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Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

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This revelatory and dramatic history of disinformation traces the rise of secret organized deception operations from the interwar period to contemporary internet troll farms We live in the age of disinformation--of organized deception. Spy agencies pour vast resources into hacking, leaking, and forging data, often with the goal of weakening the very foundation of liberal d This revelatory and dramatic history of disinformation traces the rise of secret organized deception operations from the interwar period to contemporary internet troll farms We live in the age of disinformation--of organized deception. Spy agencies pour vast resources into hacking, leaking, and forging data, often with the goal of weakening the very foundation of liberal democracy: trust in facts. Thomas Rid, a renowned expert on technology and national security, was one of the first to sound the alarm. More than four months before the 2016 election, he warned that Russian military intelligence was "carefully planning and timing a high-stakes political campaign to disrupt the democratic process. But as crafty as such so-called active measures have become, they are not new. The story of modern disinformation begins with the post-Russian Revolution clash between communism and capitalism, which would come to define the Cold War. In Active Measures, Rid reveals startling intelligence and security secrets from materials written in more than ten languages across several nations, and from interviews with current and former operatives. He exposes the disturbing yet colorful history of professional, organized lying, revealing for the first time some of the century's most significant operations--many of them nearly beyond belief. A White Russian ploy backfires and brings down a New York police commissioner; a KGB-engineered, anti-Semitic hate campaign creeps back across the Iron Curtain; the CIA backs a fake publishing empire, run by a former Wehrmacht U-boat commander, that produces Germany's best jazz magazine. Rid tracks the rise of leaking, and shows how spies began to exploit emerging internet culture many years before WikiLeaks. Finally, he sheds new light on the 2016 election, especially the role of the infamous "troll farm" in St. Petersburg as well as a much more harmful attack that unfolded in the shadows. Active Measures takes the reader on a guided tour deep into a vast hall of mirrors old and new, pointing to a future of engineered polarization, more active and less measured--but also offering the tools to cut through the deception.


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This revelatory and dramatic history of disinformation traces the rise of secret organized deception operations from the interwar period to contemporary internet troll farms We live in the age of disinformation--of organized deception. Spy agencies pour vast resources into hacking, leaking, and forging data, often with the goal of weakening the very foundation of liberal d This revelatory and dramatic history of disinformation traces the rise of secret organized deception operations from the interwar period to contemporary internet troll farms We live in the age of disinformation--of organized deception. Spy agencies pour vast resources into hacking, leaking, and forging data, often with the goal of weakening the very foundation of liberal democracy: trust in facts. Thomas Rid, a renowned expert on technology and national security, was one of the first to sound the alarm. More than four months before the 2016 election, he warned that Russian military intelligence was "carefully planning and timing a high-stakes political campaign to disrupt the democratic process. But as crafty as such so-called active measures have become, they are not new. The story of modern disinformation begins with the post-Russian Revolution clash between communism and capitalism, which would come to define the Cold War. In Active Measures, Rid reveals startling intelligence and security secrets from materials written in more than ten languages across several nations, and from interviews with current and former operatives. He exposes the disturbing yet colorful history of professional, organized lying, revealing for the first time some of the century's most significant operations--many of them nearly beyond belief. A White Russian ploy backfires and brings down a New York police commissioner; a KGB-engineered, anti-Semitic hate campaign creeps back across the Iron Curtain; the CIA backs a fake publishing empire, run by a former Wehrmacht U-boat commander, that produces Germany's best jazz magazine. Rid tracks the rise of leaking, and shows how spies began to exploit emerging internet culture many years before WikiLeaks. Finally, he sheds new light on the 2016 election, especially the role of the infamous "troll farm" in St. Petersburg as well as a much more harmful attack that unfolded in the shadows. Active Measures takes the reader on a guided tour deep into a vast hall of mirrors old and new, pointing to a future of engineered polarization, more active and less measured--but also offering the tools to cut through the deception.

