Long Before Facebook, The KGB Spread Fake News About AIDS In the 1980s, the Soviet Union and allies participated in a widespread disinformation campaign: disseminating the theory that HIV, which causes AIDS, had been manufactured by the United States.
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Long Before Facebook, The KGB Spread Fake News About AIDS

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Long Before Facebook, The KGB Spread Fake News About AIDS

Long Before Facebook, The KGB Spread Fake News About AIDS

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Silicon Valley is stepping up its campaign against disinformation. Yesterday Twitter and Facebook said they've taken down hundreds of fake accounts linked to Iran. Facebook also purged accounts originating in Russia. Right now we're going to hear the story about actual fake news that goes back more than 25 years. In 1992, Russia's foreign intelligence director admitted that the Soviet Union participated in a major disinformation campaign, spreading a rumor that lingers to this day. Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: A few years ago, Douglas Selvage and his colleagues found an old diplomatic cable. Selvage is a historian who has done research on the former East German police, the Stasi. The cable was sent in 1985, and what it said was amazing. It's the blueprint for a fake news campaign.

DOUGLAS SELVAGE: We are carrying out a complex of active measures in connection with the appearance in recent years of a new dangerous disease in the USA, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS.

GARSD: The Soviet Union and its allies worked to promote the idea that AIDS was an American biological weapon. Both the CIA and Russian Foreign Intelligence have since acknowledged this. The rumor was partially based on a report written in 1986 by Russian-born biophysicist Jakob Segal.

SELVAGE: And it was very successful because the local press picked up on it, and then also British newspapers picked up on it. It started to spread around the world.

GARSD: Even U.S. newspapers picked up the story, papers read specifically by African-American and gay communities, both of which were being devastated by the epidemic. In one newspaper, the term targeted genocide was used.

SELVAGE: The KGB was citing conspiracy theories in the United States, and then certain conspiracy theorists started citing publications associated with the KGB's disinformation campaign.

GARSD: Selvage says it points to a broader KGB tactic, dezinformatsiya. It's not just the planting of fake news. It's hardening people's existing beliefs and fears, eerily similar to the 2016 campaign season. Russian entities are said to have inserted fake stories and profiles on Facebook, stories intended to sow divisions over race and immigration.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: We were slow in identifying the Russian information operations in 2016.

GARSD: That's Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress. Yesterday Facebook did identify more fake accounts from Russia, and just a few weeks ago, Facebook deleted 32 other pages and profiles it deemed false. A popular one called Black Elevation protested racial injustice and police brutality. That's the thing. The page might have been fake, but tensions between the police and the African-American community are very real, and so were the feelings back at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

ROBERT FULLILOVE: People were trying their best to make sense of a condition that came out of nowhere, and it seemed to be affecting groups that were marginalized - gay men, black and Latino men and women.

GARSD: Robert Fullilove is a professor of social medical sciences at Columbia University. He's been hearing the conspiracy theories, many of the same ones promoted by the KGB, since the epidemic began.

FULLILOVE: There is a history, a legacy of mistrust that made explanations like this all the more credible, all the more likely and all the more believable.

GARSD: When AIDS showed up in the early 80s, it was less than 10 years after the infamous Tuskegee experiments in which black men with syphilis went untreated so scientists could study how the disease ravaged the body. Russia finally acknowledged in 1992 a KGB disinformation campaign around AIDS, but Fullilove says he still hears the rumors.

FULLILOVE: So, doc, where do you think this came from? If I heard that once, I must have heard it a thousand times, and that's not an exaggeration.

GARSD: That's the thing about fake news. Sometimes it's really hard not to believe it. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "THE TRAITOR")

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