Inside The Russian Disinformation Playbook: Exploit Tension, Sow Chaos A new video series by New York Times reporter Adam Ellick explores Russia's role in spreading fake news, dating back to the '80s conspiracy theory that the AIDS virus was created by the U.S. military.
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Inside The Russian Disinformation Playbook: Exploit Tension, Sow Chaos

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Inside The Russian Disinformation Playbook: Exploit Tension, Sow Chaos

Inside The Russian Disinformation Playbook: Exploit Tension, Sow Chaos

Inside The Russian Disinformation Playbook: Exploit Tension, Sow Chaos

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/668209008/668303704" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A new video series by New York Times reporter Adam Ellick explores Russia's role in spreading fake news, dating back to the '80s conspiracy theory that the AIDS virus was created by the U.S. military.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR I'm Terry Gross. The Russian playbook for spreading fake news and conspiracy theories is the subject of a new three-part video series on The New York Times website titled "Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation: From The Cold War To Kanye." One episode goes back to the 1980s, when the Russians created and spread the conspiracy theory that the AIDS virus was created by the U.S. military for use as a biological weapon. The other episodes are "The Seven Commandments Of Fake News" and "The Worldwide War On Truth." My guest, Adam Ellick, produced and co-directed the series. He's the executive producer of opinion video at The New York Times, which is a new feature on their website.

Previously, he was senior international video correspondent and a reporter at the Times who focused on human rights. When he was reporting from Pakistan in 2009, he was the first journalist to tell the story of Malala and how, with her father, she fought for girls to have the right to attend school. That was three years before she was shot. In 2015, Ellick co-produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning video about an Afghan woman who was burned to death by a mob. Ellick won three Overseas Press Club awards for his coverage of Pakistan and the Arab Spring. He produced videos from North Korea one year ago.

Adam Ellick, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I want to start with the conspiracy theory about the AIDS virus. And you track how this originates with Russian fake news, with Russian disinformation. So just describe the conspiracy theory for those people who don't remember it.

ADAM ELLICK: So this is the AIDS conspiracy theory that was born out of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. And it basically, says that the U.S. government - specifically the Pentagon - created the AIDS virus as a way to kill blacks and gays. And they worked for about six years from Moscow and all around the world spreading this and planting it in different countries, first in Africa and then in Latin America and in South Asia. And eventually, it made its way onto the "Evening News" with Dan Rather.

GROSS: So this conspiracy theory still has some traction, doesn't it?

ELLICK: It does. I mean, one of the lessons in this is that a lie never truly dies. And we found in surveys as recently as 2005 that at least 30 percent of African-Americans still believe in the AIDS conspiracy theory. And it is repeated often in popular culture. Our film shows a bunch of examples where you can see it on TV, on YouTube and in musical concerts, including - it's repeated often in a song by Kanye West.

GROSS: So this conspiracy theory that the U.S. military created the AIDS virus to kill African-Americans and gay people was created by the Russians in 1983. This was before the fall of the Soviet Union. So it's the Soviets who are creating it. Of all the conspiracy theories that they could have cooked up and tried to spread, why this one?

ELLICK: Well, they cooked up and spread many. This is certainly not the only one. They've been doing this for decades, even before the early 1980s. But this one was incredibly successful because it did sort of - it followed a very specific Soviet playbook when it comes to disinformation. Which is they were trying to sort of sow chaos and exploit existing tensions in American society. And this was a time in the early 1980s when there was a lot of hysteria around AIDS. A lot was unknown. People were dying, and a lot of people did not know why.

So it was a vulnerability in terms of the West. And it was also a time with racial tension. So the Soviets always try to exploit any sort of tensions, whether it was class, race, religion. And they definitely have an affinity for infections and disease. And the Russians still do that today. We noticed that in the past few years with the Zika virus. And even the AIDS conspiracy has returned in the past few years.

GROSS: And politically, in 1983, when the Soviets started spreading this rumor, there was a lot of political homophobia. Like Republicans were trying to activate their base with anti-gay scare tactics. So that was like a political vulnerability that they could exploit. And, of course, racism never dies, it seems, in the U.S. So that's an easy one to exploit, too. So the first place that the Soviets planted this conspiracy theory was in a newspaper in India. That seems like an odd route to take, but it made sense to the Soviets. Why?

