Former Czech spy teaches ways to recognize disinformation
Boston — ```Ex-spy opens school on deception.''' Prof. Lawrence Martin is quoting from a newspaper clipping on his recently established Disinformation Documentation Center. That headline was ``misleading,'' the former Czech intelligence officer adds. ``It sounds like we are trying to teach students how to deceive, how to master the deception technique, which is absolute nonsense. Just the contrary is the truth.''
By Dr. Martin's definition, disinformation is the ``deliberate manipulation of a message that is secretly introduced into the communication system of the opponent - to deceive either the public or the decisionmaking elite.''
After 15 years of research in the West, Martin has constructed a graduate course titled ``Disinformation and the Press'' at Boston University, which he has taught since 1981. He hopes the course, together with the new center - which opened Nov. 13 - will focus attention on a phenomenon that he says has increased in effectiveness with the rapid growth of mass media.
Martin has capitalized on his past - as former deputy commander of Czech disinformation activities, and his experience from 1954 to 1968 as a communist spy. Then known as Ladislav Bittman, he defected to the United States after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
In his bright, basement office at Boston University's College of Communication, this communist spy-turned-Western-educator explains, ``Whether we like it or not, disinformation is here and is here to stay. And that means that it deserves attention - by academicians, by journalists, by investigators of any kind.''
Martin adds: ``[We need] to evaluate very seriously: what are the disinformation campaigns conducted by our major opponents - Soviet bloc countries? What is the impact on public opinion around the world and American public opinion? And what is the impact on the decisionmaking elite?''
Martin says about 80 percent of the disinformation circulating around the world today originates in Eastern Europe, and about 20 percent outside the communist bloc.
``There is a growing number of countries - noncommunist countries - using disinformation as a tool of foreign policy.'' This raises hard ethical questions for democracies. ``Should we [Western nations] or shouldn't we use disinformation?''
The Disinformation Documentation Center will study two possible answers to that question - through building a library and video collection for use by journalists and scholars (now mostly composed of Martin's personal files and videotapes from the past 15 years) and by sponsoring colloquia and publishing projects. The center's first book, about Soviet disinformation under Mikhail Gorbachev, is due out next year.
Martin isn't shy about sharing his own opinion on the subject. ``I think that disinformation can be a very useful tool, if we know how to use it properly,'' he says. Disinformation campaigns during World War II, he explains, saved lives by diverting Nazi attention from impending invasions by the allies.
But what about in peacetime? Then too, Martin says, disinformation can have a place - in discouraging terrorist activity, for example.
But in recalling the recent use of disinformation targeted at Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Martin makes a clear distinction that a democratic country should never plant disinformation in its own press.
``The press is the messenger. However, if we use our own press against another country, at the same time we are deceiving not only the opponent, but ourselves. ... We are actually intervening into our spontaneous democratic process, and that is potentially dangerous because that could be a step toward authoritarianism....''
In building a greater public understanding of disinformation, Martin says, it is necessary to distinguish it from its look-a-like cousin: propaganda.
Propaganda, he says, is not necessarily based on false information.'' Propagandists ``try to use truthful information to achieve their objectives'' - but propaganda, unlike disinformation, has a readily identifiable source.
Tom Schierholz is a reporter/producer for MonitoRadio.