Read Animal Farm and Understand Russian Disinformation
This article will briefly discuss George Orwell's Animal Farm and its comparison to Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. It will also discuss the disinformation campaigns Stalin used as well as Vladimir Putin uses today to destabilize Western democracies. It will also detail different disinformation techniques and recent attempts to create chaos and doubt in Europe and the United States.
Animal Farm and Soviet Russia
Considering the turbulence we are witnessing in our domestic politics as well as on the world stage, it might be a good idea to reread Animal Farm in order to understand and put into perspective how unscrupulous politicians try to manipulate the truth.
The classic novella Animal Farm was written by Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell. The book was first published in 1945 as an allegory about a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer in the hopes of creating a free and equal society. However, their plan fails as one pig named Napoleon becomes a dictator and creates a dystopia that either makes matters worse or merely changes the power structure. However, Animal Farm has one overarching message: there is a danger that those in power can manipulate language to their own benefit.
The story is representative of Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the rise to power of Joseph Stalin, one of history’s most brutal dictators. In the novella, Orwell creates characters and ideas that reflect the Soviet Union of his era.
Besides Napoleon, who is representative of Joseph Stalin, Animalism becomes Communism; the Manor Farm is Russia; Mr. Jones is Tsar Nicholas II; Old Major is a combination of Karl Marx and the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin; Snowball, who eventually gets driven out of the farm due to Napoleon’s lies, represents Leon Trotsky. Other characters include Squealer, Snowball, Boxer, Molly, Clover, Mrs. Jones, and many others. Each character has a counterpart in the Soviet Union, and each occurrence represents similar actions undertaken by the Russian Communist regime or by Stalin.
Today, some 74 years after its first release, the book still represents a poignant commentary on how truth can be twisted and manipulated in order to benefit a small group of actors in control. It also speaks to a leader who takes advantage of people’s tendencies to create social and class distinctions to further divide the country in order to stay in power.
In Orwell’s creation, the “brainworkers,” as the pigs referred to themselves, used their superior intellect to manipulate society to their benefit. The danger of a naïve working class was one of the novella’s messages that Orwell cleverly recreated by pointing out how oppression arises not only by the betrayal of the despots in charge, but also from the gullibility of the oppressed.
We can see this willful ignorance in the case of Boxer—the working horse—who when facing a quandary or predicament, repeats to himself, “Napoleon is always right.” This perfectly points to how the inability or unwillingness to question authority further enables domination by a few.
Napoleon and the other pigs manage to manipulate the animals in the farm through the clever usage of language. This allowed them to distort the truth, even create a false narrative about Animalism in order to justify their actions and keep the animals in the dark and under their control. As in Russia, where Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party under his control twisted and manipulated Lenin’s words after his death, so does Napoleon in regards to what Old Major said before his passing.
This allows the pigs to create an environment in which the rest of the farm animals were unable to oppose them without also going against the ideals of the revolution. In fact toward the end of the story, Squealer, the main spokesman for Napoleon reduced the Seven Commandments to the simple statement “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” By doing this he decriminalized the pig’s treachery, allowing them to become more audacious throughout the rest of the story.
The poignancy and relevancy of Orwell’s Animal Farm is inescapable in today’s world in which authoritarian leaders use the manipulation of news and the media in general to stay in power. A world in which Russia is back to using many of the old techniques it previously employed in order for its leaders to stay in power and destabilize democratic countries. Today, we know these techniques as disinformation. In the U.S. we witnessed how Russia manipulated the American voters in order to benefit Donald Trump in winning the 2016 election.
Joseph Stalin and Disinformation
The word “disinformation” has its roots in the Russian word “dezinformatsiya” which is derived from the tactics used by KGB’s black propaganda department, whereby the target would be blamed for the same propaganda that was created against them. Joseph Stalin coined the term in order to create a French-sounding word he could then claim had a Western origin.
The first time the word was used dates back to 1923 when a special office of disinformation was established. As per the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1952, the term disinformation is described as “false information with the intention to deceive public opinion.”
One particular operation used in the 1930s focused on softening Stalin’s image in Europe and lessening fears of any expansionist ambitions the USSR might have. In order to accomplish this, Moscow orchestrated the escape of defecting diplomats such as Grigory Besedovsky and Sergei Dmitrievsky from the Soviet embassy in Paris. While both initially spoke against the Soviet regime, after gaining credibility, began to disseminate disinformation, portraying Stalin as a tough but honest broker ultimately friendly toward the West, but with Russia’s interest at heart.
Conspiracy theories are a form of disinformation, and Stalin was master at creating outlandish stories. One of these, in particular, was a falsehood he created of a vast anti-government network bent on assassinating him. No such conspiracy existed; however, it gave Stalin the justification for the purges of late 1930, in which some 8 million people were arrested and more than a million summarily executed.
