Operation InfeKtion: How Russia Perfected the Art of War | NYT Opinion

Operation InfeKtion: How Russia Perfected the Art of War | NYT Opinion
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    The thing about a virus is it doesn't destroy you head on.
    Instead, it brings you down from the inside,
    turning your own cells into enemies.
    This story is about a virus —
    A virus created five decades ago by a government
    to slowly and methodically poison its enemies.
    But it's not a biological virus.
    It's, uh, more like a political one.
    And chances are, you've already been infected.
    And yes, it's also a story about this guy
    and a term he likes to think he invented.
    "Really, the word — I think one of the greatest of all
    terms I've come up with is "fake."
    I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years,
    but I've never noticed it."
    It's only been around for a few years,
    but you're probably as sick of it as we are.
    Well, the thing is, it's actually really old.
    It's just that once it went by a very different name.
    - [russian]
    If you feel like you don't know who to trust anymore,
    this might be the thing that's making you feel that way.
    If you feel exhausted by the news, this could be why.
    And if you're sick of it all and you just
    want to stop caring, then we really need to talk.
    O.K. So to start, let's go back to July 1983,
    and all the way over here —
    New Delhi, India.
    This is when a remarkable story appears in a newspaper
    called The Patriot.
    It claims the H.I.V. virus was secretly created
    by U.S. government scientists as a weapon
    to kill African-Americans and gay people.
    It even names a facility,
    Fort Detrick in Maryland, where the virus was supposed
    to have been concocted.
    It's a crazy allegation printed in a small newspaper.
    No big deal, right?
    But fast-forward just a couple of years,
    and look what's happening.
    The story is spreading all over Africa.
    A scientific report is even published
    by two East German biologists who
    say they can prove AIDS is made in the U.S.A.
    All these articles are from just a few months
    at the end of 1986.
    And then, somehow, it ends up here.
    "A Soviet military publication claims the virus
    that causes AIDS leaked from a U.S. Army laboratory
    conducting experiments in biological warfare."
    That's Dan Rather reading a fake news story
    to millions of unwitting Americans on national TV.
    But don't be too hard on Dan.
    This was one of the greatest cons ever carried out
    on a global scale.
    And we're going to show you how it was pulled off.
    But first, let me introduce you
    to a few authentic grifters.
    Stashed away on some old videotapes,
    we found interviews with a bunch of ex-spies.
    This guy, Ladislav Bittman. This guy,
    Stanislav Levchenko, and this guy, Yuri Bezmenov.
    They all worked for the KGB during the Cold War
    before defecting to the U.S.
    And it's thanks to them that we
    know so much about one of the KGB's most
    secretive departments.
    "Only about 15 percent of time, money and manpower
    is spent on espionage as such.
    The other 85 percent is a slow process
    which we call either ideological subversion
    or active measures,
    [speaking Russian], in the language of the KGB."
    So "active measures," it's a euphemism
    for, well, bullshit.
    But not just any bullshit — the most strategic,
    masterful, toxic bullshit you could possibly imagine,
    made with one goal.
    "To change the perception of reality of every American
    to such an extent that despite of the abundance
    of information, no one is able to come
    to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending
    themselves, their families, their community,
    and their country."
    "Within the KGB is a department
    that specializes in planting false stories and forged
    We know it was run from Department A,
    right at the top of the KGB, and it had
    a multimillion-dollar budget.
    "At least 15,000 people who in the Soviet Union
    and outside of the Soviet Union
    are involved in that kind of actions
    on a regular, daily basis."
    You heard that, right?
    15,000 people. That's more than
    the entire staff at the State Department after 9/11.
    Now, these days, KGB defectors who are still breathing
    are a little hard to come by.
    But we tracked down one to a small town in Massachusetts.
    "Well, my original name was Ladislav Bittman."
    These days he goes by Larry Martin.
    He's 87 years old.
    "It's a collage — "
    He likes to paint.
    " — with Putin.
    And he was boasting about his riches."
    And of course he has a girlfriend down in Florida.
    "Hello, hello.
    I am still busy."
    But back in the day, he was the director
    at one of the most legendary active measures outposts
    reporting to Moscow.
    And when it comes to bullshit, Larry's done it all.
    His first ever con?
    "It was an operation to establish a whorehouse in Germany."
    That was to catch politicians in compromising situations.
    And once, he even planted a treasure chest of Nazi papers
    at the bottom of a lake.
    "Now original Nazi documents."
    That was to stir-up anti-German sentiments.
    Larry's expertise, though, was a special kind of bullshit.
    Something called —
    Basically, it means deliberately distorted
    information that is secretly leaked into the communication
    process in order to deceive and manipulate."
    All right, just to avoid any confusion,
    let's pause here quickly to unpack
    all these different flavors of bullshit.
    Now at the top, you've got your active measures, right?
