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Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

May 26, 2020

Thomas Rid, Professor of Strategic Studies

Eliot A. Cohen, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS

Moderated by Elizabeth Posegate Vish, Johns Hopkins SAIS Alumna '13; Policy Advisor, Cyber Issues, US Department of State

Professor Thomas Rid was joined by Dean Eliot A. Cohen and Elizabeth Posegate Vish '13 for a discussion of Rid's new book, "Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare." The book explores a century of tactics commonly known in the intelligence community as dirty tricks and disinformation, and was made possible through Rid's deep dive of newly accessible archives of intelligence agencies around the world. 

The speakers noted that the term "active measures" is not simply disinformation—in fact, these operations often use the leaking of truthful information to disrupt their targets. Experts have suggested a mix of 80 percent truthful and 20 percent falsified information is highly effective, giving an operation enough credibility to quickly spread and to shield its lies behind the facts. This is what makes active measures so pernicious, the group agreed.

Examples from the book illustrated the sensational history of political warfare and how such tactics are used. Russia's interference in the US 2016 presidential election is an instructive case for policy professionals, the experts argued. Among its most important lessons is a dangerous result: Americans largely have ascribed serious problems within their political system to a foreign adversary's dirty tricks.

The book was recommended as an important test case for training news consumers to combat disinformation and conspiracy theories. By engaging with the most sophisticated tricks and lies, we will be less likely to fall for them, the speakers said. If we lose our ability to solve disagreements based on evidence and fact, then we will lose our ability to solve disagreements peacefully, the panel concluded.