AIDS as a government creation - the power of disinformation

The KGB-engineered rumour that the US government created the AIDS virus - Operation Infektion - was very successful. Not only did it undermine the US and benefit the Soviets, but it remains today a dramatic, and frightening, example of the power of political manipulation, a power that has grown exponentially in influence since the widespread use of the Internet. (For those interested and able to access the NYT site, these short videos on ‘disinformation’ also include much about Operation Infektion, and were, I thought, riveting).

I work with a lot of well-informed, intelligent people and have yet to hear anyone bring up the topic of, or allude to, disinformation. When I make reference to it, no one seems terribly interested, and certainly not nearly as interested or worried about it as I am. I get the sense that people think ‘well both sides do it’ and stop at that.

Now, it’s true that they may simply think I am a conspiracy theorist, or find me boring, but as my OP here shows (as have others), I think they are misguided. I believe disinformation is THE political issue of the day and, what’s worse, will become even more important in the future. Domestically, disinformation is used for control and influence. But internationally, it really is more a form of warfare. And everywhere it’s available to anybody: governments and individuals, liberals and illiberals, progressives and anarchists.

Am I right in believing it to be the major issue of the day? Some will say that rumors and rumor-mongering have always been part of politics and societies but it’s only the Internet and its amplifying power that is new. And I would say, fine, the point is that there is still a powerful new force affecting both politics and society. A novel force that is a combination of the ancient and the newly-invented.

If ‘both sides do it’, if both sides create false ‘facts’, when is it appropriate to support one side on the issue at hand? Ultimately, I suppose it is a matter of values - the values you hold and the values you believe the other side comes closer to supporting.

Obviously I can’t prove that disinformation is the singular political issue of the modern world, but surely more needs to be done to promote awareness of it. To appreciate it for what it is, and ultimately, I hope, to lessen its impact.

I think we need a strict definition of “disinformation.” You give an excellent example of it in your first sentence but I fear that it will become a word like “bigotry” or “racism” or “fake news” where you dismiss your opponent’s argument by hand waving it away and calling it disinformation.

You’re a conspiracy theorist only if that term includes documented and real conspiracies. The KGB had excellent reasons for doing what they did. I’ve never heard any reasonable benefit the government would have gotten from destroying the WTC or for faking a moon landing.

Indeed. It will work both ways. Each ‘side’ will, at once, label the other’s claims as ‘disinformation’ while putting out its own.

I see it as an uncontrollable force leading to tension at many levels including domestic and international, and social and economic. Pretty much like the world is becoming today I’m afraid.

ETA: What I do not know is how to combat it. An appeal to human goodness? Too naive I would think.

Destroying the WTC would allow the government to engage in a buildup of the military industrial complex (which many enjoyed for financial and ideological benefits) and advance the foreign policy agenda of neoconservatives.

The moon landing being faked would allow the US government to declare victory over the soviets in the space race.

Conspiracy theories seem to come down to what people ‘want’ to believe. People on the left are more prone to believing CS that validate their underlying beliefs, while those on the right believe those that validate their beliefs. Very few people on the left felt that John McCain was foreign born and unable to serve as president, but lots of people on the right (which is more nativist) believed that about Obama. People on the left were more prone to believe in 9/11 CS. I remember seeing various polls on 9/11 theories, and the more you fit into demographic boxes that would make you democratic, the more likely you were to believe in the 9/11 CS.

The whole ‘AIDS is a government invention’ got more fertile ground among the black community, who were more prone to thinking the US government is hostile to them, especially in the age of Reagan (which you can’t blame them for believing, the government is hostile to black people and has been historically). Ironically more educated blacks were more likely to believe in that CS.

I think the best definition of a conspiracy theorist is not someone who believes in a conspiracy, but someone who regularly rejects contrary evidence by appealing some sort of conspiracy. Contrary evidence to a claimed conspiracy actually increases the likelihood of the conspiracy in their minds.

