There's a Trojan horse built every minute, parading lies as truth
DISINFORMATION has been around ever since the serpent sold Eve on that fateful apple. It has led, say history and legend, to the conquering of a city (Troy, via the Trojan horse); the defaming of Richard III as a murderer (by Sir Thomas More, no less, and then by Shakespeare); the toppling of a government (Britain's Ramsay MacDonald in 1924); and, more positively, the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.Skip to next paragraph
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It has led as well to miscellaneous pogroms, wars, rejection of diplomats, and apathy in the face of danger.
Most recently it has inspired mutual accusations of ``disinformation'' by right and left in the United States on every conceivable issue. And it is currently being dramatized in the trial in Norway of Arne Treholt, charged as a Soviet spy and agent of influence.
Disinformation, then, is not just historical. It is present today as a systematized function of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, as well as Soviet-bloc secret services. It is present whenever governments exercise ``news management'' that suppresses unpleasant facts. It is present when public relations imagemaking goes beyond putting the best face on a political candidate to present a totally artificial picture of that candidate -- or to smear a rival.
Just what is disinformation?
Simply put, it is the deliberate planting of false or misleading political information to influence either public or elite opinion. It is not just misinformation, or mistaken information. It is deliberately false.
It is not overt propaganda, in which the true speaker is identified, however outrageous his viewpoint. It is planted information, with the source secret or disguised.
It could be especially distorting in our much-vaunted Information Age, dependent as it is on all those facts stored in the computers.
Disinformation is both more and less pervasive than the man in the street wants to acknowledge today. On the one hand, the democrat who trusts in the free market of ideas instinctively shrinks from thinking he can be manipulated by disinfor-mation he doesn't detect. On the other hand, the patriot who is vexed by intractable world problems instinctively would like to blame all his country's troubles on this easy single-cause theory of conspiracy.
The first point to be made about disinfor-mation, then, is that the phenomenon does exist, and that it can be used to devastating effect, especially in character assassination of targeted persons.
The second point is that disinformation is no magic key. It doesn't begin to explain the complexities of Soviet-American conflict, say, or prescribe what foreign policies one should follow.
The third point is that disinformation is ultimately vulnerable to truth, since exposure can only reveal its divergence from reality. This axiom might seem banal, were it not for the frequent reflex of governments to fight disinformation not with truth, but with counterdisinformation of their own.
At this point some examples might help clarify how disinformation works.
The classic case in terms of longevity and damage must be the fake ``Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.'' This turn-of-the-century Russian account of a purported Jewish conspiracy to enslave the Christian world was used by Russians to blackmail Jews in World War I. In 1921 the Times of London exposed the Protocols as having been plagiarized from a 19th-century anti-Semitic novel. But that didn't prevent Hitler from picking them up to help his persecution and attempted annihilation of Jews.
Today, 60 years after the Protocols were debunked, they are still sometimes cited as authentic in the Arab world.