At the start of 2017 decision-makers, journalists and the thinking public are more aware of disinformation than they have ever been. They may not call it “disinformation”; they may talk about “post-truth”, “fake news” or even “alternative facts”. But all of these are actually examples of disinformation, which is the conscious misrepresentation, partial or total, of fact.
The word “disinformation” has come into English and other languages (for example, French, désinformation; German, Desinformation; Spanish, desinformación) from Russian. The word “information” (информация) was adopted into Russian from English (and was originally from Latin); but the prefix dis- (Russian, дез-, hence дезинформация) was added in Russian. It is important to distinguish between disinformation and misinformation, which is the passing on unknowingly of false information. Misinformation is a Mistake; Disinformation is Deliberate.
The various terms now in use for the deliberate spreading of false information may help people to understand the concept of disinformation. But there is a very real danger that these terms could cause them to lose sight of the purpose of disinformation as put out by a country such as Russia, and that which has been termed “alternative facts” by a spokeswoman for the recently-inaugurated President of the USA, Donald Trump.
It is too early in the Trump Presidency to say exactly why the new US administration has taken a hostile attitude to the media and why the President and his entourage have used phrases such as “fake news” or “alternative facts”. The very fact that they have chosen this route is a worrying phenomenon and it needs to be closely monitored by those who value freedom of speech and democratic values. It is recognised that President Trump has proposed some controversial policies on trade and immigration in particular. He has also made comments which have led some to be concerned over how he visualises the future of Western alliances, notably NATO. But there is an important difference between this and the aims of the policy of disinformation actively pursued by the Kremlin.
Trump’s declared aim is to “put America first”. He expects the rest of the world to be aware that this is the case and fit their own policies to this. His opposite number in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, however, has a different agenda. Whilst he is “putting Russia first”, he also has the aim of disrupting the countries of the West as much as possible. Trump may have a few close advisers attacking the US media and using peculiar-sounding phrases such as “alternative facts”; but Putin has overseen the creation of an army of people and institutions who have the deliberate aim of disrupting Western life and creating chaos in Western societies.
It is no exaggeration to call the purveyors of Russian disinformation “an army”. The most public branches of this army are the television channel RT (founded in 2005 as “Russia Today”) and the Sputnik news agency. Liz Wahl is an American journalist who worked as a correspondent and anchor for RT from 2011 until she resigned on air in 2014 in protest about what Russia was doing in Ukraine. She later said that,
RT's main goal is not to seek truth and report it. Rather, the aim is to create confusion and sow distrust in Western governments and institutions by reporting anything which seems to discredit the West, and ignoring anything which is to its credit.
Behind RT and Sputnik there are thousands of people employed in Russia in what have been nicknamed “troll factories”: people working together in large groups constantly to push out vast amounts of disinformation via social media. There is no equivalent to this in the USA, and herein lies the crucial difference between what Trump is doing and what Putin is doing.