    These are basically any kind of covert operations
    against another country short of starting a war.
    This includes forgeries and even kidnappings.
    But disinformation was the heart and soul of it
    for the KGB.
    You might be thinking, that's just
    a fancy word for propaganda, but it's not.
    Propaganda tries to convince us to believe something.
    Disinformation is a highly organized attempt
    to deceive us into believing it.
    Today, everyone calls this fake news, but that's
    become such a loaded term —
    no thanks to this guy —
    that it's basically useless.
    Anyway, we'll get on to him later.
    All right, [dinging] let's get back to it.
    Disinformation — it was such a big deal
    that every KGB agent was required
    to spend 25 percent of their time coming up
    with ideas for false stories.
    And in a year-end review —
    yes, KGB agents had year-end reviews, too —
    every agent was evaluated on —
    "How many proposals for disinformation operations
    he submitted."
    "You've gotten to be fairly good at this
    when you were with Czech intelligence, didn't you?"
    "Unfortunately, I have to admit, yes."
    Just how good were these guys?
    Well, that rumor that the C.I.A. shot J.F.K.?
    The story about how the C.I.A. tried to assassinate
    Pope John Paul II?
    And the one about rich Americans
    buying poor kids from Latin America
    to harvest their organs?
    But as the first cases of AIDS spread fear around the world,
    the KGB saw an opportunity for their biggest con yet.
    All right, so let's go back to 1983,
    and we're going to show you what really happened here.
    So remember this story started with an article
    in The Patriot newspaper?
    "'AIDS, the deadly mysterious disease which has caused
    havoc in the US, is believed to be the result
    of the Pentagon's experiments to develop new and dangerous
    biological weapons.'
    There's the crux of the crap."
    It's time you met Kathleen Bailey and Todd Leventhal.
    They were part of a U.S. government team
    that first pieced this story together back in the '80s.
    "This is just the perfect example of a very effective
    disinformation campaign."
    Well, almost perfect.
    There are some obvious grammar mistakes here
    which tip off experts like Kathleen.
    Like in English we say flu virus, not the virus flu.
    "This was written by a non-native English speaker,
    and it probably was written by a Russian-language speaker."
    "They said, oh, the Indian newspaper,
    The Patriot — which we knew the KGB uses
    as an English-language newspaper as a way to get
    stories out."
    This was a classic Soviet tactic.
    Oleg Kalugin is another ex-KGB agent we found.
    He told us they'd always try and place the story —
    " — in a third-world country."
    — somewhere like —
    " — say, in India, Thailand — "
    Where journalists could be easily tricked —
    " — Japan — "
    — or bribed.
    "That gave the story acceptability
    when nobody was searching about the origin."
    The KGB let the story go quiet for a couple of years
    after India.
    But with AIDS still making scary headlines in '85,
    they revived it, this time in a prominent Moscow newspaper.
    And the source for this story?
    You guessed it.
    It's brilliant, really.
    They've repeated the story but concealed their hand,
    distancing themselves from the lie they started.
    So we're now into 1986, and the KGB
    wants to add gravitas to this lie.
    So they look around for a scientist,
    a human face, someone who could back up
    the lie with data.
    And, no joke, this is the dude they found.
    This is Dr. Jakob Segal.
    Remember I said the report had two authors?
    Well, here comes the co-author now.
    It's his wife, Lilli.
    Believe it or not, these two wrote that report
    that claimed to have evidence AIDS was created
    in a U.S. government lab.
    "This scientific gobbledygook.
    And, you know, you read this stuff,
    and who can understand it?
    But it purports to be proof."
    The thing is, it worked.
    The KGB made sure the Segal report
    was read by journalists all over Africa.
    And they kept on pushing it until it went, well, viral.
    It's appeared in 200 reports in 80 countries.
    Even The Daily Express in London runs with it.
    And finally, on March 30, 1987,
    the KGB hits the jackpot.
    "A Soviet military publication claims the virus
    that causes AIDS leaked."
    This campaign had a KGB code name.
    They called it, Operation Infection.
    "Good afternoon.
    I would like to begin the introduction to this report
    by stating that the US image abroad is damaged,
    and U.S. foreign policy is complicated
    by disinformation."
    "Wow. Huh. That's a half a lifetime ago."
    "This was handed out at a demonstration."
    "I was so angry that they accused the United States
    of creating the AIDS virus because
    I knew how effective that was going
    to be as a tool against us.
    And it angered me deeply.
    And it empowered me.
    It motivated me.
    It fired me up.
    I was pissed."
    Operation Infection — one of the most
    audacious and successful fake news stories ever created.
    And for America, the impact was toxic.
    "Foreign governments actually believed
    that the U.S. was creating this biological warfare agent.
    For them to think that damages their view of the United
    States not only as a culture, but it
    taints all of our policies.
    It's in the backs of their minds
    every time they discuss anything with us."
