When George Washington gave his Farewell Address in 1796, he urged the American people “to be constantly awake” to the risk of foreign influence. In the wake of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 United States election, the president’s warning has a fresh, chilling resonance. The debate in the United States about foreign interference concentrates on who did what to influence last year’s election and the need for democracies to strengthen their cybersecurity for emails, critical infrastructure and voting platforms. But we need to pay far more attention to another vulnerability: our adversaries’ attempts to subvert our democratic processes by aiming falsehoods at ripe subsets of our population — and not only during elections. In the Cold War era, Soviet attempts to meddle in American democracy were largely unsuccessful. In 1982 Yuri Andropov, then the K.G.B. chairman, told Soviet foreign intelligence officers to incorporate disinformation operations — the so-called active measures meant to discredit adversaries and influence public opinion — into their standard work. They had an ambitious aim: preventing Ronald Reagan’s re-election.
Soviet agents were instructed to infiltrate party and campaign staffs in the United States in search of embarrassing information to leak to the press, while Soviet propagandists pushed a set of anti-Reagan story lines to the Western media. Ultimately, they failed to influence the election. President Reagan defeated Walter F. Mondale, winning 49 states. Margaret Thatcher, who was similarly targeted, also won re-election in a landslide.
What exactly has changed since then to make foreign propaganda far more dangerous today?
During the Cold War, most Americans received their news and information via mediated platforms. Reporters and editors serving in the role of professional gatekeepers had almost full control over what appeared in the media. A foreign adversary seeking to reach American audiences did not have great options for bypassing these umpires, and Russian dezinformatsia rarely penetrated.