As I mentioned in my first post on the Cutting Room Floor, I have been working piece on Propaganda. One of the sections was on Misinformation and Disinformation, but more importantly, I stumbled on an absolutely incredible story and it's worth sharing as it shows Disinformation being laundered into Misinformation, before becoming a widely accepted fact, with decades of ramifications.
Misinformation Vs. Disinformation
Before going forward, it's worth understanding that the propaganda I have mentioned is propaganda that is generally assumed to be truthful. Sure companies can lie about their products and what they are capable of, as can governments and various organisations for various reasons but there is a reason I chose to pick the examples I did, which is that while it is propaganda, all of it is backed by fact. We may not be able to see all of if any of the full context that was used to get to these truths, but they do not contain misinformation, to the best of anyone's knowledge. This is where Disinformation and Misinformation come into the equation as rather than truth, they are backed by Confirmation Bias, Motivated Reasoning, and/or Conspiracy and built with fabricated or little to no verifiable facts.
Disinformation is not a word native to the English language. It is borrowed from Russian where it is дезинформация, or dezinformatsiya and it is information that is deliberately misleading and spread in a somewhat covert manner such as via rumour, astroturfing or sock puppeting. Disinformation tends to rely on someone to be receptive to the information or to accept the credibility of the source as a false authority. Disinformation is what cults rely on as part of their indoctrination processes as they target people who are vulnerable for some reason to a given idea, and this new and important social group in their life is providing
Misinformation on the other hand is information that is misleading, though not deliberately so. This can be complicated as technically, The Onion could write a joke about Prague's Franz Kafka International Airport being named the world's most alienating airport, while this is a deeply funny joke, in a very well thought out and executed video, it is not intended to deceive, the aim is satire, and thus it is misinformation. Similarly our equivalent in Ireland, Waterford Whispers News is the same. When they write a story claiming that North Korea has claimed that they have landed a man on the sun, it is intended as a joke, but it is misleading. Stories such as these do get picked up as real news occasionally.
The Pseudo Gang
During the Troubles, Frank Kitson was the Brigadier in charge of the 39th Airportable Brigade, prior to this he put down the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, the Malayan National Liberation Army insurgency, the Jebel Akhdar Rebellion in what at the time was known as the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, then some time in Cyprus between 1967 and '68 during inter-communal violence between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot's. He built a whole strategy on how to conduct Counter Insurgency Operations that he laid out in a 1969 book called Low Intensity Operations which formed the groundwork for a lot of the Intelligence Contest that took place during The Troubles.
A 1960 book he wrote called Gangs and Counter-gangs would be more influential though for the purposes of telling a wee story about Misinformation and Disinformation but before that, I want to lay out another idea from the book to come back to later, the Cultivation and Recruitment of Assets. Kitson looked to recruit assets inside the various groups involved in the Mau Mau Uprising so that he would have intelligence of the various operations going on, but to get this intelligence he needed assets inside the various groups of Mau Mau.
As the British Forces in Kenya regularly arrested and interrogated people, some of them would be sent to a facility Kitson and his team ran called 'Special Methods Training Centre' where they could be interrogated, integrated and become trusted members of a 'pseudo gang' or recruited as assets inside various Mau Mau groups. He would look for those disaffected with the group they were in or for those that had joined a group because their friends had, life was easier in the gang, or others who joined because there was a sense of adventure in joining one of the Mau Mau groups. These recruitment candidates were then put through 'taming';
Training—or taming as we called it—took place in three phases. When a new prisoner first arrived he would be treated harshly. We would chain him up, feed him on posho and little else and make him realize that he was not such a wonderful hero as he supposed. During this stage he would be primarily concerned in telling his story, and we would be involved in seeing whether he was worth trying in the job.
During stage two the candidate would be gradually incorporated into the community as a friend but would not be told much about the business, nor would he be left by himself. To start with he would just be let off his chain and taken under guard to help wash the men's dishes or dig a slit trench. Gradually he would be allowed more freedom until he could walk around inside the perimeter as he pleased. Eventually if we were sure that he was going to be satisfactory he would start on stage three.
From the beginning of stage three it was essential that the man should feel that he was trusted. Once he had joined us there were no reservations. He could sleep with the others, carry arms, do sentry duty or go out by himself. Frequently on one of his first patrols Eric or I would give him our pistol and carry only a simi to make him realize that he was absolutely one of the team.