    Now, with so much at stake, you
    might be wondering what the U.S. response to all this was.
    Well, you're watching it.
    "The primary origin of disinformation about
    the United States abroad is the Soviet Union."
    Kathleen and Todd were both part
    of something called the Active Measures Working Group.
    Nicknamed Truth Squads, it was a team
    that tracked and tried to expose Soviet disinformation.
    "Everybody was working part time on the issue."
    "It was not funded lavishly."
    "We all sat around a table once every week or two.
    And those who could volunteer their time to come in did."
    Yup, that's right.
    In the face of thousands of KGB agents
    with a multimillion-dollar budget,
    we had some part-time workers propping up
    poster boards on C-SPAN.
    "I had seen that it wasn't very well attended.
    And I remember that now that I see this.
    But it did have an impact."
    They didn't have the budget or the time,
    but they were motivated by truth
    and did what they could, responding to the fire
    hose of falsehoods, calling them out one lie at a time.
    "So they were working at this day, after day, after day.
    I think we were kept busy just knocking these things down."
    But repeated exposure didn't just
    lead to a couple of article corrections.
    Kathleen's report exposing and debunking Operation Infection
    made its way right to the top of the Kremlin,
    into the hands of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
    Secretary of State George Shultz was in the room
    when Gorby read it.
    "And you're spreading all this bum dope
    about AIDS and the United States pushing it.
    I said, come on.
    So we had a good, heated exchange.
    And there's nothing wrong with that."
    And days later, Gorbachev did the unthinkable.
    He bowed to pressure, apologized
    to President Ronald Reagan, and promised
    to stop spreading the fake AIDS story.
    "When we in the Active Measures Working Group
    heard about Gorbachev having read the report — that's cool.
    That is really cool.
    He couldn't deny what we put in the report,
    and he didn't deny it."
    "Yet, it was the military who prevented the hard-line coup
    from succeeding."
    "And then came the year 1989, 1990,
    when the Communist regime collapsed.
    Nobody believed that the Russians would continue using
    this weapon in the future."
    "Our government's view was, problem solved."
    As the Soviet Union was collapsing,
    Todd wrote this final report for Congress,
    a warning that would fall on deaf ears.
    "'The formidable Soviet active measures and disinformation
    apparatus, which has manipulated world opinion
    for decades, has disintegrated.
    But many large fragments of their apparatus continue
    to exist and function, for the most part now under Russian
    rather than Soviet sponsorship.'"
    Don't forget, KGB agents spent 25 percent of their time creating
    disinformation, and that was true of the entire agency
    during the Cold War, including a young agent
    from St. Petersburg who enrolled into the KGB
    in 1975, and he would one day go on to greater things.
    May 21st, 2016, in Houston, Tex.
    This is an anti-Islam protest outside a mosque
    in the heart of downtown.
    "Our neighbors were slaughtered by these — "
    And literally across the street, a counter-rally.
    "Pack it up!"
    "Take it home!"
    But not a single person here — on either side of the street —
    realizes they've been duped.
    They've been brought here — same place, same time —
    by two separate Facebook events,
    posts which we now know both came
    from the same source, thousands of miles
    outside Texas, in Russia.
    " — prevented the hardline coup from succeeding."
    When the Soviet Union fell in 1991,
    pretty much everyone assumed that its disinformation
    apparatus died too.
    "Our government's view was, problem solved.
    No more active measures, no more disinformation."
    It also meant the end of Vladimir Putin's KGB career.
    But within a decade, he was back.
    First, as head of the renamed KGB — the FSB — and not long
    after, as the president.
    "Putin is a child of the KGB.
    He spent years in the KGB being evaluated every year,
    according to the active measures and disinformation
    he produced."
    As soon as he took office, Putin got right to work.
    His first few years were spent testing disinformation
    inside Russia on Russians.
    But then he took it overseas, launching
    Russia Today, a global English-language news
    It was soon available in millions of American homes,
    with a memorable slogan and familiar faces.
    "I've been hearing about it, I've been reading about it."
    Conflicts with Georgia and then the Ukraine
    gave Putin a chance to practice disinformation
    on a bigger stage.
    And he also started funding something called the Internet
    Research Agency, slowly putting
    his pieces into place.
    But Putin isn't sowing all this chaos just for fun.
    All along, he's had a single goal.
    See, in terms of population and G.D.P.,
    Russia is actually a pretty small country,
    especially when compared to a unified Western world.
    But Putin knows that if he can pit the West against itself
    and break up our alliances, Russia
    is suddenly much more powerful and can
    take on other countries one by one.
    He's trying to reshape the world order in his favor,
    and disinformation is one of his favorite tools.
    Now, to do this, he's using a carefully crafted game
    plan — a playbook of sorts — that he
    deploys again and again.
    "It's magnificent in its conception."