Disinformation Under Putin
Today, Putin’s Russia has adopted these same disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theory techniques to destabilize democratic countries.
In 2007, Vladimir Putin began an initiative to restructure the national curriculum to show that Joseph Stalin’s actions were rational and correct. In the same year the Police rated the human rights organization Memorial and confiscated images of atrocities committed by Stalin along with 20 years’ worth of oral testimony that chronicled the harsh everyday life people led during his regime.
A few years after this event, Putin created a group that would became involved in assembling a history book that would downplay the Stalin regime's crimes, purges, mass deportations, famines, gulags, and murders. The history book also portrayed the 74 years of Communist rule in a way inconsistent with the reality of its total failure.
Professor Leonid Polyakov of the Higher School of Economics said: “[The book] should not be a dreary look at or apology for what was done,” He said, instead, it should concentrate on the glorious Soviet victory in the Second World War. This means Joseph Stalin needed to be rehabilitated and made into a hero, not the criminal he truly was.
Consequently, Stalin has been reintroduced to the Russian people by selling watches and other paraphernalia with his image. During the refurbishing of various Moscow subway station, large inscriptions reading “Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labor and to heroism.”
The reluctance to face and apologize for its past abhorrent behavior and the millions of people who lost their lives, Putin’s Russia sent the message that in many respects it was business as usual. Their past efforts to lie and manipulate its citizens would continue as state policy.
But most important is the government's approach to mythologize Stalin, signaling a change in the way Russia will be governed. The establishment of penalties for protests, non-government organizations receiving foreign funding being labeled as foreign agents—a term used by Stalin to signal spies and dissidents. Their belligerency toward liberal democracies and their continued attempt to destabilize the West would persist.
Putin rose from the ranks of the KGB in the 1970s and as such he was trained in its methods and thoroughly instilled in it mentality and approach. Today, the messages coming out of Russia seem to echo the KGB and Stalin. Putin is considered to be a staunched statist, who believes in Russian greatness. He feels he is the head of a great empire and wishes for the old USSR imperialism to return. In fact, in a 2005 state of the nation address, Putin said:
"Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself."
An NPR Interview: Disinformation Methods
In an interview by NPR’s Nick Schifrin with New York Times’ Adam Westbrook and Adam Ellick regarding the three-part series “Operation Infection: Russian Disinformation From Cold War to Kanye”, they spoke about the ongoing campaign of what Russia calls active measures.
Schifrin starts the interview by saying:
“When you hear the term fake news, you probably think about how it's used often today by President Trump, but it's actually an old term used by the Soviet Union as a reference to disinformation campaigns that the Soviets and now the Russians have long used to destabilize the West. It worked before, and it's working again now.”
The series describes how, within the KGB, there used to be a department that specialized in planting false stories and forged documents. The department, which had a multimillion-dollar budget, employed some 15,000 workers not only inside the Soviet Union but also outside.
Some of the stories they produced were that the U.S. created AIDS and was responsible for the CIA assassination of John F. Kennedy. These stories were planted in communist newspapers all around the world and were successful in causing chaos and casting doubt about the intentions of the American government.
In the case of the AIDS story, Westbrook and Ellick found newspaper clippings planted by Soviet agents in 80 different countries. Even today, millions of Americans still believe these fake stories.
As Yuri Bezmenov, one of the ex-KGB agents interviewed for this series said about the reason for these hoaxes:
“To change the perception of reality of every American, to such an extent that, despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their country.”
Today, disinformation techniques take many forms. From false visuals, misleading headlines to a broad array of social media techniques. The following are the Kremlin’s most used techniques in spreading disinformation:
- Ping pong: Spring boarding one story from one website to another in order to insert a false narrative into circulation.
- Wolf cries wolf: Vilifying an organization or individual for something the speaker also does.
- No proof: Statements that are not backed up by facts.
- Card stacking: Partially true facts or statements. Selective information used to guide an audience into a pre-fabricated false narrative.
- False facts: False facts or statements. An event or an interview that never took place. For example, as described above, the planted story that the USA created the AIDS virus.
- False visual: Employing the usage of fake or manipulated provocative visual material.
- Denying facts: Real facts are denied or undermined. As in the case of Putin denying Russian forces are fighting in Ukraine. The idea is to establish doubt in people’s minds.
- Exaggeration and over-generalization: A technique that over-dramatizes events by raising false alarms.
- Totum pro parte: This Latin phrase means: “whole for a part.” It portrays the opinions of a single journalist or non-governmental person as the view or position of a government.
- Changing the quotation, source or context: Statements are reported from other sources differently from the original account. This includes altering quotes or stories.
