Disinformation — Who Coined That Word Anyway?

“The mood of national suspicion prevalent during the last decade … is well illustrated by General Krivitsky’s account of the German ‘Disinformation Service,’ engaged in manufacturing fake military plans for the express purpose of having them stolen by foreign governments.”

Report on Nazi Intelligence Activities (1939)

How Disinformation Can Be Spread — Explanation by U.S. Defense Department (2001)

Over the past few months there’s been a lot of talk in the media about “Fake News” and “Disinformation”. But what is “Disinformation” exactly? Where does the word come from? And when did it enter the English language? Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

RELATED POST: Studies in Intelligence — “To Resist Disinformation, Learn to Think Like an Intelligence Analyst”

RELATED POST: US: ‘Global Engagement Center’ set up to fight ‘Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation’

RELATED POST: Fake News & Journalism for Peace — Pope Francis : “The Truth Will Set You Free.”

While ‘Fake News’ are usually associated with the modern use of ‘social media’, disinformation is not a new phenomenon. Disinformation has long been used as a tool of information warfare by state and non-state actors, during war and peacetime, to influence events ranging from international conflicts to local and national elections.

What is new is how modern technologies have made ‘disinformation’ extremely powerful.

Social-media, machine-learning, targeted advertising and hacking have led to a massive explosion in the scale and effectiveness of disinformation.

So what is disinformation exactly? Is it antonym of information? Synonym of misinformation? Does it differ from ‘Fake News’? Is it morally acceptable? Is the use of disinformation ethical? Is it illegal? If so, under which circumstances?

These questions seem rather obvious but the answers could be quite complex. For instance, does the answer depend on the context, such as peacetime or wartime? Does it depend on the ‘theatre of operations’ (land, sea, air, space or cyberspace) ?

I will let you think a bit about this before offering some answers in future posts. Today, let us just look into the origin of the word.

Although the Nazis were undoubtedly doing a ‘bit of disinformation’ back in the 1930s, the noun — and the practice — are most often associated with the Soviet KGB.

Most linguists believe that the English word “disinformation” is a literal translation of the Russian “dezinformatsiya”. (Of course, it is possible the English version of the word and the Russian language version developed independently in parallel to each other.)

Joseph Stalin is personally credited for coining the term dezinformatsiya. Uncle Joe liked that word because it sounds French and therefore one would erroneously conclude that it had a Western origin. Tricky Dick would be impressed!

Disinformation was defined in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1952) as “false information with the intention to deceive public opinion”.

Thus, ‘disinformation’ is ‘misinformation — defined as false information — with the intention to deceive.

The KGB used the term in the early 1950s to name a department specifically created to dispense propaganda.

Although, the word ‘disinformation’ was certainly used by English-speaking Intelligence Agencies (CIA, MI6), it did not appear in English dictionaries until the late 80s.

RELATED POST: Korean Airliner Flight 007 & State Disinformation

‘Disinformation’ first made an appearance in English dictionaries in 1985, specifically in the Webster’s New College Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary.

English use increased in 1986, after revelations that the Reagan Administration engaged in disinformation against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

If you wonder how the Reagan White House justified planting disinformation in US newspapers, please read this story:

Blast From The Past — Reagan and the 1986 “Libyan Terrorism” Disinformation Op

By 1990, the term disinformation began to be used outside the world of Intelligence and fully established itself within the lexicon of politics.

By 2000, the term had become a polite synonym of ‘lies’ while it was at the same time often used to describe propaganda.

In 2017, the term “fake news” was named Collins’ Word of the Year. Collins defines it as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.

PS. The reader will have noticed that both ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ were — of course — defined in relation to ‘information’. Fair enough. But how do you define information?


Misinformation :

False (incorrect or misleading) information

Disinformation :

False information that is given to people in order to make them believe something false or to hide the truth

False information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth

A Brief History of Disinformation


Disinformation — Wikipedia


Disinformation — Who Coined That Word Anyway?

A recent example:

“I hope I wasn’t the only reader to note the irony in the Sunday opinion piece ‘6 ways to think like a CIA analyst to beat fake news.’ Historically, one of the functions of the CIA has been to create and disseminate fake or at least slanted news to support military interventions and American foreign policy in general. As just one example of many, the Iraq War could not have happened without CIA connivance in creating a false public impression of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” aimed at the United States. And for decades the CIA maintained paid assets at major media outlets throughout the world – including the U.S. media, which was liberally seeded with CIA plants. So when a “veteran former CIA analyst” offers lessons in detecting disinformation, consider her Rule #4: “Don’t blindly trust sources, assess them.”

Hugh Iglarsh — Skokie, Illinois (April 30 2018)

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