UK ran ‘black propaganda’ campaign against USSR, China – declassified documents

London tried for decades to drive a wedge between Moscow, Beijing, the Arab world and Africa through fake news, a researcher claims

A secret unit within the British Foreign Office conducted a “black propaganda” campaigned against the USSR and China from the 1950s to the 1970s to undermine their global influence, The Guardian reported, citing an investigator who studied a large number of recently declassified intelligence documents. London did not shy away from fomenting anti-Semitism, racism and Islamist sentiments to achieve its goals, academia claims.

“These releases are among the most important of the past two decades. It is now very clear that the UK was more involved in black propaganda than historians assume and these efforts have been more systematic, ambitious and offensive.” Rory Cormac, professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, told the Guardian.

According to the paper, the documents reveal: “hundreds of extensive and costly operations” conducted by the Information Research Department (IRD) – a secretive unit originally set up by the post-World War II Labor government to counter communist propaganda. The unit “went way beyond exposing Soviet disinformation”, Cormac has said, adding that the UK “Definitely intended to mislead the public into getting the message across.”

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The IRD had a separate, top-secret Special Editorial Unit responsible for so-called “black propaganda”, a special kind of fake news designed to look like it was produced by a nation or organization that wants to discredit the actual creator.

Some of the “reports” sent to Western governments and media contained analyzes purportedly from independent institutions, secretly run by the IRD, and warned Western countries of alleged “Soviet Subversion.” The British unit also falsified at least 11 reports allegedly released by Soviet state-run news agencies, according to The Guardian.

London mainly tried to drive a wedge between Moscow and its allies in the Arab world by both producing fake news that discredit the Soviet Union in the eyes of the Arabs, and fueling Islamist sentiments among them, the paper said. One such report, presented as coming from the USSR, criticized the Soviet Union’s military aid to Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel as a “waste.” The British agents also forged pro-Islamist literature, including that of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that had significant influence in the Arab world at the time.

IRD-falsified statements saw the Muslim Brotherhood calling the Soviets “dirty tongue atheists” and accused them of being Egyptians as “farmers” in connection “reactionary Islamic superstitions.” The IRD also went so far as to create an entirely fictitious Islamist group — the League of Believers — that attacked the Soviet Union for its atheism and blamed a lack of faith for Arab defeats in the wars against Israel.

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An anti-communist demonstration in the Indonesian capital Jakarta in October 1965. © AFP
British propaganda campaign instigated mass slaughter of communists in Indonesia in 1960, released newspapers reveal

The British unit reportedly did not shy away from fueling anti-Semitic sentiments as well. One of the pamphlets called on the Egyptians to attack Israel by asking them: “Why don’t they turn their armies against the Jews?”

The IRD was similarly active in Africa, where it repeatedly tried to convey an image of the Soviet Union viewing Africans as uncivilized. In 1963, the IRD falsified a statement by the World Federation of Democratic Youth — an organization associated with the USSR — that called Africans “primitive.” Other forgeries include statements in which the Soviets de “backwardness” and “political immaturity” of Africa, while criticizing the skills of black African students enrolled in Soviet universities.

Documents released in 2021 and seen by the Guardian also showed that the British propaganda campaign had played a role in the mass slaughter of communists in Indonesia in the 1960s. According to various estimates, between 500,000 and three million Communist Party supporters were murdered during that time.

According to Cormac, these efforts have had the full support of several successive British governments. In 1964, the Conservative Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, ordered the IRD to target Ghana because of his alleged preference for Moscow. Months later, Labor Secretary of State Patrick Gordon Walker called on the unit to produce black propaganda “from time to time” and especially fuel racial tensions between the Africans and Chinese.

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© Getty Images / Anastasia_Prish
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Although the unit was officially disbanded in 1977, similar efforts are said to last for nearly a decade, the Guardian says. Now the British government is still working on a “information war”, according to Cormac.

In February, just days before the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss revealed that the UK was creating a new unit to “disinformation” from Moscow. In March, the Telegraph reported that the unit, called the Government Information Cell, reached out to Russian social media to spread London’s view of the conflict in Ukraine.

“Liz Truss has a ‘government information cell’ and defense intelligence sends daily tweets to ‘advance’ Russian plots and gain the upper hand in the information war, but for much of the cold war the UK used many devious means” said the researcher, adding that the declassified documents are: “Particularly important as a precursor to more modern efforts to bring intelligence into the public domain.”

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