March 8, 2017  |  Updated April 18, 2018

Here’s Why You Should Worry About Russian Propaganda

By Alina Polyakova
Visitors walked past TV sets during Russian President Vladimir Putin's nationwide live broadcast in Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on April 17, 2014. (Reuters/Ilya Naymushin)

“Fake news” is the term du jour in the current discussion on the new media landscape. We knew long ago, however, about the prevalence and proliferation of fabricated stories produced by so-called media entrepreneurs looking to make a profit with flashy headlines or fly-by-night “news sites” churning out outrageous click-bait stories. The Russians (and the Soviets before that) had a different word for it: dezinfomatsiya, literally translated as disinformation. In the United States, we called it propaganda.

In the Cold War years, the Soviet disinformation machine produced and spread lies that aimed to damage the United States’ reputation as a value-driven and principled nation. The most famous example was an early 1980s KGB campaign that spread disinformation that blamed the CIA for inventing the AIDS virus as part of a biological weapons program. While the Soviets eventually dropped this story under US pressure and as part of the opening of relationship under Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost initiative, this case demonstrated how the USSR waged information war at the time: as a binary battle between good and evil, in which each opponent sought to show that the other was evil.

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