30 review for Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    This is a truly amazing summary of disinformation (especially early Soviet, US vs Soviet during the Cold War, and post-cold war Russian operations). Pretty amazing overview of everything. I was already very familiar with all the post-cold-war stuff, but learned an a lot about the earlier periods from this book. I think there are really four core lessons here: 1) Intelligence agencies use disinformation extensively, and it wasn't solely the Russians -- the US was great at this in the 1950s too! 2) This is a truly amazing summary of disinformation (especially early Soviet, US vs Soviet during the Cold War, and post-cold war Russian operations). Pretty amazing overview of everything. I was already very familiar with all the post-cold-war stuff, but learned an a lot about the earlier periods from this book. I think there are really four core lessons here: 1) Intelligence agencies use disinformation extensively, and it wasn't solely the Russians -- the US was great at this in the 1950s too! 2) Wittingly and unwittingly, press and activists really are the critical enablers of this 3) A lot of the disinformation (and other intelligence ops) have been for really dubious value -- i.e. spending massive amounts of money and time to do something like "reduce the prestige of an adversary" -- perhaps the hardest part of this whole thing is measuring success, and in particular, having the right metrics in the first place 4) Technology, and especially social media, makes active measures "more active and less measured". (I personally wasn't a huge fan of the postmodernism argument toward the very end, but the rest of the book was great.)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Rid provides several case studies of active measures applied by the Soviet Union, its allies, Russia, and the US from roughly the 1920s onward. The case studies are engaging and, with the benefit of hindsight, Rid does an excellent job examining their effectiveness. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that for all the conspiracy theories and fake news proliferating on the internet and cable news, the truth itself is often ignored despite being just as, if not more, fascinating th Rid provides several case studies of active measures applied by the Soviet Union, its allies, Russia, and the US from roughly the 1920s onward. The case studies are engaging and, with the benefit of hindsight, Rid does an excellent job examining their effectiveness. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that for all the conspiracy theories and fake news proliferating on the internet and cable news, the truth itself is often ignored despite being just as, if not more, fascinating than the conspiracy theories. Rid does an excellent job examining some of the active measures employed during the 2016 election. His analysis of Russia's Internet Research Agency convincingly describes an effort that likely, in itself, had little impact on the election. Rid's analysis of how Russia's military intelligence hacked the DNC's emails is also excellent, although he does not offer an assessment on whether or not the Russian effort to support Republican efforts to keep news of Hilary's emails in the public spotlight impacted the election. While the individual analysis of these two measures is excellent, it was disappointing that Rid did not examine whether these were simply efforts in a Russian campaign to boost Trump at the expense of Clinton. The US intelligence community published this assessment, without saying whether or not the election results were affected, in January 2017, which Rid would certainly have read. Rid also avoids making an assessment on whether Russia was able to undermine democracy in the US simply by interfering. Republicans get to say that there was "no collusion" and that the results were not affected while leaving open the potential for Russia, at a minimum, to interfere in the same manner again. More likely, Russia will apply the lessons they learned in the US and elsewhere to elections in any country where Russian leaders feel the country has a strong national interest. Another shortfall of Active Measures is that Rid does not provide an overarching model to consider how the implementation of active measures fits into or mirrors the broader intelligence cycle (establish requirements, task assets, collect information, analyze information, inform decision makers) or feeds back into a state's strategic decision making. Rid also missed the opportunity to examine US military doctrine on psychological operations and the ethics of active measures. While Rid ably discusses the US's use of active measures during the Cold War, he misses how such tactics perhaps evolved into modern psychological operations. An American today may argue that the difference between US and Russian information/psychological operations is that the US tells the truth to influence adversaries and the public while a country like Russia invents stories to exploit vulnerable populations, but this begs the question of whether or telling the truth to support a perverse goal could be unethical and disastrous (possibly inciting violence or triggering a war by revealing foreign corruption) or whether lying (directly or by omission) to prevent conflict (not disclosing US active measures that supported a coup movement in a foreign country) could be ethical and morally sound. These shortfalls are relatively minor given the excellent research and insight in Active Measures. Clearly, the public of any country subject to active measures most consider not only whether the measures had the effect that was initially intended, but whether the measures can serve a longer-term, disruptive effect on the targeted country.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dave Hunt

    This may be one the most important book on the subject of disinformation since Ladislav Bittman's The KGB and Soviet Disinformation: An Insiders View.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Wilson

    Outstanding book; one that I’ll be referencing for quite a while. Pair this with “The Sword and the Shield” and you have one of the most complete histories of the Russian mindset towards the west and all open societies, and why their existence is perceived a threat to Russia’s more totalitarian government. Amazing how since the 1920s, Lenin was prescient in discussing how any rift within a culture or country could and should be attacked when facing a powerful adversary. Even more amazing is how we Outstanding book; one that I’ll be referencing for quite a while. Pair this with “The Sword and the Shield” and you have one of the most complete histories of the Russian mindset towards the west and all open societies, and why their existence is perceived a threat to Russia’s more totalitarian government. Amazing how since the 1920s, Lenin was prescient in discussing how any rift within a culture or country could and should be attacked when facing a powerful adversary. Even more amazing is how well Russia has co-opted and exploited everything from the KKK, the peace movement, nuclear reduction movements, and even tragedies within their own borders. Russia does not pick sides on an ideological spectrum, only a tear in the fabric of society. Finally, the author does a great job explaining how “Active Measures” are not only becoming more active, but more difficult to measure. This, and he explains in great detail how crucial it is to have a hysterical media as part of an Active Measure. So much goodness here. Read. This. Book!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Zachery Tyson

