Disinformation, information warfare, online propaganda: is it a Russian genre?


In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to fake news and online influence activities, usually referred to as “information warfare,” “disinformation” or “online propaganda”. The main focus has been Russian online information activity since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and especially since suspicions arose concerning Russian state interference with the 2016 US presidential election. There are a variety of concepts that are commonly used interchangeably in the public debate to denote the same phenomenon: information warfare, disinformation, hybrid warfare, propaganda. Publications of a more academic nature sometimes also use other concepts: psychological operations, deception, perception management.

Clearly, the terminology is chaotic, as different authors use different terms for the same phenomena and many terms overlap in meaning. There is no single term used to denote what has come to the limelight since 2014-2016, mainly in connection with Russia but also concerning the dissemination of various fake news online. In this post, I seek to bring some clarity to the different concepts and give some historical insights and examine whether disinformation can be considered a specifically Russian genre. 

Information warfare was initially an American military term. The concept of information warfare or information operations, which spread in the early nineties after the Gulf War means the struggle for the possession and control of information and information systems and the use of information as a weapon in warfare. It is widely used to denote a phenomenon that includes psychological warfare, propaganda, influencing through mass media and big data collection and processing in addition to information operations on the battlefield and cyber warfare.

Disinformation, on the other hand, is a military term of Soviet origin. In the KGB Lexicon of Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist who defected to the West in 1992, it is defined as follows: ‘1. Misleading through false information; 2. Intelligence activity belonging to the sphere of active measures: inundating the enemy’s channels with false information, special materials, and fictitious documents, encouraging the enemy to take appropriate steps in accordance with the plans and the intentions of the disinforming intelligence service’. Thus, it can be seen that disinformation is a secret service activity and as such can be used in peacetime. According to another defector, Ceaşescu era Romanian General Ion Mihai Pacepa, Stalin deliberately gave the concept a French-sounding name to suggest it was a Western practice. The French origin is also refuted by the fact that it was not included in the 1952 or 1978 edition of the Larousse Dictionary, unlike the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. In his book about disinformation (I. M. Pacepa-R. J. Rychlak: Disinformation), Pacepa gives, among others, a detailed description of Soviet disinformation operations aimed to discredit pope Pius XII by framing him as ”Hitler’s pope.”

The concept of disinformation overlaps to a large extent with psychological warfare (also called ‘psy ops’ for psychological operations), which aims to trigger a certain psychological reaction (demoralization) with psychological and other means in order to achieve ideological, political goals for military purposes (influencing opinions, emotions, values, beliefs, behaviour, etc.) Like information warfare, psychological operations is originally also a US military term. Psychological warfare is very similar to disinformation, with the difference that the former is a bit more closely connected to military operations (although it can also be conducted in peacetime) and does not include the spread of deliberately false information by definition; however, the term ‘black psy ops’ means that the source of the information is concealed. As an example, one could mention the clandestine operation of the CIA in Poland in the ‘80s to support dissident movements, especially Solidarity, described in the recently published book of Seth G. Jones (A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland). A leaked document that shed some light on Western secret services’ contemporary psy ops and deception techniques is the GCHQ presentation published by the Intercept, a training material of more theoretic than practical nature, without any examples of application.

    A similar concept is propaganda derived from the Catholic Church's vocabulary used for missionary activity (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), originally a neutral, non-negative term that meant to promote different views, only later was it used to denote the dissemination of misleading information. Jowett and O’Donnell (Propaganda & Persuasion) have defined propaganda as deliberate, systematic attempts to shape perceptions, manipulate thinking and control behaviour in line with the propagandist’s goals.

Disinformation seems to be the most appropriate for describing current misleading information campaigns under the control of the Kremlin, as it is a Russian/Soviet term, its use is not exclusively restricted to war, and is more specific than propaganda or information warfare. However, it should be noted that, unlike the above-mentioned definition, it is not only false, but often biased, one-sided information that is used for the same purposes. In this sense, it is also close to propaganda, with the difference that it is less possible to name a specific ideology that Russia is trying to promote.  

Other countries’ secret services also use techniques similar to disinformation that can be classified as psy ops or propaganda. What differentiates Russian disinformation from these is its complex set of narratives (e. g. related to the annexation of Crimea, the fights in Eastern Ukraine, the MH17 catastrophe, the Skripal-poisoning as well as discrediting the West, Ukraine, the Baltic states etc.), coherence with the official positions of the country and systematic application (a broad network of websites in different languages to spread disinformation). It is less of a mere professional tool of secret services than the way how Russia is trying to achieve its military and foreign policy goals.

Here I am only dealing with disinformation between state actors. Lies and libels, sadly, have always been present in political and business life, but targeting whole populations with false information is only possible since the advent of mass communication. According to some, the method of disinformation has become popular all around the world, for example, in countries like India, Indonesia, Brazil. It would be interesting to see whether this is influenced by Russian disinformation campaigns or these actors just try to exploit the possibilities of the information age copying online marketing methods (e. g. astroturfing).

Disinformation is a Russian method of Soviet origin that was developed by the KGB and its predecessors and has its longstanding traditions. Russia cannot match the military superiority of the US and the economic power of China. Therefore, they simply dusted off Soviet disinformation and adapted it to the conditions of modern information societies. It is a cost-effective solution based not on economic or military but intellectual superiority that enables Russia to use a smart influencing method.

Russian military documents regularly mention, among others, disinformation practices as something that its adversaries (obviously the West) are conducting against Russia. One may contemplate whether it is an example of the Aesopian language that reveals what practices in fact Russia engages in. In my opinion, these authors are simply convinced that other countries also apply the same methods as they.

The systemic practice of disinformation in pursuing Russian foreign policy goals can be explained by the fact that Russia’s secret services, unlike in most Western countries, are closely intertwined with political power. Former secret service and military people called siloviki form an important and powerful group in Russian political life (with Putin himself being the most prominent silovik); thus, it is not surprising that the methods inherited from the KGB are still in use.

However, one should understand that it is not all black and white. The US is still the main military superpower and its influence on world politics and dominance in popular culture means that it does not need to engage in that kind of influencing activity as Russia does. Yes, disinformation is a Soviet/Russian genre, but it does not mean that other states do not apply questionable methods in order to further their aims. For example, albeit trolling has been perfected by Russia, it was also used by the US, although without much success: in 2012, the project Viral Peace was announced by the US State Department, which was meant to use harassment and irrelevant comments in order to disrupt jihadi forums and impede the extremists’ recruitment process. We can recall the advanced data gathering methods used by US security agencies (2013 global surveillance disclosures, ECHELON, PRISM etc.) or cyber warfare (the use of the Stuxnet malware to damage Iran’s nuclear program), something that Russia, of course, also engages in. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the West and its allies should not be aware of Russian disinformation practices. The reason why disinformation is especially dangerous is that it disrupts whole societies and is approved and managed from the highest levels, and Russia is using it just like it did during the Cold War. 


Tölgyesi Beatrix is a researcher and analyst specializing on Post-Soviet and Central-Eastern European politics, with a special focus on the Baltic countries. Having a prior academic background in Russian and Hungarian linguistics and culture and Baltic philology as well as area studies and more than ten years of experience of studying the region, she is currently focusing on information warfare in Central and Eastern Europe.

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