Event Details


Tuesday, Nov 05, 2019


12:15 pm


LBJ School of Public Affairs, SRH 3.122

Spies, Disinformation and Election-Meddling: Past and Present

Spies, Disinformation and Election-Meddling: Past and Present

Tuesday, Nov 05, 2019  |  12:15 pm   |  LBJ School of Public Affairs, SRH 3.122

On November 5th, 2019, the Strauss Center, the Intelligence Studies Project, and the Clements Center hosted Calder Walton, Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy at Harvard University, for a talk on "Spies, Disinformation and Election-Meddling: Past and Present."

Photos of the event can be found here.

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Walton’s discussion proceeded through three stages: first, an overview of Russian “active measures”; second, a review of the countermeasures employed by the U.S. and Britain to KBG actions during the Cold War; and finally, a discussion of the current policy implications resulting from this history. His conclusion was that given the robust and well-documented history of Russian disinformation campaigns, Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election should have come as less of a surprise. He further concluded that this topic has not been given its due discussion in major historical works.

Walton identified three main types of Russian “active measures,” specifically: media manipulation (disinformation), influence operations (bribery, blackmail), and special actions (violent actions, including assassinations). He noted that in the Russian “disinformation forgery factory,” the propaganda employed has historically been rooted in an existing social issue—such as race relations in the United States— which is then exploited to sow discord. Walton gave brief history of major Russian disinformation actions, including the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, Russian tampering in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the AIDS virus conspiracy theories, and more. In his discussion of the actions taken by the U.S. and the UK to counter Russian propaganda during the Cold War, Walton outlined the primary strategy as threefold: first, exposure of the disinformation as such; second, proper attribution to the source of the disinformation; and finally, international cooperation in countering disinformation. Walton concluded by noting that while this technique has been around for quite some time (as illustrated by his work), Americans seem more willing to accept falsities in today’s digital landscape, and that this problem will continue to be difficult to address in an age when the public struggles to agree on the definition of a “fact.” 

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Calder Walton is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, where he is also Assistant Director of the Applied History Project and a Fellow of the Intelligence Project.  Calder's research is broadly concerned with intelligence history, grand strategy, and international relations. His research has a particular focus on policy-relevant historical lessons for governments and intelligence communities today.

Calder is currently undertaking two major research projects: he is general editor of the multi-volume Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence to be published by Cambridge University Press. Over three volumes, with 90 chapters by leading scholars, this project will be a landmark study of intelligence, exploring its use and abuse in statecraft and warfare from the ancient world to the present day. In addition, Calder is writing a book about British and U.S. intelligence during the Cold War. This book informs current intelligence and national security issues by understanding their past. Calder's research builds on his first (award-winning) book, Empire of Secrets. British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire (Harper-Press 2013). While pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Trinity College, Cambridge (UK), and then a Junior Research Fellowship also at Cambridge University, Calder was a lead researcher on Professor Christopher Andrew's unprecedented official history of the British Security Service (MI5), Defend the Realm (2009). This research position gave Calder, for six years, privileged access to the archives of MI5, the world's longest-running security intelligence agency.

As well as his research on intelligence history, Calder is also an English-qualified Barrister (attorney), and, among other matters, has worked on high-profile litigation and international arbitration cases involving government and national security issues and also regulatory investigations.

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