Fake News, Real Consequences: The Dangers of WMD Disinformation

On August 18, 2016, news outlets around the world reported that the United States had removed its tactical nuclear weapons from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, and diverted them to another NATO ally, Romania. The news was shocking. Although the United States stations several hundred nuclear gravity bombs on the territories of five NATO allies, altering their basing arrangements would be an immense technical, diplomatic, and political undertaking. As they say: big, if true.

But the story was not true; it was “fake news.” Fake news has come to mean many things, from political satire to news coverage that political leaders deem to be slanted or unfavorable. The story about U.S. nuclear weapons being transferred from Turkey to Romania was an example of a specific sort of media manipulation: the deliberate planting of false stories, usually by a government entity, for propaganda purposes. This tactic is a form of “disinformation,” a term whose origins trace back to Soviet intelligence operations during the Cold War. [1] Skimming even a few historical examples shows that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have often been the subject of disinformation operations.

 

Disinformation operations often follow a similar script.

  1. A false story or a forgery is planted in a newspaper or other media outlet, preferably one with the appearance of editorial independence.
  2. State-affiliated media sources pick up the story, often running multiple articles and commentary in order to draw attention to it.
  3. The story diffuses throughout global media outlets with friendly ideological agendas or sloppy editorial policies.
  4. The “fake news” becomes stubbornly embedded in public discourse, frequently reappearing despite expert efforts to discredit it.

The 2016 story of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons redeployment that never happened illustrates how this disinformation dynamic works in the digital age.

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Step 1: Make up a Plausible Story

Not all fake stories make for good disinformation. Very few publications have picked up on the “Bat Child Found in Cave” story. [2] A good piece of disinformation uses fabrication to advance the interests of a state or other powerful entity, and will be well-timed to correspond with actual events, discussion, and commentary. In the days leading up to the fake news about the United States pulling its tactical nuclear weapons out of Turkey, numerous experts argued in op-eds, including one on the NTI website, that in the wake of Turkey’s attempted coup U.S. nuclear weapons should no longer be stationed in the country, where their security might be at risk. [3] This genuine policy discussion lent a veneer of plausibility to a concocted story claiming the weapons had been removed. WMD issues also present an appealing target of opportunity for fake news disseminators, as official secrecy often prevents governments from confirming or denying the stories, as also happened in this case.

Step 2: Plant the Story Carefully

A good piece of disinformation needs an appropriate media outlet. State-run outlets are not the ideal choice to break the news, as their proximity to government interests undermine their credibility with foreign audiences. The best sources are those with no official state sponsorship, as they at least appear independent. When the Soviet Union planted a story about HIV being a U.S. biological weapon in the early 1980s, it did so in an obscure Indian newspaper. A widely-reported piece of fake news in February 2017 about the deployment of a new Chinese ICBM, the DF-41, apparently had its origins in a French blog post. [4] And the news about the redeployment of U.S. tactical nukes from Turkey to Romania was “broken” by Euractiv.com, a Brussels-based news site which publishes in multiple European Union languages.

Step 3: Wait for the Story to Spread Globally

While state-run media is a less than ideal match, it provides great kindling to spread fake news. Immediately after the Euractiv story broke, the Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnik News ran multiple articles parroting it. From there, the story spread throughout media outlets around the world. The proliferation of online news and social media platforms has accelerated the spread of information considerably. During the Cold War, disinformation operations often required months or years to bear fruit. For example, the false claim that AIDS was a U.S.-engineered bioweapon was first planted in an Indian newspaper in 1983, but did not emerge in the state-controlled Soviet press until late 1985. [5] Today, it only takes a matter of hours for fake news to spread around the world.

Step 4: Benefit from the Fact Your Fake Story Never Fully Goes Away

In the pre-internet age, disinformation was often contained to obscure publications without major readership numbers, but the modern equivalents of those publications can now be read by millions. Google’s search algorithm, which decides the order of search results, heavily weights links back to an original source. The network of sites and link-backs therefore function as a kind of “Google bomb” to amplify the reach and persistence of fake news stories, despite any efforts to debunk them.