It is not merely thinking a conspiracy may have occurred, but dismissing all evidence to the contrary that makes someone into a conspiracy theorist.

And, yes, of course anyone and everyone trying to convince anyone of anything false will use disinformation to do so. It is indeed a problem, and one that we need to take head on by teaching people how to more easily identify suspicious sources. It is why critical thinking classes are vital to an informed populace.

While investigating whether the goals make sense can be useful for weeding out the worst conspiracy theories, it is often overemphasized in evaluating whether a conspiracy actually occurred.

Both, in my opinion, are better evaluated on capability. The latter is obvious: there just was not the capability of faking a moon landing at the time.

The former is less obvious, but gets into how, the more you learn about what happened, the bigger the conspiracy would have to be to pull it off. There just isn’t any way that the neoconservatives could pull this off so perfectly. There’s a reason why the conspiracy is now so elaborate.

Occam’s Razor is still helpful with conspiracy theories, even if it isn’t absolute. The simpler the conspiracy, the more likely it could have actually occurred. The fewer people who need to actually know about it, the better.

I don’t think it matters.

For example, SIV (the virus HIV is evolved from) wasn’t even discovered until years after the first HIV cases. Human scientists couldn’t evolve HIV from SIV if they didn’t even know what SIV was until the 1980s, decades after the first HIV case which goes back to 1959.

But it doesn’t matter. I think people (myself included) subscribe to conspiracy theories when those CS validate their desired and underlying belief systems. People who have an underlying belief that the US government is hostile to black people are going to be more prone to believing the US government does things to make life harder for black people (like invent AIDS). People who are more prone to racism, nativism and thinking democrats are traitors will be more prone to believing Obama was a foreign born Muslim who supports Al Qaeda.

I don’t think you can just throw facts at people debunking these conspiracy theories and expect it to matter.

Building up the military industrial complex hardly depended on that, and the actual goals of neoconservatives were to invade Iraq, clearly more important than Afghanistan.
If you want to call the existence of WMDs a conspiracy theory you’d have much better support.

Assuming the Soviets let us do it.

It is true that people believe in the conspiracy theories which support their ideologies, but that’s not a good definition. Going against the preponderance of evidence would seem to be important also. If it is true it isn’t a conspiracy theory in the usual sense.

It appears that you can’t throw facts at any wacko belief and expect it to matter. Consider flat earthers, creationists, and those convinced that vaccines cause autism. None of these are really conspiracy theories.
Big Pharma suppressing evidence of vaccine harm would be.

Whats the difference? Is one just a false belief and the other a belief that powerful people are working in secret to mislead people for nefarious purposes?

I think both come down to what I was talking about earlier, beliefs that align with existing beliefs.

Creationism is far more common a belief among Christians, which isn’t surprising. They want to believe it.

I wonder if belief that vaccines cause autism is somewhat at root tied to a mistrust of the modern medical system, or a rejection of the concept that the world is too complex and we have to trust scientific and medical experts for things we can’t validate or prove ourselves. So people believe things that justify these existing beliefs. Who knows.

Wait… the US government created AIDS? I never heard that one. Are you sure you’re not thinking of the rumor they created Ayds? The appetite suppression candy?

Yes, the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to get rid of the truly intelligent people who know that the space program has been an elaborate hoax because you can’t orbit a flat earth much less travel to the moon. :rolleyes:

If AIDS/HIV were really invented as an anti-gay, anti-black weapon, why didn’t the researchers make it more lethal? The CT doesn’t pass the purpose/utility test,

Sabotage. You’re assuming that the various shadowy factions in the government have aligned goals. Most of the apparent inconsistencies and accidental reveals of CT information can be traced to the opposing plans and actions of different cabals. The deep state is real, but it is balkanized.

Right. We’re talking conspiracy theories, not just dumb beliefs here.

