Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

The Deadly Fallout of Disinformation

| July 08, 2020

How the history of Soviet lies after Chernobyl sheds light on our fight against Covid-19

The spring and early summer have featured two crises in America: the coronavirus pandemic and the uprisings following the police killing of George Floyd. One thing has bound them together: the difficulty of separating facts from disinformation. A major driver of this has been autocratic regimes — China, Russia and Iran — using social media to try to influence American public opinion. History may provide the key for separating fact from fiction. It reveals how and why a one-party regime used disinformation to salvage its reputation following a disaster. This happened with the Soviet Union's 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, whose history also reveals how such disinformation can be countered.

The HBO series "Chernobyl" showed in chilling detail how Soviet authorities created a cloud of lies after the Soviet nuclear power plant in Ukraine melted down on April 26, 1986. Though brilliantly made, the show did not reveal the extent to which the Soviets tried to manipulate Western media reporting about the tragedy. Once secret Soviet intelligence archives in Ukraine have exposed how Moscow used its secret police and state-run media to manufacture alternative facts about the disaster's cause and fatalities, which threatened the Soviet regime's legitimacy.

Immediately after the disaster, Soviet intelligence pursued "active measures" to protect its reputation. Such efforts were orchestrated by a special department in the KGB, "Service A," which had long used forms of covert political warfare to influence world events in Moscow's favor. These "dirty tricks" included forgery, disinformation and interfering in foreign elections. According to a high-level KGB defector to the United States, Stanislav Levchenko, in the 1980s, Service A deployed approximately 15,000 personnel.

Following instructions from KGB headquarters, "the Center," the local Ukrainian KGB undertook active measures to influence western investigative journalists reporting about Chernobyl....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“The Deadly Fallout of Disinformation.” The Washington Post, July 8, 2020.