Frank Kitson; Gangs and Counter-gangs; pp 126-127
I mentioned 'pseudo gang' so I should define that, they are a group of plainclothes military members who could be sent to infiltrate insurgent areas by looking and acting like locals including, if necessary, the requisite racism you would expect of a CIC of the British Army in Kenya;
'After all, if they can take me for an Asian without my disguising myself at all, it should be easy enough to get them to accept me as an African if I black my face and wear the right clothes. And another thing, they must have been temporarily surprised at meeting an Asian Mau Mau, as no one has ever heard of such a thing before. As an African I should excite far less attention.'
Frank Kitson; Gangs and Counter-gangs; pp 84
During The Troubles, this tactic was implemented again when Kitson set up the MRF (Mobile Reconnaissance Force/Military Reconnaissance Force/Military Reaction Force. It's unclear to this day). The goal of these soldiers was to infiltrate West Belfast, an IRA stronghold, posing as road sweepers, bin men, tramps drinking methylated spirits, one woman was even a door-to-door salesperson selling cosmetic products. They would drive around conducting covert surveillance or entering burned out or abandoned shops and houses where they remove a single brick from a wall and use it as an observation post.
The MRF was more though. It was also a hit squad. Members of the MRF may disagree with this as they called their operations a 'Snatch Attempt', but you could disagree with that given the fantastic and extensive reporting of Ed Moloney or Patrick Radden Keefe. To make sure this act was subversive and to ensure that only paramilitary groups could be blamed, the MRF used the same weapons as the paramilitaries like the L2 Sterling SMG or the ArmaLite AR-18.
‘We wanted to cause confusion,’ one MRF member recalled. If people believed the paramilitaries were responsible, it would erode their standing in the community and preserve the image of the army as a law-abiding neutral referee. This was particularly true in those instances where the MRF, seeking to assassinate a target, ended up inadvertently killing an unaffiliated civilian instead.
Patrick Radden Keefe; Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland; pp 170
But what if the MRF assassinated the wrong person or accidentally killed a bystander? How do you remain the 'neutral referee'? Well, this is where disinformation comes into the story. Police would announce that ‘no security forces were involved’ but that there might be a connection to ‘political bodies’, read paramilitaries. After this, Kitson would have the local Guardian reporter summoned, Simon Winchester, for a briefing where he would lay out the incident and refer to the army's classified files on the subjects of the incident, stating that so and so was a gunman and that this is probably why they were shot.
Kitson passing this information on to Winchester is textbook disinformation. It is false information that is being spread with the intent to deceive. Winchester was also quite friendly with Kitson and his family, so he was a receptive source who did not believe that he was being influenced or that in Kitson allowing Winchester to get closer to his family, that this reeked of classic intelligence asset cultivation, something Kitson talked about extensively in his books. Winchester didn't need to be interrogated, but as Kitson said, this step could be eliminated and assets could be quickly incorporated and made to feel like they were one of the team, a trusted person to do their duty and not think all that hard about it. Winchester also believed that the army's classified documents, the source, were true and credible and that Kitson was sharing this information with him such that the correct information could be in the public domain to preserve peace.
What makes this story of particular interest in understanding the difference between Disinformation and Misinformation is that this is where the Disinformation part of the story ends. When Winchester went on to publish a story that contained the Disinformation, it was no longer Disinformation, it was Misinformation. This is the case because while the information continues to be false, it was not being passed on deliberately deceive, in fact, Winchester thought he was telling the truth, though he would later go on to realise that he was a 'useful mouthpiece' for the Army;
I would ring up Frank Kitson and he would see me without demur and would tell me, give me chapter and verse about who the person was and the rank and position within in the IRA and the importance or otherwise of this person to the IRA, and therefore to the army, and I would then go on the "World at One" and seemingly blessed with profound knowledge about the inner workings of the IRA would parrot, it has to be said, parrot what Frank Kitson had told me. So I know in retrospect that I was a useful mouthpiece, which, as I say, surprised me somewhat because of my intimate, relatively intimate knowledge of the IRA from my contacts with them, but that remained true for most of my two and a half years in Northern Ireland.
Simon Winchester's evidence to the Saville Inquiry on the events of Bloody Sunday; pp 108-109
This is a story I probably would have forgotten if not for rereading Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe in preparation for his latest book, Empire of Pain. Chapter 7, The Littel Brigadier covers a number of things I have mentioned here. I dug into a rabbit hole confirming a lot of what he had said and reading some of the stuff Kitson read while trying to confirm a number of things I came across. I do recommend the audiobook read by Matt Blaney though since he's a Nordie with a nice thick head on him and it's great to hear him pronounce words like Stickies correctly as Stick-aay's.