Moslems also. There is a substantial Islamic Creationist movement, not in the US but elsewhere.
You can’t really blame Christianity, since plenty of Christians are not creationists. But there is a set who have been convinced that if any part of the Bible is proven wrong all of it is, and that would leave them with nothing to believe in and no reason to be moral. So evolution is not attacking a few passages of Genesis, it is attacking their entire belief system.

From my interaction with anti-vaxxers, and my wife’s research for her book, there seem to be two classes. One consists of parents who have autistic children or know of people with autistic children and want something to blame. The second set are those who want to profit from attacking scientific medicine, such as homeopaths and sellers of junk natural remedies. Wakefield falls into this class.
I’m sure there are some who distrust drug companies, but I bet most of them take other types of drugs without concern.

Pretty much agreed.

During the Cold War, the lack of a free press in the Soviet Union was a long-term disadvantage to their winning hearts and minds.

In contrast, the U.S. government wasn’t always honest, but seeing stories like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate play out in the news instilled trust that the truth would come out eventually.

With the proliferation of the internet and social media, and the capability to circumvent the press with stealthier disinformation campaigns than were previously possible, this disadvantage has been sorely reduced.

And a POTUS who constantly attacks the press plays right into Russia’s hands.

I would describe the purported goal as restoring cuts to defense spending resulting from the end of the Cold War (aka the Peace Dividend, which actually had occurred). And those cuts were indeed restored over the next few years. A subset of defense spending was the unprecedented buildup of ‘national security’ spending (e.g., the standup of DHS).

I don’t for a minute believe the Truthers, but the logic of that argument is hard to refute.

There’s a need for rapid response teams (governmental and private) to counter harmful* disinformation, and for pressure on major social media organizations not to profit by or give big platforms to such garbage.

As for the gummint deliberately creating HIV (the big conspiracy theory here is that the C.I.A. did it, targeting black people**), only those lacking basic critical thinking capacity would believe that an official plot would aim to slowly sicken and kill a substantial (but still minority) population, at great cost to the economy, while putting plotters at risk of fatal contagion from blood transfusions and sexual activity.

Which brings up the vital need for not just countering misinformation, but teaching schoolchildren (up through high school and college) to think, not just regurgitate facts or learn to Work Cooperatively With Others.

as far as I’m concerned, people can spread rumors on social media that Reba McIntire has 3 chins** and a set of antennae, without major repercussions ensuing.
**in a poll a few years ago published in JAMA, only 51% of those surveyed disagreed that such a plot was carried out, 12% were believers and the rest neither agreed nor disagreed.
***it’s two, max.

It had that impact, but Pearl Harbor did also, which isn’t a reason to believe that FDR staged it. The fake WMD threat had the same effect, without the disadvantage of killing off some of the 1%.

I agree that disinformation is a huge problem and what we are experiencing now is just the the formative stages of what is likely to be an epidemic. To me the most distressing thing about Trump is the damage he has done to the truth. He has revealed to the world that one can tell complete and utter falsehoods that are easily debunked, and still have a large number of people believe you suffer no negative consequences. This combined with deep fakes, targeted mass communication, and individualized media bubbles, will effectively mean that beyond what individuals themselves personally experience, there is no shared reality. If all the news you take in says that Notre Dame is still standing and there are videos to prove it, how do you know it isn’t unless you live in Paris.

As to how to combat it, I have no idea. Lying is a basic part of human communication. You can’t outlaw lying on the internet. Even if you could outlaw lying, you certainly can’t outlaw being mistaken, so you can’t prosecute those who are spreading it. The only way to fight it is with the truth, but you would need to make that truth as convincing as the lie. But the first step in the disinformation is to discredit all other sources of information that disagree. Further the liars have the advantage that they can tailor their lie to be emotionally appealing to the target, while the truth is just stuck with what they’ve got. The last hope is that the majority of people and news organizations are trustworthy, and actually want to spread the truth. So for now if you stick to the main stream news sources you are likely to be OK. But as the Fox type model gains more success, and media consolidates and follows a click based economic model this may not continue to be true.

TLDR: We’re fucked.