The Magpies and the Cuckoos:
A Disinformation Fable
by Jessica ‘Zhanna’ Malekos Smith, J.D.
In 2018, the New York Times explored a case study in disinformation: the Soviet Union’s 1983 effort to spread lies about the origin of AIDS. The Times noted that Operation Infektion, like successful disinformation operations earlier and since, relied on seven elements.
- Identify social, cultural, economic, and political rifts in a society that can be used to heighten and exacerbate conflict.
- Create propaganda, such as a false story or several contradictory false stories.
- Anchor the propaganda in elements of truth.
- Disguise the origin of the propaganda.
- Find and exploit “unwitting servants of seemingly good causes for their own ends” to propagate the lies.
- Deny everything.
- Prioritize long-term strategic progress over short-term victories.
It’s important to realize that this list is not a precise recipe but more like principles that guide an iterative design process. This article first offers a short historical summary of Operation INFEKTION and then provides a fable to highlight how these seven elements work together.
On July 17, 1983 , the KGB released a false news story that the AIDS pandemic was created from the U.S. Government’s experimentations in biological warfare. Given the social and political tensions enmeshed with this global health issue, this choice of disinformation topics speaks to the above-listed element one.
This disinformation — an anonymously written confession letter by an alleged American scientist in New York — was printed by an Indian newspaper, The Patriot, with the headline “AIDS may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments.” The anonymous publication of this letter in another country’s newspaper supports the fourth element: disguise the true source of origin for the propaganda.
This story in The Patriot received relatively little attention until October 1985, when another article was published in the KGB newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta by Valentin Zapevalov. This article also claimed the U.S. had created AIDS.
Interestingly, according to Thomas Boghardt, the majority of the information printed in Zapevalov’s article was “accurate — an essential ingredient of a successful disinformation campaign.” Creating several contradictory as well as reinforcing narratives is part of element two.
Boghardt writes that “Zapevalov used verifiable facts about early Cold War U.S. experiments as circumstantial evidence for his claim that AIDS was the result of similar tests.” Why is it significant that this disinformation had some aspects of truth? Anchoring false information with some verifiable truth is an ingredient to creating effective disinformation. This tactic is the third element levied in disinformation campaigns.
This disinformation was then aimed at certain target audiences to exploit their concerns about AIDS and have them unwittingly become part of the process of spreading disinformation. This tactic speaks to element five of finding and exploiting “unwitting servants of seemingly good causes for their own ends” to propagate the lie(s).
In turn, the KGB denied involvement in this operation, which corresponds with element six: deny everything.
Lastly, in support of element seven, the Soviet Union used disinformation as a means of assymetrically challenging western powers during the Cold War and focusing on long-term strategic gains.
Perhaps this strategy can be further illustrated by means of a fable.
The Magpies and the Cuckoos
Winters in Ehota would otherwise have been unremarkable, if not for the villagers who praised them for being remarkable. As one might expect in the mountains, a harsh wintry mix of sleet and snow caused most plants to wither and retreat into the earth. But not, as the people of Ehota proudly reminded outsiders, the pine, bamboo, and plum — the trio affectionately called the Three Friends of Winter.
Each plant symbolized a virtuous trait that Ehotian society prized and sought to cultivate. The pine, standing tall and green on the snowy slopes, represented endurance and vitality. The plum blossom, which bloomed in late winter, showed strength of character. And the bamboo, which bent under pressure but would not break, symbolized inner fortitude.
Together, these three plants were symbols of hope and perseverance for the Ehotians in times of adversity. And while these plants were not unique to Ehota, the villagers took immense pride in the belief that only in their village were the Three Friends of Winter so robust and vibrant.
Our story begins, however, not in the village but in the surrounding woods and lake. There, in a grove of pine trees, lived a parliament of magpies — a well-ordered community of birds.
This parliament organized itself into political and social groups based on those who could sing the sweetest, fly the fastest, build the sturdiest nests, and even whose plumage had the loveliest iridescent colors of blue, green, and gold. Despite these deep social enclaves, the magpies managed to live in relative egalitarian harmony with one another.
Each autumnal equinox, parliament appointed a new leader: whomever found the longest earthworm by the lake. Their leader, Juko, had won victory by a few millimeters last fall. It was rumored that Juko and his advisors sought to disband this tradition to extend his time in office, but these sorts of fearful rumors were common before every equinox.
Several days before the autumnal celebration, a pair of cuckoo birds arrived in Ehota’s woods. Marsilius and his wife Violette were readily welcomed into the magpie community. But being reclusive and of few words, the cuckoos were rather quickly forgotten. The magpies were so focused on the upcoming festivities that they had not even noticed Violette was pregnant and internally incubating her eggs.
Nesting in a tree high above the magpie community, Marsilius and Violette studied the parliament with intense focus, noting how the society was politically and socially organized. The cuckoos watched two magpies pull at the other’s feathers wildly as they debated who, under Avian Law, was entitled to build a nest on the sunniest outer branches of a tree.
“I sing the sweetest, therefore my voice must greet the sun each morning,” one protested.
“Balderdash! Parliament ruled that skilled builders have the primary right,” declared the other.
Far above, Violette remarked, “How strange these customs are, husband.”
“How useful, my dear,” Marsilius gently reminded her.
“Yes,” said Violette dryly. “These cracks in their society will prove useful for us to exploit.”
