Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare
Profile Books, London, 2020
Reviewed by Zac Rogers
Published online: 3 December 2020
Few subjects seem more central to our current condition than disinformation. Media of various types repeat familiar tropes - we are suffering a crisis of truth - the once purportedly distinct line between fact and fiction has been blurred indefinitely. Our capacity to navigate the information environment and discern truth from lie has been breached, and the very fabric of democracy is imperilled.
Thomas Rid’s excellent Active Measures offers readers a trove of meticulously researched historical examples of modern disinformation operations - active interventions in the information environment intended to deceive, distort and disorient the political community at which they are targeted.
Active Measures’s most important contribution, however, is in how it frames the subject. Rid has a warning about the history of disinformation for open democratic societies worth repeating here. He notes with curiosity that, aside from a handful of infamous examples, much of this rich history has been ignored. He warns that ‘Ignoring the rich and disturbing lessons of industrial-scale Cold War disinformation campaigns risks repeating mid-century errors that are already weakening liberal democracy in the digital age.’ 1
Usefully, Rid structures his historical sweep by way of four waves. Modern disinformation began in the 1920s. The interwar years saw the first wave of disinformation emerging from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, leveraging the popularity of journalism and radio as amplifying agents. New media and mediums, and their role in the subject at hand, is a central theme throughout the book. The second wave emerged after the Second World War - the CIA professionalised what it labelled ‘political warfare’ while the Eastern bloc before the Wall was rife with disinformation. (Notably, Rid considers this period the only time the West has been in the disinformation ascendency.)
The third wave rose in the late 1970s, which Rid describes as the time when ‘active measures’ were at their most active and most measured. Disinformation was refined into an operational art as the nascent digital revolution, driven by advances in solid-state electronics, brought computational power and with it the prospect of more raw fuel - information - to the fore. The fourth wave was defined by the rise of the internet and brings us to our present moment. Here we discover how quickly the assumptions of the Information Age have turned inward. Rid argues the Internet Era has put a question mark over the very concept of disinformation operations. Internet-era operations are increasingly active while becoming markedly less measured and measurable - a conundrum that opens the way to some of the books core insights. The art and science of disinformation are disintegrating just as it becomes more dangerous.
If we are falling into error as we contend with contemporary disinformation, what is the error? Rid flags a pervasive presentism - ‘The sense of novelty is a fallacy, a trap’ - as the chief obstacle preventing clearer understanding of the nature, threat and opportunities to counter disinformation. Rid reminds us of a crucial axiom. Disinformation - at least of the most effective kind - has never been merely a bunch of lies masquerading as facts, cleverly deceiving the unwitting victim or victims. Rather, effective disinformation has always been a weaving of fact and fiction together, a way of making the two categories indiscernible from one another and deploying that amalgam against the already existing binaries and fissures every society accommodates. Here, Rid rightly identifies the ultimate target of active measures as an attack on the ‘epistemic order of liberal society,’ which is based on openness, convention and trust. An unutterable truth may follow. The internet, which Rid rightly identifies as a machine optimised for mass disinformation, may simply be incompatible with such an order.
Tropes about fake news and post-truth are therefore not merely descriptions of disinformation but are themselves affectations, obscuring a more nuanced and perhaps dissonant situation. Better fact-checkers and devoted truth-stewards will not stave off the effects of disinformation. This expresses another of the book’s most important insights: disinformation can be most effective when it self-perpetuates and takes on a life of its own. In other words, disinformation about disinformation may now be the ultimate active measure. Rid explains:
What made an active measure active was not whether a construction resonated with reality, but whether it resonated with emotions, with collectively held views in the targeted community, and whether it managed to exacerbate existing tensions - or, in the jargon of Cold War operators, whether it succeeded to strengthen existing contradictions. 2
The internet may be one such contradiction. True, the epistemological foundations of open democratic societies have themselves been destabilised for some time, a discussion Rid enters at the conclusion of the book that is arguably its most consequential. The source of instability in western societies is not chiefly the work of foreign agents, nor is it in the familiar can-carrier of post-modernity. It is not simply a product of post-structuralism or the social justice theory it elevates and propels - nor the sometimes spoiled and myopic woke-warriors who seem to carry it forward.
Paradoxically, the most destabilising forces undermining the episteme of open democratic society have come, rather, from its very successes. Postwar science, in particular the cognitive neurosciences, have delivered multiple blows against the epistemological foundations of the modern western settlement. Cognitive science shatters the Aristotelian mirage of the unitary and continuing Self - yet our social and political systems labour under full-scale assault from a heavily manipulated internet - a business model designed specifically to turn neuro-chemical addiction triggers against this Aristotelian ‘person’ - in order to predict, shape and nudge behaviour for commercial or political gain. The very concept of free will and its corollary - agency - has been scattered against the gale of an increasingly manipulation-based society. These are the true ‘existing contradictions’ the adversaries of open society have succeeded in targeting, and will continue to.
In short, the increasingly insecure cognitive environment - and our vulnerability to unsophisticated but high-volume disinformation - is a symptom of our cultural-political malaise, before it is the work of Machiavellian operatives lurking in cyberspace. The undercurrent of Rid’s history of disinformation suggests an uncomfortable truth. It has been the inability of open, rule-of-law, democratic societies to process and incorporate these existential blows emerging from the very forces modernity was so successful at propelling - science and technology - that has led to our current perilous condition. The status and function of truth and falsehood is just one of high modernity’s many casualties. Adversarial operations have simply ‘nudged’ open society towards a more acute awareness of its own contradictions. Disinformation about disinformation does the rest, closing the loop on unreality and thus closing off the means by which open societies mediate conflict and change.
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To cite this article
Documentary-note: Zac Rogers, 'Review of “Active Measures:The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare” by Thomas Rid’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 2020, 2(2):270-274. https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/review-active-measures.asp
Author-date (Harvard): Rogers, Z., 2020. ‘Review of “Active Measures:The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare” by Thomas Rid’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online] 2(2), 270-274. Available at: <https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/review-active-measures.asp>