Resolute Square

The Power Of Disinformation

Wannabe "Strongmen" have been using disinformation to create legends about themselves and deceive the masses for as long as there have been unscrupulous, power-mad people - in other words, forever. That makes the current ones no less dangerous.
Published:February 5, 2023


While I don’t have a publication date (sometime in late 2023) I do have a cover. To celebrate–and because I had to spend most of the week working on this–I thought I’d share some of the research that went into writing the text for this book.

*published with permission from Teri Kanefield. Find her full blog here.

Disinformation as a Means of Achieving and Consolidating Power

The Behistun Inscription
A guy named Darius of Persia (522 BCE to 486 BCE) carved what is now called the Behistun Inscription into the side of a cliff.

The inscription tells the story of how he came to power. If we believe this story, he was descended from a long line of great kings, his kingdom was given to him by the supreme god Ahura Mazda, and he never lost a battle. He also defeated 19 armies in a single year and overthrew nine kings. From the inscription (translated by T. R. Shamasastry, 1915.)

Whoever is hostile to me, I utterly destroy! Whoever is a friend, I surely protect! When kings rebel against me, I vanquish them, one by one!

Basically, he was positioning himself as what Ruth Ben-Ghiat calls a “strongman”:

Darius’s inscription is included in the genre of literature called Naru literature, or “pseudo-autobiography.” These stories recount the legendary heroic accounts of the ruler and follow a particular pattern: They are written in first-person from the viewpoint of the ruler, they tell larger-than-life stories, and showcase a close relationship between the ruler and the gods. They are intended to solidify the ruler’s power by frightening his enemies and keeping people in line.

The World’s First Disinformation Manual

Chandragupta Maurya, born in 340 B.C.E., was the founder of the Maurya Empire. He needed some help winning wars. His prime minister, Kautilya (also known as Chanakya), taught him that are two kinds of wars: open wars, and concealed wars. Open wars are fought at a particular place and time and always result in casualties on both sides. They are always risky.

On the other hand, a clever ruler could entirely vanquish his enemy in a concealed war and never suffer a single casualty or have to manufacture a single weapon.

What Kautilya called a “concealed war” we would call a “disinformation campaign.” The goal was to sow discord in the enemy country (or the enemy army) by means of lies. Clever enough lies could even result in the enemy king being assassinated by his own enraged subjects. These tactics are similar to modern Russian disinformation tactics.

Kautilya collected all of his ideas into a practical handbook on how to run an empire. The book, written in Sanskrit, is called the Arthashastra. It is the earliest known written tract describing propaganda and disinformation tactics.

The Printing Press: A Major Media Disruption

Johannes Gutenberg wrote this about his invention:
“Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams, the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men!”

“A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men.”
In 1455, when Gutenberg published his first book, a Latin language Bible, he said, “God’s word shall be carried far and wide.”

God’s word was not the only thing carried far and wide.

Broadsides were papers printed on one side and distributed widely. Often these broadsides contained important news and information. Just as often, they contained destructive lies and malicious gossip to a population unaccustomed to the written word and untrained in how to evaluate the reliability of the source. People tended to believe whatever was written.

From Yale Professor Timothy Snyder: “New media always cause tremendous disruptions. The printing press led to 150 years of religious wars.”

While the printing press didn’t cause the Protestant Reformation, it was the most important driver of the Protestant Reformation by allowing for the widespread dissemination of new information, including misinformation (errors), disinformation (deliberate lies), and propaganda that people were not equipped to evaluate.

The Middle Ages: Blood Libel

In the year 1475, in Trent, Italy a few days before Easter Sunday, a two-year-old boy named Simon wandered away. Exactly where his body was found is not clear. According to some accounts. his body was found in what has been described as a cellar or sewer that ran under a Jewish house. According to another source, the body was found in an open irrigation ditch.