    "That playbook is designed to achieve a change
    in the behavior, perception, and viewpoints
    of foreign audiences and governments."
    Both Todd Leventhal and Kathleen Bailey
    fought Moscow's disinformation more than 30 years ago
    for the U.S. government.
    "They are good."
    And if you thought convincing millions of people
    that the U.S. government created AIDS as a biological weapon
    was audacious, wait till you see what they're up to today.
    But first we need to take a super-quick timeout here,
    because there's an awkward question you
    might be asking yourself.
    "Have we ever tried to meddle in other countries"
    "Mm — [mumbling]"
    Yes, America is no stranger to interfering
    in other countries.
    "The U.S. has attempted to influence elections
    around the world for years."
    But when it comes to disinformation,
    Russia is in a class by itself with unmatched scale
    and sophistication.
    And unlike the U.S., with its myriad of investigations,
    Russia does it without even a shred
    of public or historical accountability.
    "We must never allow the end to justify the means."
    Time in.
    Now, do you remember Pizzagate,
    the one about Hillary Clinton running a child sex
    ring from the basement of a pizza parlor?
    It was everywhere just a few weeks
    before the 2016 election, and even inspired
    a believer to turn up at the restaurant with a gun.
    "A shooting at a D.C. pizza restaurant
    that was tied to a fake news story — "
    But that whole story was a classic Soviet-style con,
    straight out of the playbook.
    "Look, there's the playbook, and it's
    been a playbook that's been around for a very long time."
    "And so they're using that tool box
    in order to try and get what they want."
    "So it's a textbook thing that they've
    known about for 20, 30 years and actually taught
    as part of their tradecraft."
    So this textbook, tool box, playbook
    thing, whatever you want to call it,
    the experts we spoke to kept talking
    about it on these terms.
    Ed Lucas has studied Russia for decades,
    first as a journalist and now as a disinformation analyst.
    Dr. Claire Wardle is an authority
    on internet verification at Harvard.
    She's been tracking online lies since 2008.
    And this is Clint Watts, former F.B.I. and military.
    He's been shouting from the rooftops about disinformation
    for years.
    With the help of our experts, not to mention
    our spies and our detectives, we've
    reverse engineered the seven commandments
    of Russian disinformation, a time-tested
    step-by-step recipe to creating the perfect fake news story.
    So rule No. 1, look for cracks
    in the target society, social divisions you can exploit
    and wedge open.
    "They look for economic, social, demographic,
    linguistic, regional, ethnic,
    any source of division."
    "And how can we actually emphasize those divisions
    and actually make people lose trust in one another."
    "So it's like being a doctor.
    You have to understand a patient.
    Oh, he's got a bad knee, he's got a sore hip,
    he's got a disease that causes weakness here.
    But instead of trying to make it better,
    we try to make everything worse."
    Rule 2, create a big bold lie, something so outrageous
    no one could possibly believe it was made up.
    "Also, so egregious that if they
    could get people to believe it,
    it would be totally damning."
    Rule No. 3, wrap that lie around a kernel of truth.
    "Propaganda is most effective when there's
    a little bit of truth in it."
    "The most successful operations of that kind
    contain some truthful element so that the disinformation
    is eventually accepted as a whole."
    Rule 4, conceal your hand, making
    it seem like the story came from somewhere else.
    "Nobody was searching about the origin, how it started,
    who published the story first.
    This was, of course, a method then
    repeated again and again."
    Rule No. 5, find yourself a useful idiot.
    "Useful idiots are essentially people they would identify
    who unwittingly will take the Kremlin's message
    and push it into the target audience,
    the foreign population they want to reach."
    "They were idiots in that they didn't see what was obvious,
    and they were very useful."
    And what happens when those pesky truth seekers try
    and debunk your fake story?
    Well, Rule 6 has you covered.
    "Deny, deny, deny.
    Even if the truth is obvious, deny, deny, deny."
    "They will bluster their way out of it
    because they've realized that our attention
    span is quite short."
    And finally — and this is a really important one —
    play the long game.
    "Russia's willing to play a long game, put
    large resources into things that may not bear fruit
    for many years to come."
    "The accumulation of these operations
    over a long period of time will result
    in major political impact."
    "And if you think about it as a drip on a rock,
    today the drip doesn't have any impact.
    If that drip hits for a long period of time, years,
    there will be a hole in the rock.
    And they know that."
    These seven simple rules were a powerful weapon
    for the KGB, and they applied them again
    and again and again.
    But then something came along which
    changed the game entirely.
    "The internet has brought anonymity, ubiquity
    and immediacy in combinations that we
    didn't have in the era of telex machines and shortwave
    radio and rotary printing presses."
    "During the time of my involvement,
    one operation can reach maybe 100,000 people,
    if the paper had a nice circulation.
    Now that's ridiculous."
    And with the internet's help, Russia
    has scored some big wins.