ELLICK: Well, I would argue it's sort of a masterful route to take. What the Soviets did - and we sort of laid out the tick-tock chronology of how this hoax went viral before the Internet ever existed. And the first thing they did is they planted the story in an Indian newspaper. It may sound and feel like no big deal, but The Patriot was a newspaper in Delhi. And the newspaper was left-leaning, so it had some sympathy for communist ideology. And the Soviets often planted stories in countries where journalists could be easily bribed. And they also planted stories in countries that had a vulnerable audience, and by that, I mean sort of a lack of media literacy.

So they first planted it there, and it was published in The Patriot. And then we didn't hear about that story for some time. And then a year or two later, I believe in 1985, it resurfaced in a weekly Soviet newspaper. And the source in that Soviet newspaper was the article in India. And basically they rev up - they rev that tactic up, and soon, you could find this story all over Africa - in Kenya, in Zimbabwe, in so many countries around the continent. And a few years later, we found that story had reached 80 countries, from Pakistan and Bangladesh to Argentina and Brazil and Central America.

GROSS: So one of the ways the Soviets kind of juiced this story was to find a scientist or a "scientist" in quotation marks who was willing to endorse it. So who did they find to try to give this story, like, scientific credibility? By story, I mean conspiracy theory.

ELLICK: Right. So every successful disinformation campaign needs a useful idiot. And a useful idiot is someone who's useful because they can help spread and disseminate that lie. And they also kind of have to be an idiot because they need to be able either to be willing to pass it on or they need to genuinely believe it. And in this AIDS example, the useful idiot was an East German couple who worked at a university in Berlin. And they wrote a long scientific report which is essentially unreadable and makes no sense. And its sources are very murky and ambiguous.

And it basically argues that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus in Fort Detrick, Md., which was an actual U.S. military base. And they cooked it up as a so-called ethnic weapon in order to kill blacks and gays. And Dr. Jakob Segal and his wife Lilli were the useful idiot professors who wrote the scientific report that the articles then cited.

GROSS: So Dan Rather reports on the story. He doesn't say, this story is true, this conspiracy theory, but he does mention it. How did it get to Dan Rather, and what did Dan Rather say?

ELLICK: Yeah. So Dan Rather was an evening TV anchor. And he repeated the story. And he sourced it to the Soviet newspaper, which was the second source when this went so-called viral. What happened in between when the article was first planted in that newspaper in India and when it finally reached the evening TV broadcast with Dan Rather's show in the late 1980s is sort of the secret sauce or the magic of what the Soviet Union did so well. And it just popped up in country to country across Africa and Latin America.

And it was repeated so often that the sourcing almost became impossible to untangle because all different countries were quoting other left-leaning newspapers around the world. And Dan didn't repeat the actual story as if it was real, but he referenced it. And he cited the Soviet newspaper. And The Sunday Express in London ran a story about it as well. So it wasn't just Dan. It reached the Western press in the U.K. and in the U.S. And that's sort of the ultimate triumph for the Kremlin at that time.

GROSS: So when Dan Rather reported on this, he was just saying, this story is circulating. He wasn't saying it's true. Is that right?

ELLICK: That's correct.

GROSS: OK. So Putin was in the KGB during this era when KGB agents were expected to contribute disinformation as part of their job. And you say that now disinformation is his favorite tool. Why do you think it's his favorite tool?

ELLICK: Well, disinformation has a lot of advantages. First of all, it's very cheap. It's certainly more affordable than tanks and aerial bombardments. It's also a long game. So the fruits of disinformation pay off over many, many years. And Putin is not - unlike many politicians in the West, Putin doesn't have a four- or eight-year term. He's been in power for a really long time, and there appears to be no end in sight of his rule. And disinformation definitely requires a long view. There's a great quote in one of these videos that we surfaced from the 1980s. And someone said that it's like when water hits a rock in the middle of a rainforest, you return a few years later and the water is still hitting the rock, but there's no dent in the rock. And then you return 10 years later, and there's a small dent in the rock. And you return 20 years later, and there's a massive hole in the rock. And that's sort of how a disinformation campaign succeeds, with a really, really long view.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Ellick. He's the executive producer of opinion video at The New York Times. And this is a new thing at The New York Times. And he has three videos that he just directed, a series of three videos, on disinformation and how the Russians have spread it. And you can see those on The New York Times website. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Ellick, and he's the executive producer of opinion video at The New York Times. And this is a new thing at The New York Times. And he has a series of three videos about disinformation spread by the Russians. And the title of the series is "Operation InfeKtion."

