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The Power of Lies: 10 Infamous Disinformation Campaigns and their Consequences

Disinformation, the deliberate spread of false information, has been used for various purposes throughout history, to sow confusions, manipulate public opinion, and create social and political instability. To show the scale of the problems disinformation creates, we thought it helpful to take a look at some famous cases of disinformation.

1. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The Protocols is a fabricated anti-Semitic text purporting to describe a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. It was first published in Russia in 1903 and has been used to incite hatred and violence against Jews ever since. Despite being debunked as a forgery, the dangerous false information continues to circulate in some parts of the world.

"If ever a piece of writing could produce mass hatred, it is this one. . . . This book is about lies and slander." Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

2. Operation INFEKTION

In the 1980's, the Soviet Union spread a false story under the campaign Operation INFEKTION that the United States had created the HIV virus as a biological weapon. The story was picked up by media outlets around the world causing widespread panic and stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDs.

"The whole point of disinformation is not to change somebody's opinion but to make it impossible to know what the truth is." Thomas Boghardt, Historian

3. Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction

In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US government and its allies claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This claim was based on faulty intelligence and was used to justify the invasion. When no WMDs were found, it was revealed the claim was false, leading to widespread criticism and loss of trust in government.

"What appeared to be gold in terms of intelligence turned out to be fool's gold, because it looked like gold, but it wasn't." General Mike Jackson, Former Head of British Army

4. Russian Interference in the 2016 US Election

According to US intelligence agencies, the Russian government conducted a campaign to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election. This included the use of social media bots to spread disinformation, hacking into Democratic Party emails, and promoting divisive content. The interference has been linked to a decline in trust in the electoral process and increased polarisation in the US.

"We have interfered (in U.S. elections), we are interfering and we will continue to interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do." Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin

5. Covid-19 Disinformation

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, disinformation has been spread about the origins of the virus, the effectiveness of vaccines and the severity of the disease. This has led to confusion and distrust, and hindered efforts to control the spread of the virus.

"Our common enemy is #COVID19, but our enemy is also an “infodemic” of misinformation." - Antonio Guterres, Sec Gen, UN

6. The Skripal Poisoning

In 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury, UK. The UK government blamed Russia for the attack, but Russia denied involvement and spread its own disinformation including suggesting the UK had staged the attack as a false flag operation.

"RT’s and Sputnik’s coverage of the Skripal incident had all the features of a disinformation campaign; they sought to sow confusion and uncertainty through a vast array of contradictory narratives and unchallenged conspiracy theories." Dr Gordon Ramsay, Kings College London

7. Catalonia Independence Referendum

In 2017, Catalonia, a region of Spain, held a referendum on independence. The Spanish government declared the referendum illegal, and there were reports of disinformation campaigns on both sides. Pro-independence groups accused the government of spreading false information, whilst in return the Spanish government accused them of using social media to spread falsehoods and violence.

“It is important that we know that there are certain entities, which may be public or private, that try to interfere in national politics, that try to affect and create unstable situations in Europe,” Dolores De Cospedal, Defence Minister, Spain

8. Brexit Referendum

In 2016 the UK government held a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. There were accusations of disinformation campaigns on both sides including the Leave campaigns claim the UK could save £350 million per week by leaving, and the Remain campaigns claims on immediate economic shock, which were later shown to be exaggerated. The role of disinformation in the referendum has been the subject of ongoing controversy and investigation.

"If people lose trust in information they find online, they will ultimately lose trust in democracy altogether," Vera Jourova, Vice President Values and Transparency, EC

9. 2015 Refugee Crisis

In 2015 Greece became a major entry point for refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe. There were reports of disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading fear and mistrust of refugees, including crime rates and terrorist threats. Misperceptions continue to exist throughout Europe.

"Sometimes this isn’t on purpose, but it’s misrepresented either because of ignorance or because of malicious intent of the journalist who wants to create an emotional impact on the readers.” Jacopo Ottaviani, IJF19

10. The Ukraine Conflict

Since 2014, Russia has been involves in a conflict in Ukraine, which has included disinformation campaigns. Russian media outlets have spread false information about the conflict, including suggesting that the Ukrainian government is fascist and that Russia is not involved. This disinformation has contributed to an ongoing conflict and to anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia.

"War is not only a military opposition on UA land. It is also a fierce battle in the informational space" Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine

These cases, among many, demonstrate the significant harm that disinformation can cause, from stigmatisation, fear and violence to erosion of trust and social and political instability. Join us in TITAN as we work to co-create solutions that better help people identify false information online.

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