    The explosion at the Louisiana chemical plant
    that was caused by ISIS?
    The deadly phosphorus leak in American Falls, Idaho?
    And the list goes on and on.
    There's the claim MH17 was shot down
    by Ukrainian fighter jets. The thousands of Americans who
    supposedly petitioned to return Alaska to Russia.
    There's the queen warning of a third world
    war. The Syrian massacre that never happened. Sweden
    adopting the Islamic State flag. A made-up attack
    on a US Air Force base. Roy Moore, Brexit, immigration.
    And in stories that will sound eerily familiar,
    there's the claims the U.S. was behind the Ebola
    outbreak and the Zika virus.
    From Black Lives Matter to the gun lobby,
    wherever there's been a division in society,
    Russia has used disinformation to pry it open,
    sowing chaos across the political spectrum.
    And now that you know the rules of the playbook,
    you can see how effective a weapon it really is.
    Pizza, anyone?
    To understand what really happened here,
    we need to go back to March 19, 2016, and just here,
    actually, Washington, D.C.
    This is the time and the place where hackers
    got into the Gmail account of Clinton's campaign
    chair, John Podesta.
    "So the Podesta emails were the information
    that powered the Pizzagate conspiracy."
    And you can guess who was behind the hacking
    of those emails.
    "Tied to the Russian intelligence services."
    Big surprise.
    In fact, we now know the hacker worked directly
    for the G.R.U., Russia's C.I.A.
    The divisive 2016 election was the perfect crack
    to wedge open with disinformation.
    And, well, the lies don't get much bigger
    than a presidential candidate running a child sex
    ring from the basement of a pizza parlor.
    The playbook says you should mix little bits of truth
    into your lie, and John Podesta's emails
    provided loads of factual details
    to weave into the story.
    Comet Pizza's a real place, and there
    were emails between Podesta and the restaurant's owner.
    Rule 4 says you need a way to conceal your hand.
    Well, six months later —
    "WikiLeaks posted more than 2,000 additional emails
    from Hillary Clinton's campaign chair,
    John Podesta."
    Using WikiLeaks was a genius idea,
    helping to keep its hackers in the shadows.
    Meanwhile, Russia continues to push the story
    into fringe social media accounts, all
    run from the Internet Research Agency.
    "Over 50,000 accounts communicated automatically
    and in synchronization we've never
    seen in the history of social media."
    Meanwhile, there were no shortage of useful idiots
    who were duped into backing up the lie.
    "Pizzagate is real.
    The question is, how real is it?
    What is it?
    Something's going on.
    Something's being covered up."
    Now, the story should be laughably easy to debunk.
    For a start, the pizza restaurant in question
    doesn't even have a basement.
    But there's a rule for that.
    "Deny, deny, deny."
    So when intelligence exposed Russia's
    WikiLeaks connection, WikiLeaks and RT
    knew exactly what to do.
    "We can say that the Russian government is not
    the source."
    "Despite there being no evidence to prove this,"
    Isn't it nice to have your own TV channel?
    "If I had to rewrite RT's slogan,
    it'd be question more, answer less."
    "80 percent of their coverage is actually excellent coverage.
    And because 80 percent of the time they're
    doing quality journalism, when 20 percent of the time they're not,
    then it enables people to say, well, no, look at this.
    We are journalists.
    We have policies.
    We know what we're doing."
    With days to go before the election,
    the story had taken on a life of its own —
    the magnificent long game beginning to pay off.
    That said, even Russia couldn't
    have imagined what came next.
    "A shooting in a D.C. pizza restaurant — "
    Two insane lies, 30 years apart.
    One story took six years to take hold,
    the other barely six months.
    But they both share the same DNA,
    the same unmistakable trace of active measures,
    and the same goal —
    to shift the world's balance of power
    by turning Western countries on themselves.
    We're at war, and we've got absolutely no idea.
    "Those were Russians."
    "They were not Russians.
    I don't go with the Russians."
    And we're facing a sophisticated weapon designed
    to bring down democracies from the inside,
    just as the KGB envisioned all those years ago.
    "Fighting war on the battlefield
    is the most stupid and primitive way
    of fighting a war.
    The highest art of warfare is not to fight at all
    but to subvert anything of value
    in your enemy's country —
    Put white against black, old against young,
    I don't know, wealth against poor, and so on.
    Doesn't matter.
    As long as it disturbs society,
    as long as it cuts the moral fiber of the nation,
    it's good."
    "The virus that causes AIDS leaked — "
    " — an assault rifle targeting a Washington, DC spot."
    "And then you just take this country, when everything
    is subverted, when the country is disoriented and confused,
    when it is demoralized and then destabilized,
    then the crisis will come."
    - [chuckling]
    It's time to fight back against disinformation.
    But these are the people leading the charge.
    "Can you please explain to us the difference
    between a bot and a troll?"
    "Is Twitter the same as what you do?"