So one of the videos is about the seven commandments of fake news. And, you know, one of the, you know, so-called rules in the playbook that you developed was, you know, wrap the fake news around a grain of truth, wrap the conspiracy theory around a grain of truth, and that leads to Russia Today, which has more truth than conspiracy theory, but it's embedded. Like, the conspiracy theories and fake news are embedded in the journalism. You say Russia Today is about 80 percent actual journalism and 20 percent disinformation, which gives the 20 percent of disinformation a lot more credibility 'cause you think, well, so much of what's on here is true. This must be true, too.

ELLICK: Yeah. It's a fascinating story, and a largely untold story of Russia Today. I mean, when Russia Today launched in the States, they were in the back seat of New York City taxicabs, and they hired people like Larry King, who were familiar faces to an American TV audience. And this helped normalize the TV station and made it appear like just yet another TV station in the U.S. on your expanded cable package. And if you watch their coverage sort of passively, most stories are quite typical, and not offensive and not full of disinformation campaigns. But when you sprinkle in a few cases here and there, they become much more believable because they're wrapped in what is otherwise normal broadcast TV coverage.

The other thing that I think it's important to understand about RT is some people say, well, RT is not a very popular cable channel in the U.S. But they have one of the fastest-growing YouTube news channels in the world, outpacing both CNN and Fox News between 2015 and 2017. Their numbers are astronomical, incredibly popular, including with a young audience. So they shouldn't be thought of as just a cable TV channel.

GROSS: So we've been talking about conspiracy theories and fake news that have been spread by Russia and have caught on in the U.S. But as you point out in your series of videos, we're starting our own fake news now, and it's catching on quite well. President Trump has frequently described the media as, like, bad people, the enemy of the people. And he revoked Jim Acosta's White House pass, his White House press credentials. And CNN is now suing because of that.

But I bring this up because there's a fake video that was spread when a White House intern at President Trump's post-midterm press conference grabbed the microphone from Jim Acosta when President Trump didn't like Acosta's question. And the video was faked in a way to make it seem like Acosta tried to karate chop this young woman's, the intern's, arm. And he did not actually do that. So it made it seem like he was being aggressive against her in a way that he wasn't. Have you learned anything about that video?

ELLICK: So one of the challenges in making this film is that the news sort of moved faster than we could.

GROSS: That's so true. Like, every day. I mean - yeah.

ELLICK: I think one of the things this series does is it enables you to consume the news at a higher level because every single day, there would be examples of from George Soros conspiracies around the Kavanaugh hearings. And I think every day, there are examples of stories where there are either fakes out there, disinformation campaigns or even just somewhat softer lies that needed clarification. And we were trying to shed light on how this stuff gets cooked up in the kitchen. And the fake video, the example that you just gave, is a really important one because that is no longer the future. A lot of people, a lot of analysts, even, still describe fake video as sort of the future frontier of fakes. But it's the present.

I mean, the software isn't so advanced yet that every user, every layperson can make fake video in their basement. But it's changing at a rapid rate. And what worries is that our government is still trying to get its head around what happened around the 2016 election, and those attacks were first planned in 2014. And I just worry that we're constantly lagging behind a lot of other countries when it comes to detecting this and sort of wrestling with the consequences of disinformation.

GROSS: As you point out, the Russians used a lot of Eastern European countries to test out the Russian techniques - or before that, the Soviet techniques - for spreading conspiracy theories and fake news. And those countries in Eastern Europe have tried to protect themselves against this happening in the future. What are some of the techniques they've used that we could maybe learn from?

ELLICK: So part of Putin's brilliance in leaning on disinformation is the many iterations of testing that he employed after he took power. And soon after he took power, he tested disinformation campaigns on his own people, on Russians. And then he took his game overseas but still kept it in the region. And he tested it in places like Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic states. These are former Soviet republics. And then of course, as we all know, in recent years those tactics have landed on the doorstep of Western governments.

But there is a lot we can learn from Eastern European nations. We argue in the film that they are far and away the most advanced at sniffing out Russian lies. And there's an obvious reason for that. They've lived under Russian or Soviet rule for generations now. They're media literate. They're skeptical. They're critical thinkers. And they're used to this. It's old news to them. I lived in the Baltic states between 2001 and 2003. And I was always really impressed with the sort of healthy skepticism in those societies. They seem to be fully aligned that Russia, as a former occupier, is still up to no good.

GROSS: So of all the things Eastern European countries are doing now to combat Russian disinformation, what's one of the most effective things you think they've tried?

