A few years ago, historian Douglas Selvage discovered the blueprint for a fake news campaign. It was a 1985 cable from the Stasi, the former East German police, outlining how the Soviet Union and its allies were working to promote the idea that AIDS was an American biological weapon. "We are carrying a complex of active measures, in connection with the appearance in recent years, of a new, dangerous disease in the United States: Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS."
It was a smoking gun, proving what intelligence agencies on both sides of the Cold War already knew — that the Soviets had played a key role in spreading false rumors about the AIDS epidemic.
Fake news isn't a 21st century creation of the digital age. It has a long track record. Selvage says the Soviets used dezinformatsiya during the Cold War to harden people's existing beliefs and fears, to sow divisions among Americans. It's eerily similar to the 2016 campaign season when Russian entities are said to have inserted fake stories and profiles on Facebook. In recent months, Silicon Valley has stepped up its fight against disinformation. Tuesday, Twitter and Facebook said they had taken down hundreds of fake accounts linked to Iran. Facebook also purged some accounts originating in Russia. And just a few weeks ago, Facebook deleted 32 pages and profiles it deemed false.
Back in the 1980s, the rumor that AIDS was human-made was based partially on a report written in 1986 by Russian-born biophysicist Jakob Segal. "It was very successful," explains Selvage. "The local press picked up on it. And then also British newspapers picked up on it. It started to spread around the world." Even U.S. newspapers picked up the story. Papers read specifically by African-American and gay communities, both of which were being devastated by the epidemic. "AIDS/Gay Genocide" read a headline in the Gay Community News, based in Boston, which quotes Segal extensively.