After political powerhouse Hillary Clinton lost in a spectacular fashion against underdog Donald J. Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the world was flabbergasted to learn of foreign election interference orchestrated by the Russian Internet Research Agency. Its mission: to secretly divide the electorate and skew votes away from Clinton and towards Trump. In order to understand the present, one must know the past. This is the baseline of ‘Active Measures – The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ by Johns Hopkins Professor of Strategic Studies Thomas Rid.
I bought this book to study the methodology, strategy and tactics of disinformation and political warfare. To my surprise, the book only spends 11 pages on disinformation. The remaining 424 pages introduce historic examples of influence operations with the bulk of it dedicated to episodes of the cold war. Rid offers insights into the American approach to defend against a communist narrative in a politically divided Germany. He details Soviet influence operations to time-and-again smear American democracy and capitalism. The detail spent on the German Ministry of State Security known as “Stasi” is interesting and overwhelming.
While my personal expectation wasn’t met with this book, I learned about retracing historic events to attribute world events to specific nations. Its readability is designed for a mass audience fraught with thrilling stories. What is the role of journalistic publications in political warfare? Did Germany politically regress under American and Soviet active measures? Was the constructive vote of no confidence on German chancellor Willy Brandt a product of active measures? Who did really spread the information the AIDS virus was a failed American experiment? On the downside, this book doesn’t really offer any new details into the specifics of disinformation operations. Most contemporary espionage accounts have already been recorded. Defectors told their stories. This makes these stories sometimes bloated and redundant. Nevertheless, I believe to understand our current affairs, we must connect the dots through the lens of political history. Rid presents the foundations for future research into influence operations.