Culture

A Fake-News Warning From a Former Propagandist

Why readers shouldn’t underestimate the power of disinformation.

On the march in Czechoslovakia, 1965.

Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images

From pizza-parlor pedophilia rings to Sharia law in Florida, viral fake news stories often seem propelled by their own preposterousness. It’s a different matter for professionally produced disinformation. That, I learned from a former pro, requires a core of logic and verifiable fact.

Larry Martin, a retired professor who lives in the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts, used to be Ladislav Bittman, deputy commander of the Department for Active Measures and Disinformation in the Soviet-directed Czechoslovak intelligence service. To create the kind of disinformation that changes the world, he told me, you need a story that’s at least 60, 70 or even 80 percent true. Even well-educated people will swallow untruth without too many questions if it’s plausible and it reinforces their existing beliefs.

Today, Martin’s worried about the fate of his adopted country -- not just because of the epidemic of fake news, but because so many citizens have lost trust in the professional editors and reporters who spend their days trying to sort fact from fiction. He’s far from the only one concerned, of course: Dozens of academics, researchers and journalists recently converged on Boston to discuss the problem. But Martin has a unique insight into the issue: After all, part of his old job was to sow that kind of distrust in then-enemy countries.

Martin (then Bittman) was recruited to the intelligence service in 1954, right after he’d graduated from Charles University in Prague. In an interview at his home in Rockport, he recalled his office as a spartan room in the agency’s Prague headquarters -- a monastery that the Communist Party had confiscated from the Catholic Church. In 1964, he was chosen to head a newly created disinformation department, a job that involved forging documents and personal correspondence.

But before long, he started to have doubts about the Soviets, whose advisers directed Czech intelligence and approved all their plans. In 1968, after their tanks rolled in and quashed an attempted Czech revolution, he defected to the United States. There, the onetime propagandist reinvented himself as a journalism professor, teaching at aspiring reporters at Boston University how not to be duped. 

While disinformation campaigns often include an element of truth, he says, they’re designed to lead their targets to a false conclusion. Take, for example, one of the successful projects he describes in detail in his book “The Deception Game.” He said he and his colleagues found several hundred German-born people unhappy to be living behind the Iron Curtain. They were told they could emigrate to West Germany if they would agree to act as spies. As expected, once across the border, most of these immediately admitted they’d been recruited to be spies -- thus inadvertently becoming decoy spies, who effectively drew attention away from real spies who were already operating in the country.

His most memorable scheme was aimed at West Germany, where Nazi war criminals were still at large in 1964. That year, he created a fake story to call attention to a cache of real Nazi documents. “One of our objectives was to create rifts between West Germany and its neighbors -- France, Holland and Belgium -- by reviving the specter of Nazism,” he said.

Ladislav Bittman was a diving hobbyist, and he recognized a disinformation opportunity when he heard from friends that a local TV crew was making a documentary about folklore surrounding the Black Lake, some 80 miles southwest of Prague. Nazis had retreated to that region near the end of the war -- it was just a few miles from the border with Germany -- and hidden Nazi war plans and other documents had turned up nearby.

As part of the documentary, divers were supposed to explore the lake and retrieve some mysterious objects they’d seen at the bottom during a previous dive. Before the cameramen arrived, Bittman got there first, diving to the location of the objects and leaving some old German military cases filled with blank paper.

Once the divers brought the cases to the surface as planned, a border guard and intelligence officer who came to the filming warned that the mysterious items could contain explosives and whisked them away, promising to X-ray them. Once out of public view, the intelligence officers replaced the blank paper with real Nazi documents which, among other things, detailed executions in France and the Netherlands. Then they arranged a press conference where the Czech minister of the interior would reveal the documents.

The papers were legitimate, but they were also old; the intelligence services had held them for some 20 years, since the end of the war. They just never made them public -- until the right moment struck.

People sometimes ask they didn’t just come forward with the documents, he said. His answer: No one would have paid any attention without the sensational story. The plan worked. The story was picked up all across Europe, including in the English-language press. He said he believes the change in public attitudes pushed West Germans to defer an impending statute of limitations on prosecuting war criminals.

In 1994, Bittman -- then going by Martin -- was finally released from a death sentence his home country had imposed on him for more than 20 years. He asked to see the file they’d collected on him. It was hundreds of pages long, with information on his political leanings, his family, the Jewish family of his first wife and their improbable survival hiding out in the mountains. Some of it was true, he says. Some of it was made up.

After he retired from Boston University in 1996, Martin said the journalism department lost interest in disinformation. The Cold War was supposed to be over. But in Russia, he said, Putin is still playing deception games. “Russians think long-term,” he said. Now instead of forgery, they can engage in hacking, he said. This can be particularly effective because genuine documents -- usually personal e-mails -- can be cherry-picked to push a particular agenda. Disinformation and propaganda have always existed, but rarely have deceivers enjoyed such a strong upper hand.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

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