In a lecture informed by numerous examples drawn from current affairs in eastern Europe, IWP adjunct professor Paul Goble discussed the nature of disinformation as explored in the work of the scholar Natalie Grant Wraga. At the event, hosted by The Institute of World Politics on September 17, 2014, Professor Goble described how Mrs. Wraga developed her firsthand knowledge of Soviet deception tactics. A prolific author born in Estonia, Mrs. Wraga fled the advancing Communists as a young woman and dedicated her life to the study of the Soviet Union and that regime’s efforts to shape foreign opinions. Although considered to be one of the foremost experts on Soviet deception, none of her works remain in print today.
Professor Goble noted that Mrs. Wraga made a sharp distinction between blatant propaganda — which observers can easily discount from coloring their judgments — and disinformation. He characterized Mrs. Wraga’s description of the latter as a demonstrable lie, or lies, surrounded by both truths and statements which the audience wants to believe. By studying the preferences and biases of various audiences, a disseminator of disinformation is able to tailor messages that successfully spread falsehood without alerting the audience to the presence of any information other than what they have already judged to be factual and reliable. Mrs. Wraga’s line-by-line analysis of numerous Soviet documents, said Professor Goble, shows that most effective disinformation contains “between 90% and 99% truth.”
Furthermore, Professor Goble provided contemporary examples to suggest that the Russian Federation continues to employ carefully-targeted messages laced with deceit about Russia’s objectives and adversaries that appear to be successful in altering the perceptions of both popular and elite audiences. He called attention to the diverse languages of the nations of eastern Europe, many of which are little-understood outside their homelands, thus allowing nuanced meaning in some messages to escape broader attention. He also stressed the failure of Western scholars to appreciate how the events of 1991 are perceived differently by some in Russia compared to the interpretation held by most scholars and policymakers in the West, and called attention to the fallacy of equating “media balance” with objectivity.
In a robust and illuminating question-and-answer session, Professor Goble commented on the comparative effectiveness of various methods of mass communication, saying that the “era of short- and long-wave radio is over,” and suggesting that US concentration on social media results in failures to reach sufficiently broad audiences (he noted that satellite television appears to offer untapped potential for reaching certain audiences). He also addressed questions concerning how the United States might develop a stronger base of foreign language expertise, and how government transparency in the United States is a strength in shaping foreign perceptions.