In July 1983, an article entitled ‘Aids may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments’ appeared in The Patriot, an obscure Soviet-sponsored publication printed in New Delhi. The piece made a bombshell accusation: that the AIDS virus had been invented by the US military as a biological weapon to kill black Americans. This genocidal conspiracy theory has since been thoroughly debunked: the virus is now understood as having originated in non-human primates. But in 1986, a ‘scientific’ report by one Professor Jacob Segal bolstered the claim that AIDS was man-made.
It soon transpired that Professor Segal was a retired 76-year-old biophysicist, living in the Soviet-controlled puppet state of East Germany. But by then it was too late. Critical faculties, as we know, can go out the window during pandemics — whisper ‘scientific evidence’, and frightened people will believe what you say.
The Soviets knew this. As the AIDS epidemic worsened, the lie that the virus was created in a Pentagon laboratory proliferated in the Soviet press, which widely cited the Segal report. The Soviet news agencies TASS and RIA Novosti, which together had over 100 bureaus worldwide, amplified the story; it began to go viral, appearing in dozens of sympathetic or unsuspecting newspapers around the globe. By the end of the decade, it had appeared in major outlets in more than 80 countries. This disinformation campaign, codenamed ‘Operation Infektion,’ was the most successful of the Cold War.
Its legacy is felt to this day. The genocidal conspiracy theory is disproportionately believed in black American communities — to the extent that it hinders HIV prevention. One survey of black Americans found that 48% believed that AIDS was an artificially made virus, and 27% believed it was made in a government laboratory.
And although the Cold War is over, the old Soviet strategy of race-baiting as a form of information warfare against America lives on. Indeed, the techniques have only become more potent, as our modern information architecture — the Internet, smartphones and social media — makes it infinitely easier for bad actors to disseminate disinformation quickly and widely.