ELLICK: I mean, they're the stars when it comes to countering Russian disinformation. There's an example in our film which is just so powerful. I think on Sunday night, in Latvia on the most popular TV channel, there is a show that's basically "This Week In Russian Lies." And they reveal and debunk all of the most popular lies that the Kremlin disseminated that week. This is in a prime-time slot on Sunday night. It's basically the same time when, in America, we're watching "The Bachelorette" or "The Voice" or one of these popular reality shows.

And Eastern European governments, I mean, they've come to Washington. Their leaders have testified in Washington. And they're just incredibly savvy. This is an issue that they've been dealing with for decades. There's also an amazing example where Estonia has a volunteer cyber army. And they fight disinformation in addition to doing a bunch of other things. It's basically like a digital national guard.

GROSS: So back during the Soviet era, before the end of communism, give us a sense of the resources that the Soviets were putting into spreading disinformation.

ELLICK: When you look at the way the Kremlin operated during the Soviet Union, they had up to 15,000 agents who did disinformation campaigns. And this is at a time when the U.S. government's policy was basically not to respond to these lies. So they - for decades, Russia has dwarfed us when it comes to the scope, the scale and the prioritization of disinformation.

GROSS: My guest is Adam Ellick. He produced and co-directed The New York Times video series, "Operation InfeKtion: Russian Disinformation: From The Cold War To Kanye." It's on the Times website. After a break, he'll tell us about a conspiracy theory about him and about making a documentary about Malala three years before she was shot. And Justin Chang will review the new film, "Widows." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Adam Ellick, producer and co-director of a three-part video series on The New York Times website about the Russian playbook for spreading fake news and conspiracy theories. It's titled "Operation InfeKtion: Russian Disinformation: From The Cold War To Kanye." Ellick is executive producer of Opinion video at The New York Times, which is a new feature on their website. Previously, he was senior international video correspondent and a reporter at the Times who focused on human rights. Among the places he's reported from are Pakistan and North Korea.

So you were the target of a conspiracy theory. And that's one of the reasons why you made this three-part series about conspiracy theories and fake news. You were living and reporting from Pakistan at the time. What was the conspiracy theory about you?

ELLICK: So when I lived in Pakistan in 2010, I made a documentary about Malala Yousufzai. It was some of the first public reporting about her - ever - when she was still a school girl. This is before the attempted assassination. And she was an activist that was a local activist who was standing up to the Taliban, which at the time were bombing many schools for girls.

And I made a film about Malala. And then after she was shot, which was three years later, a lot of these conspiracy theories started popping up that I was a CIA spy and that I had found her and staged her activism as a way to stand up to the Taliban and as a way to demean Islam. And this conspiracy theory really took off. And all sorts of press in Pakistan and all sorts of websites and even national TV stations started reporting on this conspiracy.

And even several years after that, again, one night when I was living in Europe, my Twitter account started blowing up. And one of the most popular TV talk show hosts in the country had started a second disinformation campaign. And he claimed that I was one of the terrorist bombers that had blown up the school in Peshawar, where dozens of school kids lost their lives. And he showed an image of one of the dead terrorists and then showed an image next to it that was a photo of myself. And both of us had white skin and blue eyes.

And the terrorist was from a certain tribe there that has light eyes, the Afridi tribe. And he claimed that I was one of the attackers and that I was dead. And I was getting hundreds if not thousands of messages and being tagged on Twitter, of people asking if I was alive or not and why I took the lives of these school kids.

GROSS: Why target you like that? I mean, clearly you were - you were being hated for documenting a girl who was an activist on behalf of education for girls in Pakistan. So why make it seem like you were blowing up a school? I mean, it's the opposite of what you would do.

ELLICK: I think anti-American conspiracies in Pakistan are mainstream. They're not fringe whatsoever. And any time that there is chaos - internal chaos - in the country, such as the terrorism threat that they've suffered from since 9/11, there is a sort of impulse to blame external factors or external enemies. And when you have a terrorist problem that is killing kids at an alarming rate and blowing up schools for girls, creating a disinformation campaign that this is the plot of a foreign country is a tactic that can convince the local population, the Pakistani public, that this is not our problem; this is the problem of other people who don't like us.

And this is part of a much broader - I mean, I was the victim of a much broader disinformation campaign that blames the U.S. for all sorts of internal factors. And earlier, we talked about a kernel of truth. And of course, the kernel of truth here is that the U.S. has meddled and interfered in Pakistan since its inception in 1947. And we have a long history, occlude - including a not-so-pleasant history in the 1980s of propping up some of these terrorist groups.

