In 1992, Yevgeny Primakov admitted that the Russian intelligence service was behind newspaper articles that claimed that AIDS was fabricated by the US government.
Rumors range from the virus escaping from a laboratory in Wuhan to being created by the US as « a weapon of war » to disrupt Chinese economic growth.
But disinformation campaigns are not limited to the pandemic.
A couple of weeks ago, Facebook removed a network of fake accounts and pages “created by russian agents« That they would have hired American journalists to write articles criticizing the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Although disinformation campaigns have proliferated with the advent of social networks, they already existed before the great revolution that popularized the internet.
And in the 1980s, in the middle of the Cold War, what was perhaps one of the largest of the time was executed, baptized by the Stasi – the intelligence organ of the German Democratic Republic – as « Denver », popularly known as « Operation Infektion« .
At the beginning of that mission, the intelligence bodies of the Eastern Bloc knew that for the campaign to be successful the disinformation messages had to correspond « at least partially to reality or generally accepted opinions », as described by Ladislav Bittman -who served as intelligence officer specializing in disinformation in the defunct Czechoslovakia – in his book « The KBG and Soviet disinformation. »
. There were already several conspiracy theories about the origin of HIV and the KGB used one of them to discredit the United States.
That is why the KGB, the intelligence agency of the Soviet Union, and the Stasi decided to support the theory that HIV / AIDS had been created by the Pentagon in a laboratory at Fort Detrick (Maryland) to be used against other populations, such as African peoples, and African American communitiess and LGTB + In U.S.A.
The reason the name « Denver » was chosen is unknown, but some experts suspect it was simply a mistake.
« It was also called ‘Detrick’ and ‘Pandem’. Denver could have been a mistake or (consequence of) a poor knowledge of (American) geography ”, historian Christopher Nehring, holder of a doctorate in Intelligence and History of Eastern Europe from the University of Heidelberg, tells BBC Mundo, Germany.
The origin of the rumor
On July 17, 1983, the pro-Soviet daily Patriot, printed in India, published on its front page an article with the title: “AIDS could invade India: the mysterious disease was caused by experiments in the USA ”.
The article cited as its source a « respected American scientist and anthropologist » who preferred « to remain anonymous » and who had sent a letter to the newspaper’s editor from New York warning him about the matter.
The « respected scientist » pointed out that « the mysterious disease » had been manufactured by the Pentagon and that scientists from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were involved in the Machiavellian plan.
The article published by Patriot was quoted by the Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta in 1985 and from there « the news » was published in dozens of newspapers Worldwide.
The theory gained more force when the denialist biologist from communist Germany Jakob Segal published a 47-page study, known as the Segal report, in which he defended the thesis of Soviet origin.
The existence of the famous letter that would have originated the rumor was never confirmed.
According to a State Department document published in 1987, the Patriot newspaper was created by the KGB in 1962 « to misinform. »
The objective of the mission
During the Cold War – which lasted from the end of World War II until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 – the Eastern Bloc looked for any opportunity to discredit Westerners and vice versa.
“Operation Denver was designed to undermine America’s image in the world, especially in Africa, Asia and the so-called developing countries, ”explains Nehring, who is also the co-author of a large study on this disinformation campaign published by the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Germany.
“In some countries it was especially used to arouse negative sentiments against US military bases and the US presence in those countries. And in western societies, the purpose was foment discontent and the malaise, causing the populations to distrust the United States and their own governments ”, he adds.
The theory that HIV / AIDS was the brainchild of man was already gaining traction on its own, but the Soviets did not waste the opportunity to discredit the United States, their fiercest rivals, and became even more entrenched as the scientific community began to say that the origin of the virus was natural and that the virus had probably been transmitted from non-human primates to humans in Africa.
“Many Africans saw it as a act of racism“, Highlights Douglas Selvage, a historian at the Humboldt University of Berlin and an expert on the Soviet bloc, the KGB and the Stasi.
« People began to ask, ‘Why do you assume it came from Africa,’ even though there were reasons to think so. For example, infection rates were high in certain parts of Africa. Even so, many Africans thought that they were being accused of being in some way responsible for the virus and therefore rejected the consensus reached by the scientific community ”.
A relative success for the KGB
For that reason, according to Selvage, many people « bought » the theory.
Another goal of Soviet intelligence was to get people to pay more attention to the American biological weapons program. “They were looking to put pressure on the US government, so that maybe they would cut the program. This, of course, would help the Soviet Union to Take the lead in the development of their own biological arsenal ”, says the expert.