    "You can look at a lot of gray here
    and realize that my technology capabilities are
    very shallow."
    Not very encouraging, is it?
    But this isn't the first time the U.S. government's been
    asleep at the wheel on this.
    "Mr. Allen, how can we compete with
    this Communist propaganda?"
    We know now that Russia has been attacking the U.S.
    like this since the '50s.
    But did you know that for the first 30 years of that,
    no one in the U.S. government took it seriously?
    "There was not a very high awareness
    of disinformation or active measures.
    So there was a tendency to want
    to keep the waters smooth."
    "They use all the means of communication."
    The thinking went, if you respond to a fake story,
    you dignify it.
    "I don't think we grasped it intellectually."
    Then, in 1980, a new cowboy rode into town.
    "Ronald Reagan, his point of view
    was, we ought to be bold.
    We ought to tell the truth.
    Truth ought to be put front and center
    and that if somebody were speaking the opposite,
    we ought to expose it."
    "Presidents are very important."
    "To the danger of espionage is added active measures,
    designed to subvert and deceive,
    to disinform the public opinion upon which
    our democracies are built."
    Reagan created the Active Measures Working Group.
    You know, the government Truth Squad which Kathleen
    Bailey led from 1985 to '87.
    "I came out the problem believing
    that I could grab the tiger by the tail
    and whirl it over my head.
    I was going to win."
    They brought down the AIDS myth, Operation Infection,
    one of the greatest disinformation campaigns ever
    created, proof that the best defense
    against disinformation is exposing it.
    Well, actually, it's not that simple.
    " — and I know the government administer AIDS — "
    Decades later, surveys have found
    that millions of Americans still
    believe AIDS was cooked up by the U.S. government.
    The lie lives on in our music, on TV —
    "My parents believe the government created H.I.V.
    in a lab and the C.I.A. spread it in the prisons
    to kill blacks and gays."
    In comics, on YouTube, even in churches.
    " — weaponize pathogens to hit selected groups of humans."
    Fighting disinformation, it's like a nightmarish game
    of whack-a-mole. No matter what you do,
    the lies just keep popping up.
    "biochemists creating ethno-specific
    epidemics, injecting the public in clinics, then when — "
    All of which makes us wonder, do we really
    stand a chance against disinformation?
    Or is this a virus that can never be cured?
    "It ain't little green monkeys.
    It's little white honkies, crossing bovine leukemia — "
    Mark Twain once said, "A lie is halfway around the world
    before the truth has even got its boots on."
    Except even that's a lie.
    That quote's been attributed to loads of people.
    But whoever said it was right.
    We know now empirically that lies
    do have an unfair advantage over the truth,
    spreading further and faster, gaining traction
    every time they're repeated.
    "Repetition is part of the game.
    And the more a bad story is repeated — repeated,
    repeated, repeated — the more real it becomes to everyone."
    But Twain's "around the world" part is also true.
    This is a global problem.
    In Iran, the government's deploying their own version
    of the Soviet playbook, calling their operation
    "nefak," which is Farsi for "discord."
    Myanmar's been brewing up endless conspiracy theories
    to justify ethnic cleansing.
    And in Pakistan, the establishment
    sees C.I.A. plots everywhere.
    That last one even ensnared one of our own journalists
    here at The New York Times, an experience that was
    so upsetting to him, it led him to make the film
    you're watching right now.
    Isn't that right, Adam?
    "That's right.
    I was living in Pakistan.
    Al Qaeda accused me of being part
    of a C.I.A. anti-Islam plot.
    See, conspiracy theories are kind of
    like a national sport over there.
    And even today, I still get blasted on Twitter
    for being either a C.I.A. spy or a dead terrorist."
    Wait, a dead terrorist?
    "One of the country's most popular TV talk
    show hosts accused me of being one
    of the attackers in a school massacre
    that murdered dozens of children.
    Here I am, dead in the Pakistani press.
    But this stuff is kind of normal over there.
    I mean, it happens all the time.
    What I never imagined is that we'd
    be seeing this kind of toxic disinformation
    here at home in the States."
    So is there anything we can do?
    "I think so.
    I also used to live in Eastern Europe.
    Estonia, Ukraine, they lag behind us in many things.
    But when it comes to fighting disinformation,
    there's so much we can learn from them."
    For instance, if you turn on the TV in Latvia
    on a Sunday night, you'll see this.
    A primetime show all about Russian lies.
    In the same slot where we'd be watching
    "American Idol," folks in Riga are tuning in to watch
    the latest disinformation be systematically described,
    debunked, and destroyed.
    And it's not just Latvia.
    Ukraine has a bilingual stop- fake-news show broadcast
    by dozens of TV stations.
    "Disinformation never stops, and neither do we.
    Welcome to 'Stop Fake,' the place where — "
    The Czech government monitors disinformation
    as a form of terrorism.