So they lean on that kernel of truth in order to add credibility to the more recent disinformation campaigns, including the one about myself and other American officials who are meddling - who are meddling in the country today, or so these conspiracy theories claim. And they really stick. I mean, they go mainstream. And after this - after this report came out, I received a death threat through a statement that al-Qaida put out. And that was circulated in one of the local-language newspapers in the city of Peshawar.

GROSS: I mean, these things are really serious. You have to take that really seriously. How did you protect yourself after that?

ELLICK: Well, it's really interesting having made this film because we looked at what the U.S. government's response was to disinformation campaigns, like - like so many of these around the world. And in the 1950s and '60s and '70s, there was a reluctance to respond to disinformation. The U.S. government's policy was basically if you respond to a lie, you dignify it.

And I think we have made some progress on that since 2016. I think we're getting in front of more lies today than we were a few years ago, no matter how absurd or ridiculous they may seem to us. But I struggled with that on a very personal level. Again, some of this was between 2013 and 2016. And I had not yet made a film about disinformation. So I basically went silent. I did write to some editors. And I wrote to some colleagues. And I definitely tweeted a bit just to sort of show that I'm behind this account. But I think if that happened today, I would probably get in front of it a lot more aggressively and try to counter it with more force and more confidence.

GROSS: How effective is facts against a conspiracy theory? Because a lot of people who believe conspiracy theories are kind of immune to facts. Once they believe a conspiracy theory, it's hard to talk them out of it.

ELLICK: I mean, if you're looking for a silver-bullet solution in how to extinguish a lie, I'm sorry to report that there isn't one. You can't make this stuff go away. But fighting disinformation is an exhausting, never-ending game. And if you don't get in the game at all, you're definitely going to lose. So getting in front of these lies and showing facts is a big part of what's needed.

But the film argues that there's a much bigger role for the government to play and that they've basically been asleep at the wheel. And this problem is in urgent, desperate and long overdue need of regulation for social media companies and for the government to take this more - far more seriously than it has in the past few years. So I'm not against the good-old fact check. I think that's a really healthy ingredient for a democracy. But I think the attention that this problem deserves is needed at a much higher level.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Ellick. And he's been a reporter for The New York Times for years. Now he's the executive producer of Opinion video at The New York Times. And he just directed a three-part series called "Operation InfeKtion." It's about how disinformation spreads. And it focuses on how Russians spread disinformation and conspiracy theories. We're going to take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF COFFIN AND THE MU'TET'S "LOW HANGING FRUIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Ellick, whose been a reporter for The New York Times for years now. He's the executive producer of opinion video at The New York Times. And he has a new three-part series that he directed called "Operation InfeKtion." It's about how conspiracy theories and fake news are spread, including stories about how the Russians spread it and the playbook that they seem to follow.

So I want to get back to doing a video documentary about Malala before she was shot, when she was starting to be an activist on behalf of education for girls in Pakistan. How old was she when you spent six months with her and her father documenting this story?

ELLICK: So I met Malala when she was either 9 or had just turned 10 years old. And I was the first reporter to tell her story publicly. She was known basically as an ordinary schoolgirl, at the time, whose father was head of - basically what's equivalent in the States is, like, your local PTA or local school board association father who owned a private school for girls. And he was a source of mine as I was trying to understand a larger issue because, within weeks of when I moved there, the Taliban had threatened to close down all schools for girls. And when I heard that, I asked my Pakistani fixer, or the assistant to a foreign journalist - how many schoolgirls will be affected by this closure? And when he said 50,000 schoolgirls, my heart basically dropped. And I felt compelled to find a way to turn this into a big feature story.

So I called one of the big shots in the local school association, and that was Malala's father. And that's how I met her. And the film is not only the first reporting of Malala worldwide, but it was also the only significant reporting that documented her when the Taliban was controlling her hometown and when she was doing her grassroots activism.

GROSS: What was the nature of Malala's activism when she was 9 or 10 and you started reporting on her?

ELLICK: Well, at that time, the Taliban were threatening to close schools for girls. And Malala and her family were speaking up at rallies and press conferences and trying to raise their voice in the public, calling for the army to come in and intervene because, at that time, her hometown was circled with Taliban checkpoints. And the Taliban controlled the markets and imposed a pretty brutal form of Sharia at the time.

GROSS: Where were you when you learned that she was shot?