Although measuring the success of a disinformation campaign is difficult, most experts consider Operation Denver successful because the theory that the US created HIV / AIDS is still supported by certain groups today, decades later. that the rumor was ruled out with scientific evidence.
About 15 years after the campaign started, the black and Hispanic population she was three times more likely than the white woman to believe this conspiracy theory.
According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the United States, in 1999, 27.8% of blacks, 23.6% of Hispanics and 8% of whites in that country considered something very likely or probable that the AIDS virus was “a government plan to intentionally kill a certain group of people”.
And in 2003, the proportion that believed the same reached 34.1% of the black population, 21.9% of the Hispanic population and 8.4% of the white population.
. The US government fought back by broadcasting real news, according to Christopher Nehring.
But the operation was not entirely successful, as many of the objectives they were not fulfilled.
The campaign failed to arouse negative sentiment against US military bases, nor could it severely disrupt Western societies, explains Christopher Nehring of the University of Heidelberg,
330,000 deaths in South Africa
Although, the vast majority in Europe doubted that the virus had been created in a laboratory by the Pentagon, it is very possible that it contributed to the denial approach of certain African governments, such as Thabo Mbeki in South Africa, which they questioned the scientific reports on the natural origin of the virus.
The then South African president even appointed a team to analyze the causes of HIV / AIDS.
This attitude had catastrophic consequences in some countries. According to research from Harvard University published in 2008, some of the decisions made by Mbeki caused nearly 330,000 deaths from the virus.
The study, led by Dr. Pride Chigwedere, found that “the South African government acted like a great obstacle during the provision of medicines to patients with AIDS ”.
The US and its Western allies tried to pressure the Soviet Union to halt the campaign in 1987, but Soviet agents ignored the calls and continued the mission, with support from the KBG, says Nehring, before adding that the counterattack to Soviet disinformation had three aspects.
. ImagesMany in South Africa rejected former President Thabo Mbeki’s denial approach.
« Debunking false information, disseminating ‘real news’ of their own, and monitoring and policing illicit intelligence work on disinformation. »
Agents and « useful idiots »
In the digital age, disinformation campaigns are carried out with the help of social networks and websites dedicated to producing fake news, but in 1980 newspapers and other media such as television were generally used, as well as books and brochures .
The historian from the University of Heidelberg explains that what was said in newspapers, books and documentaries had a lot of influence at that time.
« Of course, everything was much slower back then and a lot more human contacts were needed, as well as paid agents or ‘useful idiots’ to spread the word. »
Historian Douglas Selvage, from the Humboldt University of Berlin, points out that before it was much more difficult to get this type of news circulating around the world and says that most of the time the KGB and the Stasi simply found something that was already in the Western press and added their own elements to the story.
One of the main weapons of the Soviet Union
In 1992, the former head of the KGB, Yevgeny Primakov, admitted that the Russian intelligence service was behind the many newspaper articles claiming that AIDS had been fabricated by the US government.
With the creation of the KGB in 1954, disinformation became one of the main weapons of the Soviet Union: it was part of its so-called “active measures”.
. Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin said that « the heart and soul » of Soviet intelligence was subversion: « active measures to weaken the West. »
In an interview with CNN in 2007, former KGB general Oleg Kalugin said that « the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence was subversion. »
“It (was) not intelligence gathering, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to breach Western alliances of all kinds, particularly in NATO, sow discord among its allies, weaken America in the eyes of the peoples of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus prepare the ground in case there really is a war.
A dangerous « political game »
There are similarities between the disinformation campaigns promoted by the KGB during the Cold War and those we see today, especially the most recent ones about the new coronavirus.
Both Selvage and Nehring agree that epidemics generally attract a whole range of conspiracy theories about the origin of viruses.
« The story is always the same: say that a dangerous disease was artificially manufactured in a military laboratory as a biological weapon, « says Nehring.
« It is part of a political game of‘ attribution of blame ’: finding the political culprit of a disease by accusing him of having created it. »
For both experts, there are a number of lessons we can learn from Operation Denver.
Selvage highlights the importance of learning to differentiate opinions from facts and ensures that you always have to wait for the experts to reach a consensus when it is presumed that there is a conspiracy theory.
For his part, Nehring believes that it should always be remembered that all « new diseases » will sooner rather than later be the object of misinformation and that they will surely talk about their « artificial manufacture as a military weapon » and their « secret political ends ».
And bear in mind that what is really dangerous about information campaigns is that they can not only « manipulate the voters » – as happened with the US presidential elections in 2016 and the referendum on Brexit, according to different reports. – but can lead to human tragedies and to the death of thousands of people, as Operation Denver ended up doing.