Vera Tolz and Stephen Hutchings of the University of Manchester reflect on the history of the term ‘disinformation’ and what initiatives to counter disinformation today can learn from the term’s usage and implications over the years.
In his 1988 book Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord argued that the term disinformation is deployed by those seeking to dismiss as disinformation any criticism of itself, even if the criticism is underpinned by verifiable facts. Today, Russia’s international broadcaster RT, which is widely seen in the West as a primary Kremlin disinformation tool, similarly claims that for the EU leadership, ‘[d]isinformation – is the use of real facts for promoting political ideas that run counter to those of the European Union’.
The apparent similarity between Debord’s and RT’s accounts of how the term disinformation is applied by dominant powers is often used to critique postmodernism’s bracketing out the notion of ‘truth’, in turn facilitating what is referred to currently as the ‘information disorder’. In fact, Debord, we contend, had something different in mind. In order to accept his account, one does not have to believe that, because information is always somehow manipulated, all such manipulations distort the truth to an identical degree. The latter appears to be the implications of RT’s take on ‘disinformation’. Instead, Debord’s description invites us to consider carefully what we mean when we hear or use the term disinformation. At its origins ‘disinformation’ is a term of practice utilized in order sharply to distinguish between the Self (as an upholder of truth) and the Other (as a promoter of deceit). This encourages the projection of a complex, multi-dimensional problem onto specific external actors. Unreflectively treating the term ‘disinformation’ as a neutral tool of analysis can therefore push Western counter-disinformation services towards approaches that undermine their usefulness and credibility (for example, branding sharp, highly polemical criticisms of failings in Western societies as disinformation).
The history of the term ‘disinformation’
The history of the term ‘disinformation’ is instructive and reflecting on it might help improve hitherto largely unsuccessful efforts to address the current ‘information disorder’. ‘Disinformation’s’ othering function (i.e. the tendency to attribute the spread of disinformation to one’s opponent or competitor) is reflected in multiple historical examples provided by the corpora of national languages (British English, American English, Russian and German) that we consulted.
While utilized from the 19th century onwards, usage of the term disinformation has risen sharply since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and fears of Russia’s interference in both votes – strongly-suspected in the first and well-documented in the second. The claim reiterated in the Anglophone media was that it was the Soviets who coined the word ‘disinformation’ (in Russian dezinformatsiya) which prompted most counter-disinformation units funded by Western governments to continue seeing disinformation as an external threat to democracies emanating primarily from Russia (and then China). This clearly overlooks disinformation threats generated within the West. For example, already at the time of the US 2016 election campaign, let alone the 2020 one, the role of the US’s own alt-right media network in spreading disinformation to US voters was only too apparent. Conversely, the use of the term ‘dezinformatsiya’ in Russia is most often as an accusation against Western governments, or in defence of Russia against accusations of disinformation.
Contrary to claims that the term disinformation entered English via Russian, conceived deceptively to sound like a word derived from a West European language to camouflage its Soviet origin, it had been in use in English from the turn of the twentieth century. For example, US press outlets accused their rivals of disinformation back in the 1880s and a British MP accused local authorities of using disinformation to justify their improper implementation of a parliamentary bill in 1901.
While not inventing the term ‘disinformation’, the Soviet authorities did pioneer its rather unusual usage. In 1923, the Bolshevik Party Politburo approved the establishment of the Disinformation Bureau (Dezinformburo) within the Soviet security service. The initiative, including its title, was suggested by an officer with close ties to German-speaking European Marxist revolutionaries (and this connection probably explains the Russian transliteration of the term in Russian from the German, rather than the English, spelling.) This remains a rare case of the use of the term ‘disinformation’ to describe one’s own activities rather than those of others. The Dezinformburo was intended to produce and disseminate forged documentation capable of leading Western governments to believe that the Soviet economy was performing better than in reality, and that the Red Army was more combat-ready than was in fact the case. But even the Bolsheviks’ odd decision to describe their own activities as dezinformatsiya was motivated by their self-understanding as creators of a truly just society and thus upholders of a higher truth that Western states were attempting to subvert.
Although the usage of the term dezinformatsiya to describe a governmental practice was, in 1923, new, the practice itself was not. The establishment of western governmental departments to produce manipulated and forged information designed to deceive adversaries dates back to World War I. Western governments, however, used euphemistic terms, such as the ‘Committee of Public Information’, set up by Woodrow Wilson in 1917. They, of course, were concerned about justifying their activities to elected representatives and to democratically empowered publics. The Soviet government endured no such constraints and, as Thomas Rid’s account of American and Soviet disinformation campaigns shows, by the 1960s, the production of forged documents by the KGB surpassed anything that the CIA had undertaken earlier in the Cold War.
