Declassified 1949 CIA manual gives warning to disinformation on social media

Declassified 1949 CIA manual gives warning to disinformation on social media
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No need for Google — it turns out that finding a blueprint to launch an effective disinformation campaign on social media can be found in a CIA manual from 1949. 

Declassified in 2012, “Strategical Psychological Warfare” was written in response to World War II. While the CIA did not predict a medium like social media, the communication strategies it outlines are eerily similar to what the U.S. has witnessed from Russia during and since the 2016 election.

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As a refresher, a 2017 U.S. intelligence community report concluded that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” U.S. intelligence also concluded that a major goal for the Kremlin was to undermine public faith in the American democratic process.

Russia is not done trying to achieve this goal and since many in the U.S. government believe Russia will be asserting itself again in U.S. elections, it’s worth studying the uncanny parallels to what Russia has already accomplished to what the CIA laid out decades ago.

Here are some of the key concepts from the manual:

Don’t create new issues

There is a rule in the manual that says psychological warfare directed at the people of another country should never be done by creating new issues and then trying to convert that foreign nation to them. 

Instead, a country should “detect existing issues and concentrate on twisting and exploiting them.” The CIA gives the example that German propaganda directed at Americans during the war focused on an anti-Semitic theme. However, anti-Jewish feelings in the U.S. were “neither very widespread nor very deep.” The Germans failed to realize this and thus their approach was inefficient.

Russia did not make that mistake in 2016. Social media made it easy to find issues that Americans are divided on and then target specific messages to those who would be susceptible to inflammatory content.

For example, Russia tried to inflame racial tensions. It created Facebook pages like “Blacktivist,” which praised the Black Panthers as fighters against the KKK and “South United,” which called for the south to rise again. 

By targeting the extremes and creating artificial controversies, Russia was able to twist and exploit issues that are already baked into our history and culture.

This leads to another concept that Russia knew how to execute.

Importance of personalities

“People come to love or detest a person much more readily than they do an idea,” the manual states. The CIA advises that “it is preferable to direct psychological warfare at personalities rather than at issues.” In other words, play to emotions and not logic. And the best way to do that is by finding a villain to attack.

It’s also not enough to just go after the merits of that person. The manual suggests distorting his or her features, creating a caricature of that person and exaggerating qualities about them to achieve a desired effect.

In the 1930s and 1940s there was “Chamberlain’s umbrella, Hitler’s mustache, Stalin’s head,” as the manual points out. In 2016, there was Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCohen once teased Hillary Clinton about going to prison. Now he's been sentenced to 36 months The Hill's 12:30 Report — Cohen gets three years in prison | Fallout from Oval Office clash | House GOP eyes vote on B for wall Contest offers 'Broadway play and chardonnay' with Clinton MORE and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE. Memes were created for both to embellish physical attributes, as well as positions they stood for.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that these were the two most unpopular candidates for U.S. president in modern history and that they were grandiose personalities to begin with. It just made this strategy even easier to execute and Russia did it well.

Success without shooting

A campaign is successful when many decisive victories are scored before a shot has even been fired.

So another principle that the manual lays out is that propaganda campaigns “must be started in peacetime, long before the outbreak of actual hostilities.”

The CIA believed Hitler was successful with this before the start of WWII by “playing on the world sympathy for a ‘poor, divided Germany’ and by arousing the British minds the old specter of French domination of the continent.”

Fast-forward to 2016 and Russia, like Germany, attacked in a time of peace. It not did fire shots at the U.S., but its propaganda-offensive was similar to what the CIA observed with Germany. The players and communication medium may have been different, but the theme was the same.

The disinformation is coming, the disinformation is coming

For those who want to believe propaganda because it fits a certain worldview they have formed, it doesn’t matter much if the content comes from Russia, a conspiracy blogger, or anyone else. 

Who this warning is aimed at is the exhausted majority; those who dislike the extreme partisanship that is prominent in political discourse. It’s for the person who wants to stay informed but is not always sure what to believe.

That is the person who is most vulnerable in all of those. The extreme partisans are going to think and vote a certain way to begin with. However, it’s those who become so cynical or confused with the media they are consuming, that they become disenchanted and maybe just don’t vote at all — forfeiting the election to the weak-minded among us.

With the midterm elections over, the 2020 presidential election has begun. Which means Russia’s 2020 disinformation campaign is most likely in the works, too.

The good news is this has all been done before; it’s just a matter if we want to let it repeat again.

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist and in several positions in PR. He's on Twitter at @AdamChiara.