    Lithuania has thousands of volunteers cyber-warriors —
    they call them elves —
    who relentlessly troll the Russian trolls.
    And in Estonia there's a kind of digital national guard,
    thousands of volunteers who, among other things,
    fight disinformation.
    "The countries that have been exposed to this the longest
    are the best at dealing with it.
    They see things we don't see.
    They smell things we don't smell."
    Meanwhile, back here, we're just
    learning the hard way what happens
    when we don't fight back.
    "The Pizzagate conspiracy — no journalist
    was going to actively debunk that,
    because they didn't think that anybody truly believed that.
    We now know that they did.
    And actually, it seems that we should
    have done more coverage during the election, that there
    was a rumor circulating, and let's debunk it."
    So this is the prescription, right — fact checking,
    media literacy, engage citizens rallying
    around good journalism to create a culture
    of critical thinking.
    Ah, who are we kidding?
    Media literacy is great and all,
    but we need something way stronger.
    And for that, we've got to talk about the responsibility
    of this guy.
    "Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube —
    they were designed primarily by a group
    of quite young people, mostly men, on the West Coast
    of the U.S. in Silicon Valley."
    "I think there's a lot of people who went into the tech
    industry because they were very, very good at tech, not
    because they were good at civics or political science."
    "And they really believed that they were building technology
    that would connect the world and would actually
    be a positive force in society."
    Well, naivete eventually morphed into flat-out denial.
    "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth — "
    The platforms have spent years shamefully
    ignoring information warfare.
    "The ads and posts we are here today to discuss — "
    "The number of accounts we could link to Russia — "
    "Relatively limited — "
    "Comparatively small — "
    "Were a very small fraction of the overall content
    on Facebook."
    "There's still a level of astonishing kind
    of political and cultural illiteracy, where they think
    connecting people is good."
    So what exactly are they supposed to be doing?
    Well, there's no silver bullet,
    but there are a ton of ideas for things
    they could be doing, from improving transparency —
    "About who's paying for posts."
    — to fighting anonymity —
    "Is there a real person behind this account?
    Is there a real person behind this platform?"
    — to helping us know whether we can trust what
    we're reading —
    "A nutritional label on sources in your Google Search
    — and getting serious about punishing violators.
    "We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility,
    and that was a big mistake.
    And it was my mistake.
    And I'm sorry."
    Now, companies like Facebook have recently
    been taking some baby steps along these lines.
    But don't get your hopes up.
    Social media platforms are dependent
    on the emotional hyperpartisan stories that
    make great disinformation.
    The bottom line, their business models
    are riddled with perverse incentives.
    "If I'm Twitter and I have shareholders to keep happy
    and I have to go back to my shareholders
    and tell them how many active monthly users I have,
    and the truth is that 22 percent of them are not human,
    I don't actually want to tell my shareholders that.
    I want to give them a lovely big number that
    means that we still have value and that we still
    make money."
    And that's the problem.
    Asking just isn't enough.
    We've got to force the platforms to change.
    And that means regulation.
    That's right.
    It's time for Uncle Sam to get in the game.
    The problem is, Uncle Sam knows
    how to mobilize when we get attacked like this.
    But when the warfare is digital, well, you know —
    "There are days when I wonder if Facebook friends is
    a little misstated.
    It doesn't seem like I have those every single day."
    "How many data categories do you
    store, does Facebook store?"
    "Senator, can you clarify what you mean by data — "
    These are the people who are supposed to be protecting you
    from information warfare.
    "Do you store any?"
    "Senator, I'm not actually sure what
    that is referring to."
    "Yeah, so I've testified five times to the Senate,
    either about terrorism or Russian active measures.
    There is a very diverse level of understanding
    of social media."
    "You have people say, well, yeah,
    because my 13-year-old son, you
    should see how he uses it."
    "Now, my son Charlie, who's 13,
    is dedicated to Instagram.
    So — "
    "I feel very fortunate that I have not
    had to go to the House to testify.
    I think it would be a giant waste of time."
    "To disinform the public opinion upon which
    our democracies are built."
    History tells us that the fight against disinformation
    starts with strong leadership.
    And I've got to tell you, we've
    been let down on this for a long time.
    Now, I'm not talking about him just yet.
    I'm talking about him.
    "Americans and Russians share common interests
    that form a basis for cooperation."
    "It was really hard to get the Obama
    administration to take Russia seriously as an issue."
    "We could have looked at sanctions earlier.
    We could have talked about measured cyber
    counterattacks, or even diplomatic negotiations.
    But that didn't really happen.
    The Obama administration kind of got played into a box
    by recognizing it too late."
    Obama actually signed an executive order
    to counter foreign disinformation,
    but he was so obsessed with the threat
    from ISIS, its mandates only covered terror groups.
    State actors, like Russia, were
    free to carry on unimpeded.
