The history of disinformation: how the tools of political warfare and deception evolved

Lying and distorting facts to gain personal or political advantage has characterized human history at least since classical antiquity. While we do not possess evidence that early societies engaged in these practices as well, it is safe to assume that some individuals may have spread disinformation and rumours to secure support or damage the opponents since the dawn of mankind.

When humans started to assemble in more complex and populous communities and new tools to deliver information were invented, attempts to sway and manipulate people assumed a more significant dimension, sometimes proving critical in changing the course of conflicts and of human history itself.

We find one of the first convincing accounts of disinformation a few years prior to the civil war between Octavius and Marcus Antonius in ancient Rome. Around 44 B.C both contestants engaged in an information war to gain the favour of the senators and the population. Octavius exploited Antonius’ relationship with the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra to accuse him of embracing a barbaric culture and betraying the republic. To confirm his claims, Octavius made public Antonius’ testament to the senate; the text established that Antonius would leave Eastern Roman territories to Cleopatra and that he wished to be buried in Egypt. However, some scholars argue that the testament might have been partly or completely forged by Octavius itself to defame his opponent and win the propaganda effort.

Another example comes from the battlefields during the Romano-Parthian wars in today’s Syria. Around the same period in which Octavius and Marcus Antonius were engaged in their rivalry, the Roman General Publius Ventidius Bassus used information disorder to deceive the Parthian General Pacorus and succeed in battle. Roman spies informed the General that a local prince, originally thought to be allied to Romans, was instead secretly loyal to Parthians. During a meeting, aware that the prince would inform his enemy, Ventidius purposely appeared concerned that the Parthians could cross the Euphrates river in a more southern point than imagined initially and thus overwhelm the Roman army. The plan worked and General Pacorus crossed the river in the south, providing Ventidius with more time to set up his defences in a nearby city. Eventually, Ventidius led his army to a decisive victory while general Pacorus was slain in battle. Disinformation has always played a fundamental role in wars. As the Chinese General Sun Tzu said in his book The Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

But the history’s disinformation effort with the most overarching consequences is far more recent. It did not target a few senators or a general, but the common man. In 1902 a mysterious book started to make his appearance in Russia: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It consisted of a fabricated text describing the plans for world domination by an obscure Jewish group. The authors plagiarized several existing texts, in particular a 1864 political satire by Maurice Joly. The protocols ignited and fomented anti-Semitic sentiments first in Russia and throughout the entire world over the following decades. The document would become the basis for countless conspiracy theories which still survive to this day, with hundreds of thousands of far-right extremists and anti-Semites still believing in its authenticity. The document was likely forged by Russian secret services to make a scapegoat of Jews for the anti-monarchist revolution shaking the country’s status-quo. Internet and the popularization of software have made the forgery of documents even more common and widespread. A few days ago, EUvsDisinfo identified a fabricated document pretending to be written by the European Commissioner Schinas, asserting that the EU would relocate immigrants to Georgia. It was a carefully crafted piece of disinformation to sow discontent among Georgians towards the EU, just a few weeks before the parliamentary elections in the Caucasian country.

Episodes of disinformation abounded during modern world conflicts as well. Thanks to the significant technological achievements made in the previous years, lies and deception could be propagated through new means such as the television, the telegram and the radio. The British journalist Sefton Delmer was a master in the art of psychological warfare. Due to his perfect knowledge of the German language, he was recruited by the British secret body Political Warfare Executive (PWE) to run fake radio stations targeting Germans during WW2. One radio station had the purpose of demoralizing German troops by spreading disinformation; for instance, Delmer argued that the wives of the soldiers were sleeping with foreign workers settled in Germany. In another radio broadcast Delmer impersonated “Der Chef”, a fictional German character who criticized Hitler and the high-ranking Nazi officials with the objective to sow mistrust among low ranking party members. Delmer was able to produce false but credible stories to use in his radio programmes thanks to the conversations found in intercepted letters exchanged between Germans and citizens from neutral countries. All the episodes of disinformation throughout history, from the leak of false concerns by a Roman general to a fake German radio broadcaster, share the final objective: to manipulate adversaries or innocent people in order to gain advantages against political rivals or foreign powers. What drastically changed are the means to spread disinformation and the widespread possibility for common citizens to access such means. Crucially, these tools have made it easier for deception and lies to spread. The world is not a safe place, much less is the virtual world. Interconnection brings opportunity, but manipulation lies behind every click.

We can bet that past autocrats and propagandists would have loved to get their hands on the current communication technology.