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Perhaps Russia’s most notorious disinformation campaign to date was Operation INFEKTION, an activemeasures campaign designed to persuade the world that the United States was responsible for the creation of the AIDS virus (Boghardt, 2009; Selvage & Nehring, 2019). The effort, perhaps more properly referred to by its Russian codename, Operation Denver, began in 1983 with the planting of a fictious letter to the editor in The Patriot, an Indian newspaper created some years earlier by the KGB for the purposes of spreading pro-Soviet propaganda. The letter, entitled “AIDS may Invade India,” was purported to be written by a respected American scientist and claimed that the virus originated at the US chemical and biological warfare research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland. This original source was then cited in later KGB efforts to further spread the conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory remains rooted in some communities. A 2006 study found as many as a quarter of Black Americans believe AIDS to originate from a U.S. government laboratory (Ross et al., 2006).

Operation Denver illustrates a key goal of many disinformation campaigns, that of narrative laundering. Narrative laundering is a process with the goal to conceal the origins and sourcing of false or misleading information.1 The process can be thought of as proceeding in three stages (Korta, 2018; Meleshevich & Schafer, 2018). The first stage is placement, the initial posting of the false information. Recent campaigns, including Russian campaign to reveal information from the Podesta email hack, have relied on inauthentic social media accounts for this purpose. Following placement is layering, the spread of that information from its origin to more credible sources. Repetition of a narrative itself brings a perception of credibility, and so this process has also been engaged in by employing both authentic and inauthentic social media accounts. The final stage is integration. This is the point at which the information becomes endorsed by more credible and genuine sources and is widely disseminated by real users.

Proceeding through these three stages, this report will describe the details of a current Russia-linked narrative laundering campaign combining traditional KGB laundering tactics observed as part of Operation Denver with modern digital technologies, including social media, digital publishing, and artificial intelligence. While this report will focus on one narrative for the purposes of illustration, we will show that the campaign is linked to at least twelve wholly fabricated stories circulating with varying degrees of success through the digital ecosystem.

The affordances offered by digital technologies have impacted every stage of the narrative-laundering process. The ubiquity and reach of video-intensive social media platforms with extremely limited provenance substantially reduces the costs of placement. The rise of social media as the primary way that readers encounter news eases layering. Inauthentic actors have several ways to tamper with how novel narratives are presented, including the creation of fake accounts and the harnessing of ideologically focused communities. Small media outlets can easily have worldwide reach, while online financial integration means that transacting with those outlets is easier than ever. Finally, and most dramatically, technological changes in digital publishing and AI have enable an entirely novel strategy of integration—the de novo creation of a credible and (seemingly) mainstream media outlet to directly deliver the layered narratives to the target audiences. These technological changes mean the campaign described in this report distributes false narratives faster, at greater volume, and at lower costs than was the case with Soviet-era campaigns. Unlike many of the recent Russian-aligned activities (such as the 2015-2017 IRA campaign (Linvill & Warren, 2020) or Secondary Infektion (Nimmo et al., 2020), this is not, primarily, a social-media phenomenon with substantial investments in fake persona with social clout. Instead, this campaign also represents a return to the past, but turbo-charged with modern technology.