Imagine a covert plan to weaken the United States, not through military sabotage or stealing state secrets, but simply through the manipulation of the news media. The plan involves foreign agents who write and disseminate false news articles with the aim of destabilizing American society and driving a wedge between the United States and its allies.
No, this isn’t a story about the 2016 election, but rather about how the Soviet Union capitalized on perceived American indifference toward the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and began disseminating “fake news” as part of a disinformation campaign that had major ramifications for American foreign policy — and may well still be influencing Russian-American relations .
To be fair, the Reagan administration was slow to act when it came to HIV/AIDS. In a news conference on Oct. 15, 1982, journalist Lester Kinsolving asked White House press secretary Larry Speakes whether President Ronald Reagan had any reaction given that “AIDS is now an epidemic.” Speakes provided a terrifyingly ignorant response: “What’s AIDS?”
When Kinsolving tried to explain the nature of the illness, noting that it was informally known as the “gay plague,” Speakes responded in jest, saying, “I don’t have it. Do you?” The fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been reporting on AIDS for more than a year apparently was not known in the White House. “There has been no personal experience here,” Speakes concluded.
The spread of AIDS within the United States and the negligence of the Reagan administration provided the Soviets with an opportunity at a moment when Cold War tensions were high. Noting that many Americans were distrustful of their government after the Vietnam War, and observing that HIV/AIDS was more prevalent in groups that were critical of Reagan’s policies, the Soviets decided that beginning a disinformation campaign about the origins of the disease could sow dissent within the nation and among U.S. allies. ...