It is indeed awful that Russian intelligence services have used social media to exacerbate American political-social divisions and spread lies during the 2016 election season and continue to today.
It is also not new. Oleg Kalugin, a retired major general in the KGB, described the underhanded tactics of his agency in his memoir Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West.
We in the KGB station in New York did everything we could to stir up trouble for the American side.
One of our dirty tricks involved a nasty letter-writing campaign against African diplomats at the United Nations – an idea cooked up by KGB headquarters in Moscow and approved by the Communist Party Central Committee. Our KGB staff, using new typewriters and wearing gloves so as not to leave fingerprints, typed up hundreds of anonymous hate letters and sent them to dozens of African missions. The letters, purportedly from white supremacists as well as average Americans, were filled with virulent racist diatribes. The African diplomats publicized some of the letters as examples of the racism still rampant in America, and members of the American and foreign press corps quoted from them. I and other KGB officers working as correspondents in the United States reported extensively on this rabidly anti-black letter writing campaign. I lost no sleep over these dirty tricks, figuring they were just another weapon in the Cold War.
Our active measures campaign did not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or color: we went after everybody. Attempting to show that America was inhospitable to Jews, we wrote anti-Semitic letters to American Jewish leaders. My fellow officers paid American agents to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. Our New York station even hired people to desecrate Jewish cemeteries. I, of course, beamed back reports of these misdeeds to my listeners in Moscow, who – tuning in to my broadcasts – no doubt thanked the Lord or Comrade Lenin that they had been born in a social paradise, and not in a hotbed of racial tension like the United States.
Makes you wonder about which hate crimes of the Cold War era were genuine and which ones were perpetuated by the KGB to tear at America’s social fabric.
Back then, agents of the Soviet Union had physically to be here in the United States to spread their propaganda and disinformation, and did so, often posing as foreign journalists. Kalugin writes that up until the Gorbachev era, “about two-thirds of Soviet foreign correspondents were connected with the KGB. The TASS news agency, Radio Moscow, the Novosti Press Agency, and Investia were heavily staffed by KGB officers.” Today the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency generates memes for Facebook and other social media networks, and probably very few if any of their staff ever set foot in the United States.
What can we do about this? For starters, maybe not believe everything we see on social media, and also not be so quick to believe the worst about our fellow Americans. Our enemies want us to hate each other.