Opinion: U.S., Pay Attention; Russian Misinformation Strategy Seeks to Confound, Not Convince

Rather than take a side, these campaigns create decision paralysis that leads to inaction”

As war envelops Ukraine, Russian sources have strived to create a miasma of disinformation about the invasion. Among ample efforts to distort reality, the Russian Ministry of Defense asserted recently that U.S.-backed labs in Ukraine have been developing bioweapons. Outlandish as this falsehood may be, Fox’s Tucker Carlson gave it credence by arguing that the U.S. government’s response was a “cover-up.”

As the Russia-Ukraine war intensifies, so too will the flow of disinformation. This is an age-old strategy Russia has long history of employing, and a playbook that others, most notably anti-vaccine activists, have borrowed from liberally. Yet, rather than focusing effort on convincing people of a falsehood, the Russian strategy takes a tack reminiscent of a strategy long employed by the tobacco industry: to sow so much doubt about what is true that it sends people into decision paralysis. Faced with a cacophony of wild and conflicting claims, people do nothing, unsure of what is right.

Despite constituting only a small part of our media diet, disinformation campaigns, in our digital world, can be devastatingly effective. We are intrinsically biased towards information that is emotionally visceral. We afford more weight to content that frightens or outrages us, with the ability to induce anger serving as the single greatest predictor of whether content goes viral. This propels the most visceral, divisive narratives to the forefront of discourse, creating a sound and fury of passionately debated claims and counter claims. In that atmosphere, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain what to believe, and easy to abandon the task of discerning the truth.

The goal, as KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin elucidated in 1998, was “not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America….”. Operation INFEKTION, a mid-1980s clandestine effort to spread the myth that AIDS was a CIA-designed bioweapon, was but one infamous exemplar. While utterly fictious, it resonated with communities ravaged by HIV and neglected by the callous indifference of the Reagan administration. Despite Russian intelligence taking responsibility for this lie in 1992, the legacy of AIDS denialism persists to this day worldwide. 

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