    I just finished reading Thomas Rid's excellent book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. "Intelligence agencies were, again & again, affected by their own constructions. It's not that [they] simply believed their own lies; it's that operators, driven by...bureaucratic logic, tended to overstate rather than understate."Analysts would write AARs & project memos that justified their efforts in terms that were clearer & more convincing than what had happened on I just finished reading Thomas Rid's excellent book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. "Intelligence agencies were, again & again, affected by their own constructions. It's not that [they] simply believed their own lies; it's that operators, driven by...bureaucratic logic, tended to overstate rather than understate."Analysts would write AARs & project memos that justified their efforts in terms that were clearer & more convincing than what had happened on the ground, where cause & effect remained entangled by design." My first supervisor as a junior intelligence analyst gave me a piece of advice I'll never forget. He said, "Never believe your own side's propaganda." Rid's magisterial book is well worth the read and a timely reminder why my boss's advice remains sound.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mythlee

    Very interesting overview and analysis, if rather grim. 'The goal of disinformation is to engineer division by putting emotion over analysis, division over unity, conflict over consensus, the particular over the universal.' This seems to be exactly where America is now.

  7. 4 out of 5

    William Schlickenmaier

    Indispensable This book is required reading. I will be revising multiple dissertation chapters after reading it, and I think historians will be referring to it for decades to come. Come for the Soviet active measures, stay for the discussion of Foucault in the conclusion.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ola Bini

    A good overview of a subset of active measures primarily between US and Soviet. However, quite frustrating to read, because it's so obvious the author has a political agenda behind everything written. It's not an obvective overview in any sense of the word - rather it's a politically slanted history. I would have loved to see this kind of history, but including a broader overview, including looking at the use of influence measures from the US targeted at Latin America and other regions.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    4.5 stars. A super compelling, interesting, and informative read on the history of disinformation. Rid starts in the 1920s, goes through the Cold War, and ends after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It is a fascinating review.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jari Pirhonen

    The book covers four waves of disinformation. (1) Early 1920s and 1930s when journalism was transformed by the radio, (2) after World War II when disinformation became professionalized, (3) late 1970s when disinformation became well-resourced and fine-tuned and (4) mid-2010s when new technologies and internet culture reshaped disinformation.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kduncan

    Very informative, and incredibly well researched,but very dry until the last chapters on hacking.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chase Metcalf

    Informative book that allows the reader to understand the evolution of Active Measures, their purpose, and how they work. Excellent resource for those interested in better understanding Active Measures and an enjoyable read for those with some background/knowledge of Active Measures. The author describes their evolution from the 1920’s till today with anecdotes and examples from multiple eras. Active Measures undermine the foundations of democracy and open society by creating uncertainty and er Informative book that allows the reader to understand the evolution of Active Measures, their purpose, and how they work. Excellent resource for those interested in better understanding Active Measures and an enjoyable read for those with some background/knowledge of Active Measures. The author describes their evolution from the 1920’s till today with anecdotes and examples from multiple eras. Active Measures undermine the foundations of democracy and open society by creating uncertainty and eroding trust. Active Measures engineer divisions within society by putting emotion ahead of analysis, division over unity, conflict over consensus, and the particular over the universal. The author claims this poses an existential threat to open societies which are built upon objectivity ahead of ideology. I found the examples used to illustrate the evolution of Active Measures over time both engaging and informative. These examples are far from comprehensive but provide a useful understanding of how Active Measures work and how they have been enabled by changing technology. Importantly, the author notes the benefit of cultural understanding when designing active measures and addresses the challenges facing both user and target - particularly the difficulty in establishing causal effects and measuring the impact of Active Measures. If there is a shortcoming to this book it is that the author does not provide really address solutions to the very real threat posed by Active Measures and can leave the reader more uncertain about what is real in the information space.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ron Seckinger

