Lies, Propaganda, and a Little Bit of Truth

How disinformation works, in science or anything else

A quick announcement: Next week (Tuesday, April 21), I’ll be doing an author discussion (via Zoom) with the Quarantine Book Club! More details at the end of the post. And in the meantime, thank you for subscribing, sharing, and supporting this newsletter! Yes, you can totally forward it to your friends.

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an extraordinary reported piece tracing how Vladimir Putin’s network of Russian propagandists have been sowing and spreading disinformation about health for more than a decade. Many of these claims, amplified via social media, internet chat boards, and RT, have something or another to do with vaccines and infectious agents. Russian agents have been particularly successful at promoting a conspiracy theory that says that the novel coronavirus was in fact a germ weapon created in an American laboratory to target China.

It’s a good piece. Anyone interested in Russian trolls, psychological warfare more generally, or Putin’s path to power should read it. But I want to talk about the title: “Putin’s Long War Against American Science.”

As you might guess, I have a lot of thoughts about this! But out of respect for your inbox, I’ll limit myself to three things.

First, Vladimir Putin did not invent the idea of using propaganda about science and medicine to weaken his enemies. Scholars of other times and places can give examples from their own storehouse of knowledge, but having written a book on the role of science-based campaigns in the ideological Cold War, I can say with certainty that the United States and the former Soviet Union have been lobbing these sorts of charges against each other for several generations now.

Have you seen The Manchurian Candidate? The plot involves a US Korean War veteran who, having been brainwashed as a POW, becomes a sleeper agent who tries to subvert the US government. The (fictional) story jumps off from the (real) US explanation of why two captured US pilots confessed to dropping canisters of biological agents over North Korea: They were brainwashed. During the Korean War, the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea accused the US of using biological weapons on the Korean Peninsula. The US denied (and still denies) the claims, but the Soviet Union made skillful use of the facts at hand—several well-timed epidemics, the pilots’ confessions, and the United States’ recent expansion of its biological weapons research facility in Ft. Detrick, Maryland—to persuade audiences worldwide that the United States would stop at nothing in its quest for global power.

This leads to my second point. Successful psychological warfare campaigns always contain an element of truth—what Stephen Colbert once called “truthiness.” The Times article implies, but does not explicitly say, that Putin was involved with a KGB campaign that charged the U.S. government not only with creating the virus that causes AIDS, but doing so specifically to kill Black Americans.

The article attributes the success of this campaign to the KGB’s skill and the scale of the operation, but it doesn’t state the obvious: Black people in the United States would have had plenty of reasons to find this narrative credible in the mid-1980s. Keep in mind that the US Public Health Service’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study only became public knowledge about a decade earlier, in 1972 (you can read the AP’s original report here). In that nearly forty-year-long study conducted in Tuskegee, Alabama, public health researchers enrolled 600 Black men in a study designed to follow the “natural history” of untreated syphilis in the body. The men weren’t told this; instead, they were told they were being treated for “bad blood.” The researchers didn’t change the protocol even after penicillin, an effective treatment for syphilis, became widely available.

Now, there’s a double layer of confusion here. The US government’s researchers did not actually infect any of the men in the Tuskegee study with syphilis. Instead, they misleadingly implied that they were treating the participants, when they weren’t. But they did infect research subjects in Guatemala in the 1940s for the express purpose of learning how to treat the disease, as historian of medicine Susan Reverby’s research has shown.

To be clear: There is no evidence that either AIDS or COVID-19 were some sort of horrible US bacteriological warfare experiment gone wrong. But a skeptical audience, long on the receiving end of US power, could be forgiven for thinking it possible.

Finally, let’s not lose track of the big picture. In this sort of psychological warfare, the point isn’t really about whether the targets of disinformation actually believe whatever lies are being promoted. It’s about heightening the sense of doubt about whether they might be true. If they are, what else might be possible? Why trust anyone, really?

Putin understands, in a way that no one in the Trump administration seems to, that picking at the scabs of Americans’ relationships with their scientific and medical institutions has the potential to undermine the country’s stability. And look what happened. As conspiracy theories and rumors flew around the internet, the scientists at the CDC struggled to get policymakers and the public to take their warnings seriously. Now the United States’ COVID-19 epidemic is the worst in the world, grocery shelves are empty, and the economy is near collapse.

Protecting American science (and the American public) from disinformation campaigns requires more than vigilance on social media. The wounds that allow these kinds of campaign to flourish cannot and will not heal unless American scientists listen to and repair their relationships with those their institutions and their predecessors have harmed.

We start by telling the truth about the history of science in this country, so that we can more confidently distinguish between revelations that are true (Guatemala, radiation experiments on human subjects, involuntary sterilizations at institutions for people with disabilities) and those that are propaganda (AIDS and COVID as biological warfare). But acknowledgement without repair only provides more opportunities for disinformation.

What would a Truth and Reconciliation process look like for American science? What do reparations mean in the context of human experiments? Comments are open.

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On the Bookshelf: Just as the U.S. South contains countless statues memorializing Confederate generals, tributes to doctors who exploited Black bodies appear in public spaces throughout the U.S. In 2018, the city of New York removed a statue of J. Marion Sims, often referred to as the “father of gynecology,” from Central Park. Sims developed his surgical techniques by experimenting on enslaved women without anesthesia or consent. Historian Deirdre Cooper Owens’s Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology is a powerful account of how 19th-century gynecology depended on access to the bodies of women who could not refuse.

Do Something: You have until April 17 to submit a comment to the EPA on the odious Transparency Act, which I wrote about here. The Union of Concerned Science has an excellent public comment guide with instructions. Update added 12:49 p.m. April 14, 2020: The EPA has extended the deadline to May 18.

Audra on the Internet: I’m doing a book club! And thanks to Zoom, you can come, wherever you are! Tickets are $5, but there’s a code (ALLAREWELCOME) if that’s a hardship for you right now. You’ll need that ticket to get the zoom link. The fun happens next Tuesday, April 21, at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT.