On Active Measures


When it comes to being discussed in media, disinformation seems to be treated as a new concept. Commentators discuss this emergent threat of influence operations by foreign nations seeking to shape elections, cultures, and spark discord against its enemies.

Yet the reality is far different.

While the name may have transformed over the years, morphing from ‘active measures’, to ‘information warfare’, to the contemporary ‘disinformation’, the act of influencing people, societies, and nations is nothing new. Disinformation has, in a form that we would at least recognise today, existed for at least 100 years. Yet the story of how these campaigns came to be and how they were carried out are rarely given the attention and discussion they deserve.

This is where Active Measures by Thomas Rid steps in; a stunningly detailed look at the last century of information warfare. Beginning its analysis in the years after the Russian Revolution, the book gives fascinating insight into how various campaigns were orchestrated. As the chapters and years pass by, we’re given a look into how disinformation has routinely sat at the cutting edge of technology, making impressive use of novel technologies that the general public was only just starting to come to grips with.

An aspect of the book I found fascinating was how Thomas will detail, at length, how a given disinformation campaign came to be: who was involved and how it was conducted. This is in itself a fascinating change of perspective. Oftentimes recounts of Cold War espionage and the like will focus on daring missions and thrilling escapes. In Active Measures we are told of how a single (potentially) fabricated booklet may have sparked a war, or how some doctored newspapers may have lead to the collapse of a repressive society. It’s a refreshing change of pace and viewpoint that never ceases to amaze when a new campaign is introduced and detailed.

Where things get really interesting, and indeed concerning, is that after having spent a considerable number of pages examining a given campaign, Thomas will jump to the present day. Here he lets us in on the ongoing discussions and quarrels that persist. It is fascinating to hear how strong opinions still are on disputed information from over half a century ago in some cases. This really speaks to not only the effectiveness of disinformation campaigns but also their longevity, carrying on far into future well after their original goal has been accomplished.

Disinformation itself may be nothing new, but the tactics deployed are always changing and improving. Active Measures begins its examination back in 1921, when forging paper-based government documents was cutting-edge. As we live through an ongoing revolution in media with the increasing ubiquity of the Internet and new frontiers emerging in virtual reality and such, one wonders what a book like Active Measures could look like another 100 years from now.