- Loaded words or metaphors: Expressions or metaphors that support a false narrative or hide the truth.
- Ridiculing, discrediting, diminution: Name calling, mockery, undermining other's authority.
- Whataboutism: Using false comparisons to support a pre-fabricated narrative. Pointing to someone else’s misdeeds to justify one’s actions.
- Narrative laundering: Concealing or cleaning the origin of a source or claim. A dubious expert presents false facts as the truth. Typically, propaganda outlets, mimic the format of mainstream media. Examples of this are the Russian publications RT and Sputnik.
- Exploiting balance: When propagandists or faux journalists manage to insert themselves into mainstream media masquerading as experts. This often happens in point-counterpoint debates.
- Presenting opinion as facts or vice-versa: This is done in a way to discredit a narrative.
- Conspiracy theories: The employment of rumors, myths or claims of conspiracies in order to distract and dismay an audience. Examples: The moon landing was a hoax. The US government is responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
- False dilemma: Forcing an audience in an unnecessary binary choice when there are many other options.
Some Recent Actions and Methods Used by Russia
The following are but a few of the vast constellation of attempts made by Russia and other far-right groups to destabilize Europe and the United States. They represent a pattern of lies, fake stories, conspiracy theories and disinformation the Kremlin has been unleashing on democracies.
France 2017 Elections
During the French election of 2017 in which Emmanuel Macron was facing off against Marine Le Penn - a right-wing candidate favored by Vladimir Putin - a duplicate version of the Belgian newspaper Le Soir was created for the purpose of attacking Macron with false accusations. One of these allegations was that Macron was being funded by Saudi Arabia, which was patently false.
In another instance, dozens of false documents were circulated online claiming that he had opened an offshore bank account in the Bahamas. Yet, in another instance, disinformation circulated through “Twitter raids” in which loosely connected networks of individuals using similar hash-tags and messages spread rumors about his personal life. While it is impossible to prove whether these attacks originated in the now-famous Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia named Internet Research Agency (IRA), many experts claim the similarities to what this organization has done in the past are striking.
USA 2016 Elections
While here in the US, we were bombarded with hundreds of conspiracy theories, fake news stories, one instance stands out as an attempt to reach the American religious communities and specifically Catholics. In July 2016, the website WTOE 5 News reported Pope Francis to have broken with tradition and unambiguously endorsed Donald Trump for president. Soon, news outlets around the world were reporting the same story. Some of the reports went as far as quoting Pope Francis as saying:
“I have been hesitant to offer any kind of support for either candidate in the US presidential election but I now feel that to not voice my concern would be a dereliction of my duty as the Holy See.”
In fact, there was no truth to the story, prompting Snopes - the fact checking website – to report:
“There was no truth to this story, however. Although WTOE 5 News proclaimed that “news outlets around the world” were reporting on the Pope’s unprecedented endorsement, no reputable news publications confirmed it, because WTOE 5 News is one of many fake news sites that masquerade as local television news outlets and do not publish factual stories:
WTOE 5 News is a fantasy news website. Most articles on wtoe5news.com are satire or pure fantasy.”
The European Union Parliamentary Elections Targeted
Despite the fact that democracies have been vocal in calling out Russia’s efforts to widen political divisions and weaken Western institutions, it remains undeterred. The fact still remains, it is far easier to spread disinformation than to stop it. During May’s European Union parliamentary elections of this year, an untold number of websites and social media accounts linked to Russia or far-right groups began to spread false stories and disinformation two weeks prior to voters going to cast their votes.
Most experts, academics, and advocacy groups say these disinformation efforts are digital replicas of the tactics used by Russia, including its interference in the US 2016 election. Digital and internet investigators say that fringe political commentary sites throughout Europe bear the same electronic signatures as pro-Kremlin websites or the Russian hackers who attacked the Democratic National Committee.
Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp network groups and other websites have been spreading false and divisive stories about the European Union, NATO, the United States, and immigrants. Some of these conspiracy theories claimed the Notre-Dame’s fire in April of 2019, was the work of Islamic terrorists. While some of these messages, come directly from Russian news outlets, others come from social media or fringe websites.
As Daniel Jones, former FBI analyst and Senate investigator told the New York Times, “The goal here is bigger than any one election. It is to constantly divide, increase distrust and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself. They’re working to destroy everything that was built post-World War ll.”
While it is nearly impossible to exactly quantify the scale of the disinformation attacks perpetrated by Russia and other far-right groups, researchers say millions of people see the material. While Putin has denied accusations of meddling, experts agree Russian fingerprints are almost everywhere a disinformation campaign appears. Unfortunately, the Kremlin has been shrewd in its empowerment of other anti-democratic actors willing to grow their influence throughout the world.