The English word disinformation comes from the Russian dezinformatsiya, a Soviet-era coinage describing one of the tactics of information warfare. Rid’s “Active Measures” is a colorful history of modern Russian disinformation. From the beginning, he writes, the Russians saw disinformation as an attack against open societies, “against a liberal epistemic order.” It was meant to erode the foundations of democracy by undermining trust and calling into question what was a fact and what was not.
The brilliant insight of Russian disinformation is that it needn’t be false — the most effective disinformation usually contains more than a kernel of truth. Sometimes it can be a single bogus paragraph inserted into an otherwise genuine document.
In the 1980s, the Russians popularized the false claim that H.I.V. was created in a U.S. lab in Ft. Detrick, Md. But that canard required bribing obscure journalists in remote countries and took decades to reach a wide audience. Now, a young Russian troll in St. Petersburg can create a false persona and push out dozens of tweets in an hour at almost no cost with almost no consequence — and reach millions of people in an hour. The internet, Rid writes, was optimized for mass disinformation.