Let’s say a reference to the U.S. moving its nukes from Turkey to Romania appeared on your Twitter feed or on a friend’s Facebook page. You might be curious enough to do a little research to see if there was anything to it. So you’d open up a new tab, type “Romania nuclear weapons” into Google search, and find as the very first search result—the fake news story. Sure, further down the list of search results, there are some denials and debunkings, but they are well outnumbered by the fake news, and they lack privilege of place at the top of the results. [6]

The dangers of disinformation and fake news go beyond confusing the public and muddying debate. National decision makers can fall victim to falsified information, too. For instance, on December 23, 2016, the Defense Minister of Pakistan, a state possessing nuclear weapons, tweeted a nuclear threat against Israel, another nuclear-armed state:

“Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh.Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too AH.”

He did so in response to an obviously fabricated article on the site awdnews.com, which claimed that the Israeli Defense Minister (who was misidentified in the article) had threatened Pakistan with nuclear retaliation in the event of Pakistani intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Thankfully, the incident was smoothed over, and the Pakistani official deleted the tweet. However, if a similar incident happened during a diplomatic crisis or a nuclear standoff, the results could be disastrous.

As policymakers become more reliant on social media and online news sources, they are increasingly vulnerable to fake news, including disinformation deliberately planted and cultivated by foreign adversaries. When dealing with weapons of mass destruction, believing fake news could have very real—and catastrophic—consequences.

Sources:
[1] Kux, Dennis, “Soviet Active Measures and Disinformation,” Parameters: Journals of the Army War College, Vol. XV No. 4, Winter 1985, www.iwp.edu.
[2] Allegrawwn, “Bat Boy,” Weekly World News, 18 March 2013, Weeklyworldnews.com.
[3] Lewis, Jeffrey and Schake, Kori, “Should the U.S. Pull Its Nuclear Weapons from Turkey?” The New York Times, 20 July 2016, nytimes.com; Schlosser, Eric, “The H-Bombs in Turkey,” The New Yorker, 17 July 2016, Newyorker.com.
[4] Kulacki, Gregory, “Fake News about Chinese Nuclear Weapons,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 13 February 2017, Allthingsnuclear.org.
[5] Boghardt, “Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” www.cia.gov.
[6] Chiriac, Marian, “Romania Denies Accepting US Nuclear Weapons,” Balkan Insight, 18 August 2016, Balkaninsight.com; De Luce, Dan, “No, the U.S. Is Not Moving Its Nukes from Turkey to Romania,” Foreign Policy, 19 August 2016, foreignpolicy.com.

StoryMap Sources:
[1] Kathryn Weathersby, “New Evidence on the Korean War,” Cold War International History Project, Bulletin 11, Winter 1998, pp 176-199.
[2] Thomas Boghardt, “Operation INFEKTION: Soviet Bloc Intelligence and Its AIDS Disinformation Campaign,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 53 No. 4, December 2009.
[3] United States Department of State, “Active Measures: A Report on the Substance and Process of Anti-U.S. Disinformation and Propaganda Campaigns,” August 1986, pp 71-72.
[4] George J. Tenet, “Statement by George J. Tenet, Director of National Intelligence,” 11 July 2003, www.cia.gov.
[5] Karen Mendez, “Centro de investigación biológica de EE.UU. Fort Detrick, ¿detrás del brote de ébola?” 7 August 2014, actualidad.rt.com.
[6] Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, 23 September 2017 [2:59 pm], www.twitter.com/realdonaldtrump, Lucas Tomlinson, “Iran’s Supposed Missile Launch Was Fake, U.S. Officials Say,” Fox News, 25 September 2017, www.foxnews.com.

December 18, 2017
About

How misinformation and fake news affect WMD issues

Authors
Sam Meyer

Research Associate, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2018.