Disinformation Across the Decades
Active Measures

Disinformation Across the Decades

Thomas Rid, who specializes in information security, provides a comprehensive, cautionary history of governments and private citizens using disinformation to disrupt nation states, political movements and free elections.

Thomas Rid, professor of information security at Johns Hopkins University, tells how digital disinformation abounds as bad actors exacerbate political differences and undermine trust. In this gripping account, Rid charts the rise of disinformation as political warfare after World War I and its evolution during the Cold War. In the 21st century, Rid notes, digital technologies and the internet transformed disinformation, threatening liberal democracy worldwide. Among Rid’s most startling themes is that Russian disinformation attacks against the United States have been going on for decades.

Among many other positive reviews, this work garnered mention as one of The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Books of Nonfiction and as a Best Book of the Year by The New Statesman. Rid’s engrossing style raises this from political history to engrossing, cautionary thriller.

Operation Trust

Disinformation, Rid clarifies, isn’t improvised untruths disseminated by political people; it is lies that organizations systematically promulgate. “Active measures” can involve forgeries, falsified sources, deception and exaggeration aimed at compromising an opponent. Disinformation agents leverage it to undermine the legitimacy or validity of a government or policy.

The goal of disinformation is to engineer division by putting emotion over analysis, division over unity, conflict over consensus, the particular over the universal.Thomas Rid

Rid details vividly how the 1917 Russian Revolution led to the emigration of more than one million Russians. Fearful of émigrés’ plots, the Russian secret police masterminded Operation Trust: Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU, planted stories in newspapers and disseminated fake troop and weaponry statistics. The success of Operation Trust defined subsequent approaches to disinformation worldwide.


The United States created the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 to acquire information and engage in political warfare. The Berlin Operations Base oversaw the creation of a Berlin Tunnel that helped the CIA tap Soviet telephone lines. Rid portrays the CIA as fomenting fake publications and activist groups in Germany by the early 1950s. One project’s operatives generated forged newspapers and magazines to undermine communist ideology in East and West Germany.

Racial Conflicts

Rid tracks how, in December 1950, West Germans encountered anti-Semitic graffiti on a synagogue and on a memorial to Nazi victims. Bad actors perpetrated similar crimes across the country, and the West German government passed a hate-crimes law. In January 1960, Rid reports, intercepted communications from Moscow to East Germany explained that depicting West Germany as swarming with Nazis would undermine Germans’ faith in the country and undercut its international reputation.

Some KGB officers saw engineering racism as a legitimate way to expose racism.Thomas Rid

Rid chronicles how, in the early 1960s, the Soviet KGB exploited racism by circulating a forged Ku Klux Klan leaflet among UN delegates in New York City. Another spurious document explained that the US government sought to steal African wealth; the KGB distributed that pamphlet in more than a dozen African nations.

The Internet

Rid recounts that the first digital active measure occurred in 2007 in Tallinn, Estonia, when Russia brought down Estonia’s internet. Early in the 21st century, Russian intelligence operatives used the World Wide Web to exacerbate US tensions by targeting intellectuals and activists. Rid makes a telling point: Social media can now enable the spread of disinformation without the help of journalists.

A new crop of internet companies had emerged, transforming the way humans read and wrote, shared images and documents, socialized, consumed news, and spread rumors. The sprawling network, as became progressively clear, was practically optimized for disinformation.Thomas Rid

Rid writes of technological utopians and antigovernment activists founding the transparency site Cryptome in the 1990s. Cryptome would publish anything, without revealing any identities. Rid cites Cryptome as Julian Assange’s inspiration for WikiLeaks.

Disaster in 2016

In March 2016, Rid reveals, the GRU’s Unit 26165 hacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, downloading thousands of his emails. In April, GRU operatives hacked into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Russian software implants were stealthy, they could sense locally installed virus scanners and other defenses, the tools were customizable through encrypted configuration files, they were persistent, and the intruders had used an elaborate command-and-control infrastructure.Thomas Rid

In June, the mysterious Guccifer 2.0, Rid writes, claimed a solo hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). In October, the US intelligence community announced that Guccifer 2.0 had acted on behalf of Russian intelligence. Soon thereafter, WikiLeaks began publishing Podesta’s emails, which damaged Clinton’s presidential campaign. Rid tells how, at the start of the Democratic National Convention that summer, the US government announced that the Russian government had perpetrated the DNC hacks and subsequent leaks.

 As the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA planned their response, an entity called the Shadow Brokers gained access to files containing the NSA’s hacking techniques – the heart of US technical intelligence. Rid insists the Shadow Brokers hack was the worst and most consequential cyberattack in US history. The identity of the Shadow Brokers remains obscure, though many suspect it originated in Russia.


Rid provides a historical overview, grounding each media used for disinformation in the context of its time and technology. In this way he gives readers a vital framework for understanding how each campaign reflects its period and the tools available. Rid presents digital disinformation not as a new phenomenon but as the latest – and, he believes, the most insidious – iteration of long-extant government and bad-actor tactics and strategies. Rid’s stories might make your jaw drop, and many of the events from decades past now seem almost innocent, but Rid tempers his amusement with an accounting of their sometimes-lethal consequences. For anyone concerned about propaganda and disinformation, Rid’s comprehensive text serves as history and as a grave warning.

Thomas Rid also wrote Rise of the Machines and Cyber War Will Not Take Place, and he co-wrote War 2.0. Other books on this topic include Likewar by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, How To Lose the Information War by Nina Jankowicz, and This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev.

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