    Despite a title and cover seemingly designed to discourage readership, this is an invaluable guide to disinformation operations, from the Cheka's manipulation of White Russians in Europe to Moscow's efforts to affect the 2016 US election in Trump's favor. Included are discussions of Russia's "troll farms" creating phony personalities and inserting provocative comments on social media, as well as the theft and dissemination of NSA tools. Rid's research is thorough, utilizing declassified CIA mate Despite a title and cover seemingly designed to discourage readership, this is an invaluable guide to disinformation operations, from the Cheka's manipulation of White Russians in Europe to Moscow's efforts to affect the 2016 US election in Trump's favor. Included are discussions of Russia's "troll farms" creating phony personalities and inserting provocative comments on social media, as well as the theft and dissemination of NSA tools. Rid's research is thorough, utilizing declassified CIA materials, Russian and East German documents, and interviews with some of the participants. He underscores the risk to Western democracies in an Internet-connected world that allows almost instantaneous payoff from disinformation ops.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dpmcdermott

    Very clear overview of disinformation and active measures. Rid demonstrates through the historic examples of active measures they are both dangerous and not as powerful as we'd like to believe. I am a big fan of Rid's cyber writings and this does not disappoint. I will say the first few chapters of the book are slow, but the points made are weaved back into the book later on.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tommy

    I'm not going to doubt the veracity of information originating in US House of Representatives Committees, prestigious journals such as Reader's Digest or the integrity of Soviet defectors so lets take this at face value. I'm no friend of bastards such as Philip Agee and Carl Sagan or disinformation venues such as Covert Action magazine or WikiLeaks. I trust the leaking of secret NSA hacking tools is the modern equivalent of the publication of Who's Who in the CIA, except even more disastrous for I'm not going to doubt the veracity of information originating in US House of Representatives Committees, prestigious journals such as Reader's Digest or the integrity of Soviet defectors so lets take this at face value. I'm no friend of bastards such as Philip Agee and Carl Sagan or disinformation venues such as Covert Action magazine or WikiLeaks. I trust the leaking of secret NSA hacking tools is the modern equivalent of the publication of Who's Who in the CIA, except even more disastrous for Americas epistemic security, and there exists vast bureaucracies in Russia which are getting more efficient everyday at hacking public minds. I just seriously doubt you can get the gerontocratic establishment and their IT staff in the West to stop falling for basic phishing attacks so it looks like you'll never be able to keep those dirty cheating foreigners from having input on American foreign policy from now on. American democracy is obviously unfixable as it stands so maybe it's time to consider sortition or some other method of choosing public officials so who gets bombed doesn't get to have undue influence on the decision making process?

  16. 5 out of 5

    Henry

    I, like most people, love a good origin story. And while politics and information have been around for centuries, the use of modern communications capabilities to inform and manipulate the world around us are not as new as we might think. With a plethora of books covering information warfare from the perspective of early on-line denizens in the 1980s, to cyber-esiponage and criminal activities, to social media manipulation by sophisticated algorithms and bots, it was interesting the learn about I, like most people, love a good origin story. And while politics and information have been around for centuries, the use of modern communications capabilities to inform and manipulate the world around us are not as new as we might think. With a plethora of books covering information warfare from the perspective of early on-line denizens in the 1980s, to cyber-esiponage and criminal activities, to social media manipulation by sophisticated algorithms and bots, it was interesting the learn about the predecessors to this various activities. As society moves from the industrial age into the information age, there are those who have already made the transition and brought with them lessons from the past. Active Measures provides a historic account of some of those early activities, and how the participants morphed over time in different nations (particularly the United States and Russia) to account for shifting cultures and ever increasing technological capability. A well written historical account, and an enjoyable read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Pete Zilla

    This book is a dense, but excellent review of many of activities variously known as information warfare, political warfare, and active measures from WWI to the present, to include the 2016 election. Definitely worth a read for anyone in the United States as we have all been subject to active measures in the last few years. I thought it a great deep dive on the history of these activities, but while I’m the author didn’t solely focus on Russia (there are brief anecdotes of US political warfare), This book is a dense, but excellent review of many of activities variously known as information warfare, political warfare, and active measures from WWI to the present, to include the 2016 election. Definitely worth a read for anyone in the United States as we have all been subject to active measures in the last few years. I thought it a great deep dive on the history of these activities, but while I’m the author didn’t solely focus on Russia (there are brief anecdotes of US political warfare), he did predominantly focus on Russia and I think an opportunity was lost to explore other US and worldwide examples of disinformation and political warfare. I guess just realize this book was written in the shadow of the 2016 US presidential election and that’s how the book culminates.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mark Nichols

