then.
But what about external communications? How do you sway a populace in another country—one that’s already subjected to the propaganda of its own complex political infrastructure—to see things your way? Even more difficult, how do you manage the perceptions of people that live in a nation that sees you as the enemy? Russia has found itself facing these very questions time and time again when it comes to controlling American opinions. That’s right, Russia didn’t just start attempting to manipulate Americans in the 2016 election. International misinformation campaigns are as historically Russian as apple pie is American—and they’ve been successful.
What was Russia’s answer to those difficult questions? Easy. Convince the American people that their own government is the real bad guy.
The JFK assassination
Everyone has heard a conspiracy theory tied to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For those who were alive at the time, the day JFK was shot would be permanently branded into their consciousness by tragedy, but it didn’t take long for some people to start worrying about how the details of the case added up, and to start looking for alternate, more malicious theories to explain the horrible events that took place in Dallas that fateful day. Soon, people began tossing about ideas involving any number of America’s three-letter agencies, accusing the CIA or FBI, in particular, of having something to do with the death of the president.
Theories involving Soviet involvement are somehow less popular, despite the fact that his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, taught himself the Russian language and spent time within the communist state. The Soviets were America’s biggest boogeymen at the time, so it seems a bit odd that people would look first to the agencies tasked with protecting our nation when grasping for a malicious secret, rather than the country that prompted school kids to practice hiding under their desks in case of a world-ending nuclear attack…but it turns out there’s a pretty good reason for that.
In 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist who served in the foreign intelligence service for more than 30 years, defected to the U.K., and he brought the Mitrokhin Archive with him. This archive of handwritten notes contained documents that laid out a number of the Soviet Union’s clandestine intelligence operations from all over the globe. Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian, would use the information contained in the archive to write two books, “Sword and the Shield” (1999) and “The KGB and the Battle for the Third World” (2005).
The information contained within the archive was bounced against what British and American intelligence agencies were able to confirm, prompting the FBI, the U.S. Air Force, the American Historical Review, and the British Parliament to confirm the archive’s authenticity.
One of the most interesting portions of the archive contained the elaborate plot to spread misinformation about Kennedy’s death within the United States. Now, that isn’t to say that the Soviets invented all of the conspiracy theories people continue to cling to today. As the archive points out, the Soviets were spurred on by America’s ability to produce their own craziness. The Soviets just worked to encourage it.
The Soviets even went so far as to use samples of Oswald’s writing to produce a forged letter from him to a known CIA operative, discussing a secret meeting they would both attend days before the assassination. The forgery was so good, even Oswald’s wife confirmed it to be his handwriting. The New York Times had three writing experts confirm its authenticity, adding credibility to every tinfoil hat-wearing homeless guy’s belief that it was the CIA, not a lone gunman, that killed their beloved president.
The real JFK conspiracy was how the Soviets capitalized on the tragedy to sow seeds of doubt between the American people and their government—seeds that continue to germinate in the form of 9/11 “truthers” to this day.
HIV/AIDS as a weapon
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, my fears weren’t really tied to nuclear annihilation the way they may have been for the older generation at the time. Instead, popular culture taught me to be terrified of a different kind of death: AIDS.
Even as a kid, I heard rumors about where HIV came from. Some kids said it came from someone having sex with a monkey, but the weirder kids that chimed in had an equally crazy assessment, one that would gradually take hold in the minds of many Americans: The government invented it to reduce homosexual and African American populations.
In 2005, the Rand Corporation conducted a poll in which they asked around 500 African Americans what they thought about HIV and AIDS. Just about half admitted to believing it was a man-made weapon created in U.S. government laboratories, with around 12 percent citing the CIA specifically. Another study conducted that same year by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found a similar result. Fifteen percent even went so far as to say that they believed AIDS was a form of government-sponsored genocide targeting the African-American community.
Although the United States has plenty to be ashamed of in the way it has treated African Americans throughout its history, it still seems like a stretch to assume that the government was targeting American citizens with a biological weapon. So where did this concept come from?
You guessed it. In 1992, former Russian Intelligence Chief and Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov admitted openly that the Soviet Union had worked to plant that idea in the minds of Americans. They had dubbed the covert misinformation campaign “Operation Infektion,” because a bad joke isn’t lost on the kinds of folks that do this sort of work.
They began by planting stories in international news outlets about HIV/AIDS outbreaks occurring in a number of nations, connecting those outbreaks to fictional U.S. biological weapons tests. They used media outlets that they secretly controlled (not unlike they do today with sites like Sputnik and RT) to then publish additional stories about HIV, citing the previous stories about American biological weapons within the articles published by seemingly unrelated news organizations. The Soviets even went so far as to include messages about the American government creating AIDS in pornography intended for Western distribution, because anything worth doing is worth doing in all of the craziest ways you can imagine. One prominent German biophysicist even published a paper about America “engineering” AIDS as a result of the Soviets efforts.
But the craziest thing about the story is that it worked.
Image courtesy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/PBS