ELLICK: I was actually in Boston on a sabbatical, a one-year sabbatical from the Times, back in school for a year. And I saw her name trending on Twitter one morning. And then I quickly read the news and basically felt like I had gotten punched in the gut. This was three or four years after my film had been broadcasted.

And a lot had changed during those three and four years, especially for her, because after our film was broadcasted, she became sort of like a mini-celebrity within Pakistan. The film got picked up, naturally. Many people in Pakistan speak English, so they were able to watch and understand the film. And the local press sort of made her a media darling after that. And whenever they wanted to cover this issue, they would get a soundbite from her. She appeared on national TV shows. She started wearing makeup. She received death threats from the Taliban. She continued speaking out.

If you watch my film when she was about 10, her family were - they were very cautious. And they watched their words carefully. It was an incredibly tense time. I mean, there were Taliban checkpoints all around her town. But three or four years later, it was a different environment. The army had already come in and cleared out some of the militants from the region, and her words were much more forceful. There was a clip of her talking on the radio referring to the Taliban as cockroaches. This was the type of thing that no one would have dared to say back when I was on the ground there.

GROSS: When you were reporting on Malala and her father a few years before she was shot and nearly killed, you had warned her father that this story might be too dangerous in the sense that, you know, if they were out there in your reporting that they might get hurt. It would make them vulnerable. And the father said that he wanted you to continue reporting. And you said that this was, like, the only time that you warned a source that it might be too risky to proceed with the story.

When Malala was shot, did you feel like making her story famous, you know, in America and around the world put her in more jeopardy? Did you feel - did you feel guilty about it?

ELLICK: I mean, my emotions at that time and even today, like many turning points in life, are complicated and mixed and tangled. I definitely feel guilty about the fact that I made that decision along with her father and that, even though she was only 10, we didn't engage her in that conversation. I think there are reasons why that happened. Elders and men basically make decisions in Pakistan. And culturally, it would have been quite odd to ask a 10-year-old girl for her opinion. But I still think that it was my responsibility to sort of, at the very least, encourage her father to find out what her red lines are and what her comfort level is. And I wish that conversation had three people in it and not only two.

But I'm also proud of the work because I did what journalists dream of doing, which is finding a little-known crisis in a far-flung corner of the world and trying to put a spotlight on it. And I think my story raised a lot of awareness and eventually, thanks in part to some pressure from the States - this was at a time when American foreign policy actually cared about Pakistan - the army eventually went in and cleared out their hometown of Swat and the region, which had terrorists basically in full control up until then.

And one of the reasons why Malala's father agreed to participate in the film is because he felt like he was desperate and that there was no hope. And he said that it's sort of his duty and his obligation to speak out. And The New York Times had showed up on his doorstep, and he saw this as an opportunity to raise his voice. So it's - when I reflect back on it, there are just a lot of complicated and even slightly conflicting emotions of a mix of some guilt and also quite a bit of pride.

GROSS: When it comes to disinformation, you say, you know, it had been you know, like, Russians versus us or the Soviets versus us. But now it's kind of us versus us because Americans are starting more and more conspiracy theories and spreading disinformation on social media. Do you think it's even worse now because it's us versus us in addition to them versus us?

ELLICK: Yeah, it's a lot worse now. I think during the Cold War, it was us versus them. And the Soviets had a very specific disinformation strategy, which was to demonize the West. We were enemy No. 1, target No. 1. Today Russia is launching a disinformation campaign against the States, which is basically trying to get us to believe in nothing. It's trying to erode belief and credibility in anything. And it's also us against us. And this country is so split and divided that we're now using this Soviet playbook, this disinformation playbook, on ourselves.

GROSS: Well, if the press is now the enemy of the people, as the president describes the press, and people look to the press for facts and for information, for truthful reporting and the president is discrediting the press, is that, in a way, the ultimate example of us against us?

ELLICK: Yes. And it's also the ultimate example of Putin's greatest triumph, which is the long game that he's been playing for many, many years, since he took power. And I think that strategy was planted long ago, and it's really paying off in a big way for the Kremlin right now.

GROSS: Adam Ellick, thank you so much for talking with us.

ELLICK: Thank you.

GROSS: Adam Ellick produced and co-directed the three-part New York Times video series "Operation InfeKtion: Russian Disinformation: From The Cold War To Kanye." It's on the New York Times website.

After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review Steve McQueen's new film "Widows," starring Viola Davis. This is FRESH AIR.

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