A medical doctor named Giovanni Mattia Tiberino examined the child’s body and concluded that the child was killed on Good Friday because Jews need innocent Christian blood for making their matzahs because they reenact the passion of Christ.

Jewish residents of Trent were found guilty of ritual murder. 
Dr. Tiberino wrote a letter to the Senate and the people. He described in horrific and graphic detail his theory of the death of Simon. His letter was published as a pamphlet called, Passio beati Simonis tridentini (“The passion of the blessed Simon of Trent”).

The printing press had recently been introduced to Italy from Germany, allowing his pamphlet to be published and distributed widely.

The incident gave rise to the conspiracy theory that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for making matzohs. 

A conspiracy theory offers an explanation for an important event. The explanation generally includes a powerful malevolent group working secretly to do evil to innocent people. Coincidence and random events can make people uncomfortable, so they seek an explanation. Conspiracy theories play into underlying fears and prejudices.

[Interesting aside: This isn’t in the book but I saw it recently. Some psychological researchers have concluded that people don’t buy into conspiracy theories because of ignorance or social isolation. They do it because of a more prevalent personality quirk: overconfidence. The personality traits known as the “Dark Triad” — that’s narcissism, psychopathy, and a tendency to see the world in black-or-white terms — play a part. So do political beliefs, particularly populism and tolerance for political violence. Cognitive biases, like believing only evidence that confirms what you already think, also make people more vulnerable.]

Interesting tidbit: Did you know that Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat cake”? The phrase was first uttered at least a hundred years earlier when the wife of Louise XIV was accused of giving this same response. The phrase was not attributed to Marie Antoinette until after the Revolution, to justify the Revolution and murdering the royal family.

Marie Antoinette lived in opulent luxury while the majority of citizens lived in poverty. “Let them eat cake” was thus a lie that pointed to what people perceived as an underlying truth. One scholar suggests that a similar phrase was actually uttered by an elderly and senile royal aunt, Mme Victoire, who hated pastry crust. When she heard that people had no bread, she (reportedly) said, “The poor dears. They will have to eat pastry crust.”

Potemkin Villages

Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796. Prince Gregory Potemkin was her principal political and military advisor. He was also her lover.

Potemkin was said to have built fake villages made of facades with nothing behind them, and hired cheering villagers (who were paid actors) to impress Empress Catherine with the bounty of the region he conquered for her. 
The idea was for the empress not to know the entire region had been left in ruins by the fighting and that the people were not supportive of her.
It is unknown how much of this story is actually true. Later, in the Soviet Union, disinformation manuals included this story with the boast that Russians invented and perfected the art of disinformation. Because the story was intended to inspire propagandists in the Soviet Union with a story about the ingenuity of Russian deception, the story itself could be an example of disinformation.

Disinformation, American Style

John Calhoun was a nineteenth-century politician from South Carolina who eventually became Vice President under Andrew Jackson. He said the following:
“I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, is a good—a positive good.”

To back up the lie that those of African descent were an inferior race, Dr. Thomas Hamilton a medical doctor, a trustee of the Medical Academy of Georgia a wealthy slave owner, conducted “experiments” that he said “proved” that persons of African descent have lower intelligence and a higher tolerance for heat and pain. He concluded that their brains are small and their sexual organs are large. Therefore, they are more sexually promiscuous and best equipped for heavy labor.

These fallacies passed off as science, bolstered the popularly-held argument that enslaved people of African descent were fit for little outside forced labor. Where slavery was outlawed, these fallacies provided support for discriminatory laws and kept white people in power.

Fascist Mythmaking

The 20th century saw the rise of a new form of government: Fascism. The ruler in a fascist regime derives his authority from the force of his personality. (A democracy derives its authority from written laws, and monarchies derive their authority from tradition.)

The fascist leader generally comes to power through legal means, either by winning an election or being appointed to power under rule-of-law procedures. Fascism, therefore, often arises in a democracy. The fascist leader then subverts and destroys the institution of democracy to give the leader complete control. Because the fascist leader comes to power through legitimate means, which would not have been possible in the age of empires and monarchies, fascism didn’t thrive in Europe until the dissolution of the empires after World War I, when new nations were carved out of the old empires and the new nations committed themselves to democratic forms of government.