    This book left me angry! Each of us and all of us relies on objective (or at least accurate) information in progressing democratic society. I find it abhorrent that there are agencies and organisations dedicated to crafting and spreading misinformation - and I'm surprised to learn that it has a long and established tradition. Rid's work is wide-sweeping, clear and nicely paced - and, ultimately, disturbing. It leaves me wondering why social media agencies are not quicker to respond to the delibe This book left me angry! Each of us and all of us relies on objective (or at least accurate) information in progressing democratic society. I find it abhorrent that there are agencies and organisations dedicated to crafting and spreading misinformation - and I'm surprised to learn that it has a long and established tradition. Rid's work is wide-sweeping, clear and nicely paced - and, ultimately, disturbing. It leaves me wondering why social media agencies are not quicker to respond to the deliberate mis- and untruths that can be now so easily perpetrated through their platforms. An important read for us all!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Miguel

    The book focuses on Russian and former Soviet disinformation efforts over the past 100 years and does a good job going into the details on these endeavors. Lest one thinks that they’ll get a rehash of the 2016 IRA campaign ad infinitum, the book is ¾ of the way through before we are even at the end of the Soviet empire so it’s much more backward looking than focusing at recent events. A lot of the action takes place in post war Germany, where apparently the author spent much of his time as well. The book focuses on Russian and former Soviet disinformation efforts over the past 100 years and does a good job going into the details on these endeavors. Lest one thinks that they’ll get a rehash of the 2016 IRA campaign ad infinitum, the book is ¾ of the way through before we are even at the end of the Soviet empire so it’s much more backward looking than focusing at recent events. A lot of the action takes place in post war Germany, where apparently the author spent much of his time as well. The 2016 efforts are definitely given their due but they take place as a part of a larger whole, which is explained very thoroughly here.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Breza

    Active Measures offers a trove of information about US-Soviet active measures campaigns over the past century. It puts the 2016 Russian hacking initiatives into an historical context. Parts of the book are bogged down in detail, but even those details are informative for learning more about the true nature of active measures. The pace picks up in the last 20% when it describes the past decade of efforts. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its alarming descriptions of how social m Active Measures offers a trove of information about US-Soviet active measures campaigns over the past century. It puts the 2016 Russian hacking initiatives into an historical context. Parts of the book are bogged down in detail, but even those details are informative for learning more about the true nature of active measures. The pace picks up in the last 20% when it describes the past decade of efforts. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its alarming descriptions of how social media and the press can play a role in disseminating active measures.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Excellent overview of soviet and Russian disinformation. The ending chapter tries to make a connection between soviet disinformation and 1960s postmodern or poststructural thought (takes up Michel Foucault ) which I think is an interesting subject connection that needs to be examined further. The author did an excellent job describing computer technical subjects which become dominant in the last couple of chapters.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Michael B.

    This is a wonderfully researched and written book, and a superb exploration of the past, present and future of disinformation and active measures. Broken up into case studies of disinformation campaigns for each chapter, it covers a century of active measures. It is the finest book I have read in 2020 and well worth adding to your professional reading. I would give it six stars if I could!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Doireann O'B

    In hindsight I would have skipped most of the book, as I didn't care that much about the campaigns from the 20s-80s (althought some of them were interesting, but the book is quite long and a bit dry for these parts). The parts on internet disinformation and hacking were very interesting. The final chapter was a bit self indulgent. However it was an interesting read and well written.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Chris Turney

    This is astounding read about the role of active measures (previously known as political espionage) over the last century. A major focus is on the Cold War but the final part is focused on the use of social media and ‘troll factories’ for spreading misinformation on the web. An excellent read with fascinating insights and sobering implications for today.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    Long and politically detailed, this book makes it clear just how much the last 100 years have been affected by the injection of forged or manipulated information into mainstream consciousness. It's scary to me just how little power the every day newspaper reader has to decipher whether a fact is true in the context it is presented in.

  26. 4 out of 5

    ARezaZ

    Thorough, insightful and compelling Peter did a fantastic job laying out the history of disinformation over the past century, from its inception through to the most recent devastating campaigns. The book is extremely detailed, and highly riveting to read. Bravo!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elithrion

    Many interesting stories, although one is left wondering how much most of it really matters. (As the author to his great credit is careful to repeatedly point out - the effect of active measures is very hard to measure.)

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dale

    A very interesting history of cold war and current disinformation activities. I was fascinated by how some of the perceptions that we even have today are the result of someone shaping the narrative to their advantage.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Arthur

    I was underwhelmed. At times it was tough to keep interested. But it does contain a lot of interesting information even if the style its presented in didnt suit me.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vlad

    We are repeating history because we don’t understand it. This fantastic book is unlocked for me new understanding of information warfare, politics, marketing, and communications.

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