It is noteworthy, however, that in Western political and media discourses, as well as in the Soviet Union, the term ‘disinformation’ began to be used extensively only from the 1980s, when high profile books were published in the US that quoted unsubstantiated, yet enduring, claims by a defector from the Soviet bloc describing the term dezinformatsiya as a Soviet neologism and, by implication, alleging that the Soviets pioneered the practice of manipulating information for political gain. So, for example, in 1981-1985 half of the usages by MPs related to KGB practices. In a further example of inverted mirroring, at the very same time, the Soviets began extensively to publish their own studies of ‘Western disinformation’.
Yet, in the context of improving Soviet-Western relations under Gorbachev, the representation of disinformation as emanating from a foreign adversary quickly receded in all the countries whose national corpora we studied. Instead, the original deployment of the term as a means of delegitimizing competitors or opponents within the same national/societal context resumed. The 1980s marked the start of rapidly increasing political polarization in the US and the UK. According to the English-language national corpora, against the backdrop of the increasing number of examples decade on decade (in part, presumably because of the ease of identifying them within online content), from 1985 to 2015 the main usage of the term ‘disinformation’ pertained to Western domestic politics. In the UK we find multiple examples of Labour MPs accusing Tory governments of disinformation and vice versa, or of accusations of disinformation against the CIA and Reagan’s and Bush’s governments in liberal US media, with only one reference to Soviet disinformation among hundreds of examples from the 1990s. In that decade, Russian media and politicians also spoke of disinformation largely in relation to their national context (i.e. KGB/Soviet disinformation), seeking to differentiate Boris Yeltsin’s ‘new Russia’ from its Soviet predecessor.
Despite the perennial and seemingly ubiquitous nature of the threat the word ‘disinformation’ is intended to describe, it is worth noting that its prevalence differs from language to language. In the German context, the term has been much less common than in the Anglophone or Soviet/Russian ones, although it was occasionally deployed in West German media from the start of the Cold War mostly against communist governments, with a major spike only from 2015/16, in response to Russia’s policies in Ukraine and election meddling.
Implications for the current battle against disinformation
From this survey we can draw the following conclusions which should be taken into account by those aiming to improve the effectiveness of counter-disinformation initiatives. Overt falsifications and forgeries constitute a small proportion of what historically has been branded as disinformation. In most cases the practices described as disinformation amount to subtle ways of manipulating information which fall short of fabricating false content. Under these circumstances, the term ‘disinformation’ is prone to slip into becoming a verbal weapon deployed in bitter polemics between opposing sets of players who often belong within single national contexts. Our analysis of the national language corpora suggests that, in most cases, politicians or media outlets brand other domestic politicians or media as spreaders of disinformation.
However, at certain points, in response to specific international developments, ‘disinformation’ refers to perceived international threats. Until 2016, these points occurred quite rarely and were short-lived. Sometimes a sudden proliferation of cross-national accusations flares up in response to a particularly provocative disinformation campaign by a foreign adversary. This was undoubtedly the case with Russia in relation to Ukraine in 2014/2015 and the US in 2016. But at other points, brazen disinformation campaigns attract far less public discussion. This was, for instance, the case with what arguably was the most successful Soviet disinformation campaign around the origins of HIV/AIDS, which claimed that HIV was a US biological weapon. The most impactful part of the campaign belonged to the early period of Gorbachev’s perestroika up to and including 1988. However, at the time it generated only limited media and political discussion, because (a) USSR-Western relations were improving, and most importantly, (b) Western governments did not perceive disinformation, Soviet or domestic, as a particularly destabilizing force for their own societies. In contrast, in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, as political elites began to experience diminished control over information flows, ‘information disorder’ was widely portrayed as a major threat to democracy. In the absence of a clear strategy to tackle it, it was all too easy to present just one, external, source of disinformation (Russia and other authoritarian states) as the prime, or even sole, culprit.
Failure to appreciate either disinformation’s historical othering function or the serious disadvantages of adopting this tool of polemical practice within the vocabulary of objective analysis are detrimental to counter-disinformation initiatives. Not only does this hinder their efforts to achieve clarity over what kind of manipulated information requires a policy response, but it also can act as an enabler of the very foreign, and, indeed, internal disinformation agents that these initiatives aim to neutralize (including the US alt-right digital network). These actors sometimes appear to intuitively develop a better sense of how the historically contingent and contested meanings of the polemical rhetoric of disinformation circulate and mutate in the globally networked digital media ecology than do western counter-disinformation services. The latter are, to their severe disadvantage, still influenced by battlelines drawn in the Cold War era and in a very different informational environment.
 Half of the examples in the Russian national corpus for the 1990s referred to Soviet/KGB disinformation.
This article represents the views of the authors and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.