Mussolini’s Pseudo-Autobiography

Here is the story Mussolini told of how he came to power (paraphrased from speeches):

“Who remembers that glorious day, October 30, 1922, when the great age of fascism began? On that magnificent day, a mighty fascist army marched into Rome to restore order and put Italy on the first step toward redeeming our lost glory.”

“Before I took control, Italy was in disarray! Inflation and unemployment were rampant! The weak and ineffectual socialists were running the country into the ground. Never before had the people of Italy so thirsted for authority, direction, order! I alone could restore order to Italy! I alone could return Italy to the glory of ancient Rome!”

“For two days, from October 28 until October 30, the great fascist army, sprung from the people, marched, and gathered strength.”

“On October 30, 1922, after marching for two days and conquering all of central Italy, an army of the people approached the palace. All of Italy was on the move! All of Italy was swept up in the thrill of the moment! The Revolution was all around!”

“We began to enact our destiny when I rode into Rome on horseback at the head of a mighty army!”

“I entered and demanded that the weak and ineffectual King Victor turn over the leadership to the men and women of Italy, to the people! After we wrested control of the government by a mighty show of force, we began the arduous task of ridding Italy of corruption! We vowed to drain the swamp!”

Here is what really happened:

On October 29, 1922, the Il Popolo D’Italia, the newspaper operated by Mussolini and his followers, published a sensational—and untrue—story about how the whole of central Italy, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and northern Latium was currently occupied by the blackshirts.

On October 30, a rag-tag poorly equipped, and untrained mob arrived at the palace.

Mussolini himself entered Rome on a train. He had a royal summons to meet with the king. He respectfully entered the palace and met with the king, who appointed Mussolini’s prime minister and gave him permission to try to put together a majority coalition.

Trump’s pseudo-biography was that he was a successful businessman. Modern parallel: Trump came to power on a lie,”I am a successful businessman” which went like this. “My father gave me a very small loan in 1975, and I built it into a company worth many, many billions of dollars.” In fact, he inherited $413 million from his father’s real estate empire and declared bankruptcy multiple times, and got rich by cheating and taking dirty Russian money.

I’ll stop here. Perhaps I’ll do a Power of Disinformation Blog Post Part II in the future.

* * *
The antidote to fascism (and disinformation) is truth.
That brings me to my newly revised FAQ pages. Because the DOJ FAQ page was getting so long, I broke it in two. Additions are in red.
See the Investigations FAQ page if you have questions like:

  1. Why is this taking so long?”
  2. “Why didn’t Merrick Garland get with the program earlier?”
  3. “Why hasn’t XX happened yet?”

See the general FAQ page if you have any of these questions:

  1. There are never any consequences!”
  2. “The consequences haven’t been harsh enough and that’s why Republicans keep committing crimes.”
  3. “At least while they are in jail, they can’t commit any crimes.”
  4. “If all lawbreakers are not brought to justice, it means rule of law in America is dead”
  5. “Using just the evidence available through public reporting there is enough evidence to convict Trump.”
  6. “The process takes too long which shows that the system is hopelessly broken.”
  7. “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”
  8. At least indicting Trump would provide some very solid schadenfreude.”
  9. “The entire system is corrupt. Just look at _______ (example).”
  10. “Trump has been committing crimes all of his life. Anyone else would have been in prison by now.”
  11. “Just lock him up now already”
  12. “Stop saying that we have a political problem. we have a law enforcement problem. Committing crimes is always wrong and anyone who breaks the law should be punished harshly.”
  13. “You can’t go by the book when the book is burning” or “Democrats / the DOJ is bringing a knife to a gunfight.”
  14. Nothing else matters if Trump is not indicted.