The use of fake news by Kremlin backed sources to influence political events in Europe and the United States has been front page news for the last year.
The election of Donald Trump as US president, the Catalan revolt and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom are all deemed to have been influenced by Russian backed online and social media activity.
But for Moscow – this is nothing new. The disinformation and twisting of facts has a longer pedigree in Russia than you might think. The tricks were actually developed in the pre-digital Soviet Union and have simply transferred across to the internet. One story from the 1980s shows how this kind of disinformation has been around for a while.
When AIDS first emerged at the beginning of the 80s, the Soviets decided to implicate the US as the main culprit. The KGB, the Soviet secret police, set about planting stories that would blame American interests for the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus. This kind of disinformation was referred to as “active measures” by the CIA. It was believed the Soviets spent about three billion dollars a year on disinformation initiatives.
In the pre-digital 1980s and before, the Soviets used TV, radio, newspapers, embassies and supposed experts to carry the false lines. To be successful, active measures had to include a germ of truth – that was exaggerated and distorted. The stories also had to tap into widespread public anxieties and suspicions. So with AIDS, why not exploit fears about secret labs developing germ warfare experiments and people being secretly and unknowingly tested with deadly viruses?
On 17 July, 1983, a letter appeared in a small circulation Indian newspaper called The Patriot alleging that the AIDS virus was a result of Pentagon backed tests to develop new biological weapons. Just to make sure the Indian readership of this newspaper sat up and took notice, the letter added that these tests were being moved to Pakistan, secretly of course. And there would be a danger of this toxic virus spreading across the border to India.
This was all laced with true facts about AIDS and the US biological weapons program. And the Soviets always made sure to pepper falsifications with lots of verifiable data – that would convince the end user it must be true.
How did this letter get published so easily? Well, the KGB had set up The Patriot in 1967 for the purpose of circulating pro-Soviet stories in India. Why did the Soviets circulate such an immoral story? Because they were coming under attack for their own biological weapons research!
Soviet news sources now began to circulate the story quoting the letter from a mysterious American scientist in….The Patriot. Now all that was required was an unwitting agent within the scientific community to endorse the allegation. And the KGB couldn’t believe its luck when a retired East German biophysicist Professor Jakob Segal became an enthusiastic proponent of the lie.
Actually, luck had nothing to do with it – the Soviets got their opposite numbers in the East German secret police, the Stasi, to reach out to Segal and brief him in a friendly and informal manner. He was not to feel used and manipulated. Instead, he would buy into the story himself – of his own volition.
Segal was a committed communist. That said, it’s unlikely he believed that he was simply a tool of the Kremlin. All the evidence points to an intelligent man who became completely convinced that the United States had indeed unleashed the AIDS virus from one of its laboratories. In a pamphlet called AIDS – its nature and origin, Segal rejected the idea that AIDS had started in Africa and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the US.
How did the virus spread to the LGBT community? Segal claimed that US scientists had experimented on gay prisoners. They had then spread it through unprotected sex with partners on the scene in New York and San Francisco.
By placing the origin of AIDS in the US, Segal’s views were enthusiastically taken up by sections of the African media. Yet there were clearly African victims – so how had they been infected? A notorious variant on the Soviet lie was developed in a Nigerian newspaper in 1988 that the Americans had tested dodgy polio vaccines on poor Africans in the 1960s.
The Soviets pushed their line through every offline medium: newspapers, radio, TV, handbills, rumours, etc. By 1987, it had popped up in over 200 publications in 25 languages. Segal was given virtually uncritical coverage in British newspapers. North Korea chipped in with a scare campaign that US soldiers in South Korea were spreading AIDS while broadcasts in Turkish from within the USSR said US bases in Turkey were a health risk.
But…the USSR began to have second thoughts. Cases of HIV/AIDS were appearing within the Soviet Union and scientists there openly argued against the Segal view. Gradually, the Kremlin realised that any political capital to be made out of this disinformation campaign was heavily outweighed by the growing public health problem within their own society. The Soviets needed to be sharing information with scientists in the west to combat the virus instead of trashing them with this AIDS fabrication.
So on this occasion, the story was allowed to quietly die.