    To his credit, Trump actually reversed this.
    And some people in his administration
    are talking tough.
    "Russia is known for its disinformation campaigns."
    But the higher up you go, let's just
    say the less enthusiasm there is.
    "The point is, if it's their intention to interfere,
    they're going to find ways to do that.
    We can take steps we can take, but this is something
    that once they decide they're going to do it
    it's very difficult to preempt it."
    So what has been done?
    Well, Congress put aside $120 million
    to fund our defense against disinformation.
    The Trump administration sat on it silently for 18 months.
    And when they did release it, they gave just a third of it.
    Not much of a counterstrike, is it?
    I mean, where's the urgency here?
    These Russian attacks were first plotted way back
    in early 2014, and we're only now coming
    to grips with them.
    "We are still playing catch up from a long way behind.
    We are looking in the rear view mirror,
    getting less bad at working out
    what Russia just did to us.
    We're still not looking through the windshield
    to find out what's happening right now
    and what's going to be happening next."
    This is one of the great unsolved policy
    questions of our time.
    A functioning government would at least
    come together to publish full detailed reports of all
    these attacks.
    But the problem isn't just our lackluster governments.
    It's actually much scarier than that.
    Because now the threat is coming
    from inside the White House.
    It's finally time to meet President Disinformation.
    Donald Trump is a one-man wrecking crew for the truth.
    And he knows all the moves.
    First, there's Trump, the denier.
    And when it comes to disinformation,
    he even denies we're being attacked.
    "And if it is Russia —
    which it's probably not.
    Nobody knows who it is."
    Never mind what his own officials say.
    "Manipulation, outright lies."
    "Literally upped their game to the point
    where it's having a significant impact."
    Then there's Trump, the useful idiot.
    This is a man who's never met a conspiracy
    theory he wouldn't tweet.
    "Why doesn't he show his birth certificate?
    You look at what's happening last night in Sweden —
    The same person votes many times.
    You probably heard about that.
    They always like to say, oh, that's a conspiracy theory —
    not a conspiracy theory, folks."
    We also know he shared stories originally planted
    by the Kremlin.
    I mean, not even the KGB could have dreamed up
    a useful idiot as prominent and powerful
    as Trump and his administration.
    And then there's Trump, the disinformation natural.
    He doesn't just regurgitate this stuff.
    He invents his own.
    "It was the biggest electoral college
    win since Ronald Reagan.
    I said, wait a minute.
    There's a lot of wiretapping being talked about.
    We've signed more bills —
    and I'm talking about through the legislature —
    than any president.
    They actually liberate towns.
    They liberate towns.
    We have become an energy exporter for the first time
    ever just recently."
    It's weird, but this is somehow
    worse than the Cold War.
    Back then, it was just us versus them.
    But now, it's us versus them and us versus us.
    Here's the thing about democracies.
    They can't function unless we all agree
    on a basic set of facts.
    We can't debate anything — health care, immigration,
    gun control —
    unless we're aligned, left and right,
    about what is actually true.
    Disinformation pollutes those waters, confusing us,
    so we end up debating facts instead of
    discovering solutions.
    And as we spiral downwards together,
    our adversaries applauds from behind the curtain.
    And here's the kicker.
    The things that make democracy good —
    living in an open society with a free press
    and political diversity —
    those are the things, weirdly, that make us vulnerable.
    Any country with an authoritarian leader
    and limited freedom of speech, they're
    the ones with the advantage right now,
    which kind of raises the question that maybe
    only history can answer.
    Can the good guys ever win?
    "You absolutely never win, never."
    "This problem is going to get a lot worse before it
    gets any better."
    "The next few years are going to be worse
    than the last few years."
    "And they will continue using it,
    regardless of what we say in the discussion,
    regardless of the outcome of the discussion
    and investigation."
    "But we will not always be losers in this game.
    There will be victories here and there.
    It's only when we quit the game, quit trying
    to expose them, that we lose.
    As long as we can expose them, they're losing."
    It's like an exhausting, never-ending game
    of whack-a-mole that we've got no choice but to play.
    We've got to fight disinformation
    as best we can, whenever and wherever
    it rears its ugly head.
    We're in this for the long haul,
    whether we like it or not.
    "This was the largest audience to ever witness
    an inauguration, period."
    "The mysterious murder of former
    D.N.C. staffer, Seth Rich."
    "And there were the masterminds
    behind the Bowling Green massacre."
    "So apparently he was assassinated at 4
    in the morning."
    "The president still strongly feels
    that there was a large amount of voter fraud."
    "The 9/11 hijackers are alive and well."
    "People who are behaving like actors."
    "The murder rate in our country
    is the highest its been in 47 years."
    "You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack
    by terrorists."
    "This is the greatest overreach and the greatest
    abuse of power."
    "This video that you linked to appears to be a hoax."
    "All we did was put out what he had on his internet."
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