An alleged accident in a chemical factory. A child pornography circle run by Hillary Clinton. A plane crash that never happened. No matter which false story causes the stir, modern disinformation campaigns always use the same techniques. That’s no coincidence. They were once developed by experts and compiled as a guideline.
Method to the madness: Pizzagate, compulsory vaccinations, alleged economic wars – so called fake news often have a chaotic and crude feel. However, it is distributed in accordance with a procedure which was perfected during the Cold War: the seven-step plan. A strategy which KGB experts summarised at the beginning of the seventies in a text on “active measures”. Since then, this text has been used as a universal blueprint for every disinformation campaign. Particularly in the online era. What do these seven steps involve? The former KGB major Stanislav Levchenko, who now lives in the US, summarises them as follows:
1. The lever (or: “Search For Cracks”)
Quick and painful: effective disinformation starts where it hurts. The beginning of all disinformation reports starts with an analysis and setting a clear target. They look for a “crack” – a weak point where a lever can be crowbarred in. Personal weak points of a political opponent can be used as a target, as can social or economic grievances. The key factor is not the truth contained in a statement but the vague emotion of the public. The intention is to strengthen this emotion. A clear example? The comment so readily used on YouTube, Signal or Facebook: “They’re lying to us!” Vague, unfounded, dangerous.
2. The lie (or: “The Big Fat Lie”)
A lie that collars everyone. The more improbable and outrageous a story sounds, the lower the assumption that it might be invented. And this makes its news value higher too, even if it falls through the cracks in terms of fact checking at reputable media outlets. A paradox which has been confirmed in practice.
The rumour that HIV had been invented by the CIA to weaken minorities in the USA began to spread rapidly in 1983 under the title of “Operation Infection” and has been disproved many times. The rumour still persists stubbornly to this day and is also being trotted out by conspiracy theorists to fuel uncertainty in the current coronavirus pandemic. As we have also seen with the Ebola, Zika and bird flu viruses.
3. The amount of truth (or: “The Kernel of Truth”)
A lie spreads quickly and persists stubbornly if it is presented in a believable context. Here too: the perceived truth trumps reality. Plenty of myths surround the spread of the coronavirus. The email scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton is also a serious case with long-term effects. Trolls used the investigation by the Department of State to spread lies online, covered as “leaked” emails.
4. Leave no trace (or: “Conceal Your Hand”)
Modern disinformation is always based on supposedly expert opinions and “facts”. However, the sources of these alleged facts are generally not named. The intention is to make it as difficult as possible for the recipient to find the source of a statement, to allow the author to stay out of sight, undiscovered and therefore untouchable – as the case surrounding “QAnon” has shown at the moment. A supposed insider in the US government published forged secret service documents on the 4Chan forum and fabricated allegations against political and economic leaders. Their username, “QAnon”, is now used by followers of the theories.
5. Find yourself an idiot (or: “The Useful Idiot”)
In the words of the former KGB employee Stanislav Levchenko and his text: “Find yourself a useful idiot to spread the message around the world.”
These multipliers, however, generally find the message themselves.
This way, alleged emails were published even on WikiLeaks.
A well-known example from America: Alex Jones. The blogger and activist likes to use his weekly podcast to engage with new theories – and adds fuel to the fire. Always under the guise of expressing a neutral opinion.
6. Deny, deny (or: “Deny Everything”)
“If they ask: deny, deny, deny.” The magic formula used by Robert De Niro when playing the spin doctor in the film “Wag The Dog” was also penned by Levchenko. Accusations, research and even clear proof that news have been fabricated is simply denied by the authors or advocates of the theory. This is because any specific rebuttal would counteract the goals of disinformation of fuelling mistrust and uncertainty.
7. An ocean of little drops (or: “The Long Game”)
Disinformation and conspiracy theories are designed to be long-lasting. Online they often develop a life of their own rapidly and go viral. However, the Internet never forgets stories that have a latent topical relevance. They are never more than a few clicks away. People view them again and again, and they spiral into more disinformation. Based loosely on the principle: “If they faked the moon landing, then what else did the government lie about?”
The fact that Facebook and Twitter now delete disinformation or take action against violations helps only to a limited extent. People use their own blogs and messenger services like “Signal” to continue to spread fabricated facts, which remain unchecked.
- New York Times: “The Spies Who Invented Fake News”
- Stanislav Levchenko: “On the Wrong Side”