Protecting Lies With Disinformation

It is sometimes believed that the ability to lie confers an advantage. “Disinformation is false information deliberately spread to deceive people… Some consider it a loan translation of the Russian dezinformatsiya, derived from the title of a KGB black propaganda department.” The name itself is wrapped in deception. “Defector Ion Mihai Pacepa claimed Joseph Stalin coined the term, giving it a French-sounding name to claim it had a Western origin.” Here’s an example: “Operation INFEKTION was a Soviet disinformation campaign to influence opinion that the U.S. invented AIDS. The U.S. did not actively counter disinformation until 1980, when a fake document reported that the U.S. supported apartheid.” George Orwell described its power through party member O’Brien in 1984.

‘We are the priests of power,’ he said. … ‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by  degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation–anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.’

This might give the impression that lying in and of itself was a valuable skill. But if so, at the end of the ’90s, the biggest problem of modern history must have been: why didn’t the Communists win? How did an empire founded on such clever messaging, ceaseless agitation, and unbounded ruthlessness crumble so suddenly? The intuitive answer came in one word. You can choose your own word, but it’s the same idea with a different spelling. Communism wasn’t defeated by men alone. It was crushed by the operation of something external, call it “reality,” or call it “the laws of nature.” Somehow lying alone was insufficient. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Winston Churchill’s famous remark on the subject, “in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” was that he said it to Joseph Stalin at the Tehran conference with the missing element supplied. But Stalin missed the point.

Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.

The center of the thought is that truth is essential. It is to be surrounded by a fog aimed at misleading the adversary, but the lies are secondary. For example, in the recent Kharkiv offensive in the Ukraine war, much of Kyiv’s advantage was due to military deception, which needed a truth to protect. “While Russian focus was primarily on the south, #Ukraine planned & launched an operation in the north.” And while the plan was designed to fool the adversary, it was paradoxically prepared with the goal of reducing self-deception. “Under (Zelensky’s) orders, the Ukrainian military devised a plan to launch a broad assault across the south to reclaim Kherson and cut off Mariupol from the Russian force in the east.” Would it succeed, or would they just be kidding themselves? The first step to fooling the Russians was to un-fool themselves.

The Ukrainian generals and American officials believed that such a large-scale attack would incur immense casualties and fail to quickly retake large amounts of territory. … Time was of the essence, U.S. and Ukrainian officials believed. To mount an effective counterattack, the Ukrainians needed to move before the first snow, when Russian President Vladimir Putin would be able to use his control of gas supplies to pressure Europe. …

Instead of one large offensive, the Ukrainian military proposed two. One, in Kherson, would most likely take days or weeks before any dramatic results because of the concentration of Russian troops. The other was planned for near Kharkiv. Together, Britain, the United States and Ukraine conducted an assessment of the new plan, trying to war game it once more. This time, officials from the three countries agreed it would work.

Actually, at that point, the U.S., UK, and Ukraine only thought it would work. Some of the critical information (the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns) would be missing from the plan, however carefully prepared. But at least it would not deliberately contain wishful thinking and blatant falsehood. It would consist, insofar as possible, of the precious truth surrounded by a bodyguard of lies. By contrast, the Russian information system, in retrospect, was poisoned by its own narrative, contaminated by its own talking points. The lies were set to guarding yet more lies and nobody knew the truth anymore.

While reading Russian soldiers’ personal accounts from published intercepted phone calls and personal accounts… I’ve seen one point mentioned repeatedly: Russian army officers frequently lie to their superiors about their unit’s status. In his now-famous memoir, the former paratrooper Pavel Filatyev complains bitterly of “the system of photo reports [фотоотчетами] that is now so widespread in the army, when the command hides problems”.  …

As in armies everywhere, Russian officers are expected to write reports to their superiors on their unit’s status. In Russia’s case, reports appear to be supplemented with photos taken by the officers or the men under their command, depicting their activities… Personal accounts from Russian soldiers describe photo reports being used to fake training exercises, presumably to accompany false reports of compliance with orders… so that they can steal the resources budgeted for them…

One army doctor, Pavel Zelenkov, found that in his unit, “All medicine was reduced to window dressing. Before a field trip [i.e. exercise] you get dressed up like for a masquerade, you get photographed – a report is sent to command, everyone returns to their places.”

Once fake reporting had been normalized, what commander would dare report less than the inflated readiness? The little lies eventually grew into big, life-threatening ones.

Even more dangerously – for all involved – photo reports were reportedly used in Frolkin’s 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade to support commanders’ false claims of combat successes. This endangered soldiers lives directly, to their understandable disgust.

In one instance, according to a soldier who spoke to the independent Russian military outlet iStories, commanders forced soldiers to pose for photographic reports against a background of combat vehicles. They would sweep up the dust around them while shells landed nearby.

In short, the Kremlin disinformed themselves. There were so many lies that they lost track of the truth and instead of fooling the adversary, they fooled themselves. The reader may be thinking: thank Gaia that this can’t happen in America. But as Larry Summers notes, the Biden administration is not above sweeping up the dust around them while shells land nearby. “Today’s CPI report confirms that the US has a serious inflation problem. Core inflation is higher this month than for the quarter, higher this quarter than last quarter, higher this half of the year than the previous one, and higher last year than the previous one. Median inflation used to be a favorite indicator for team transitory. This month it was at its highest ever reading. It is highly implausible that inflation will fall to 2 percent without unemployment exceeding 4.5 percent. Yet this is the most pessimistic view among 19 members of the FOMC. Dangerous group think.”

Watching groupthink grow is like watching a split screen, one showing the narrative, the other depicting what used to be called the news. Is the border secure or broken? Are we in the midst of a Biden boom or troubling economic times? Gradually, the screen with the narrative grows bigger and the screen with the facts shrinks to a single pixel — and winks out. Eventually, the U.S. government becomes like the Russian army.

Impressive, isn’t it? In O’Brien’s memorable words: “Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?” We can airbrush away inflation and redefine recession. But the lesson of the 20th century is that doublethink doesn’t matter. Unless there is truth and solid achievement under the messaging, disinformation is just noise, and failure is both inevitable and unexpected.

Books: The Storm Before the Calm: America’s discord, the coming crisis of the 2020s, and the triumph beyond by George Friedman. Friedman’s analysis covers the size and scope of the federal government, the future of marriage and the social contract, shifts in corporate structures, and new cultural trends based on longer life expectancies. The result is a riveting account of current circumstances and the political upheavals that will pave the way for a new era of American prosperity and power.

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