The first day of the autumnal equinox brought unusually strong winds. Undeterred by the fierce breezes, the magpies gathered by the lake to begin the ceremony. As custom, however, the current leader remained behind to protect the community’s territory and watch over the eggs in their unattended nests. The elderly Juko was not pleased with having to patrol in such windy conditions but dutifully agreed.
Marsilius and Violette recognized an opportunity to implement their plan. Carefully avoiding Juko on his patrol route, they clandestinely visited each nest in turn. Marsilius and Violette worked tirelessly. He would toss an egg from the nest, destroying it; she would lay one mimetic egg that closely resembled the remaining magpie eggs. As the winds picked up strength, Marsilius grew less precise, kicking out two or more eggs from each nest. When Violette had finished laying her last egg, the couple flew back to their perch to watch events unfold.
You can only imagine the woeful cries when the magpies returned from the celebration to find their nests in disarray and shattered eggs on the forest ground.
“Why?! How?! How could this have happened?” they cried in mournful chorus as the wind whipped around them.
Marsilius and Violette watched placidly from above as parliament demanded Juko come forward and explain. Still reeling from the shock of this tragedy and unable to fathom how it could possibly have happened, the leader struggled for words.
“Members of parliament, please permit me to speak,” Juko began. “Our hearts are filled with inexplicable grief by this act of terror. My advisors and I are working to understand how these horrors could have befallen our community, but we must ask for your patience. We will move forward together, but in order to—”
“It was murder!” cried one magpie.
“Sabotage!” chirped another.
Hopping down to a lower branch, Violette disguised her voice and wailed, “These winds! Surely it must have done this.”
“Yes, yes, the wind!” chirped several magpies.
At this, Marsilius gracefully swooped down from his perch and positioned himself in front of parliament. “Dear friends,” he began, “no heart grieves more tenderly for you than mine and that of my sickly wife Violette’s. We know firsthand your pain; not three months ago, we lost our beautiful hatchlings to a barbarous human. Could it be that a human, or someone from our community, did this?”
A visible shudder went through all the feathers in parliament.
“Preposterous!” cried one magpie.
Marsilius continued unfazed, “Friends, while you were celebrating the equinox and I was tending to my wife, do we know who was here watching over our territory?”
Angry shouts of Juko’s name filled the air.
“Villain!” shouted one magpie.
“I’ll peck his eyes out!” shouted another.
Moving to a lower branch, Violette disguised her voice and screeched, “Juko’s power-mad! He created this mess to stay in power!”
“Yes! Yes!” squawked an elderly magpie. “It would not be the first time a leader created a crisis to stay in office. Remember the crisis of 1999?”
Parliament began to cluck in wild excitement at the mention of this.
All the color seemed to drain from Juko’s feathers. In a burst of outrage, he bellowed, “I could never do such a thing! I have only served parliament with honor and selflessness.”
“You stayed behind to protect the nests, right?” Marsilius questioned.
“Yes,” said Juko.
“And you were here when this terrible event occurred, right?”
“But you can’t tell parliament what happened, right?”
Juko’s mind raced feverishly. “Well, yes, but I didn’t... You were here too!” he said accusingly and pointed his wing at Marsilius. “I thought you were suspicious from the beginning!”
“How dare you, sir! I was caring for Violette!” All eyes turned upward toward the cuckoo’s wife. She was resting on a low branch and had lifted her head wearily at the sound of her name.
Parliament began to hum again with frantic calls for justice and violent threats against Juko and his advisors.
Horrified by the scene, Juko’s eldest son, Raku, flew to his trembling father. The son spoke in a deep steady voice, rising above the din.
“Friends, what happened today is a tragedy. Let us take this time to mourn the loss of life and not give in to the temptation of answering violence with violence. Juko has served this community dutifully. His history speaks to that. Let us all retire and reflect on what has transpired. We’ll reconvene in three days to vote upon what is to be done for justice.”
“Well said,” Marsilius cooed. “And to the parents that are grieving, my wife and I open our humble nest to you to come and talk anytime about your grief.”
The group slowly dissipated and returned to their wind-lashed nests. Marsilius’ offer was immediately taken up by the grieving families. They flocked to his nest that evening to vent their anguish and sadness. Marsilius and Violette met with the families and continued to sow conspiracy theories. The families soaked up their grief with these false accusations and then tweeted them to their friends, who in turn shared the false allegations with their friends, and so on.
Juko and his council also paid visits to every family, to assure them that a full investigation would be conducted and that reparations would be given.
Rumors began to circulate that Marsilius, and perhaps even Violette, had played a role in this tragedy, allegations that the cuckoos calmly denied. There were even threats on the cuckoos’ lives; magpies, after all, are known for violent tendencies. On the eve of the council meeting, the couple flew away and were never heard from again.
When news broke that Marsilius and Violette had fled, parliament was in an uproar. Conspiracy theories gripped the community and the rattling call for blood intensified. At the meeting, parliament voted to ostracize Juko for his alleged involvement in the deaths of the younglings, as well as his entire family. Despite Raku and his supporters’ best efforts, they could not persuade the majority of Juko’s innocence. Parliament ruled that Juko and his family had until the first snowfall that winter to move to another community. Juko’s health began to rapidly decline, and Raku began to scout out new locations.
On his reconnaissance, Raku spied a grand-looking pine tree by the edge of the lake and flew over to examine it. He immediately smelled a sweet floral fragrance and noticed white plum blossoms were beginning to bloom on several trees surrounding the pine. A wall of bamboo shoots stood clustered around this picturesque scene.
“Welcome, Raku,” said the pine tree.
Raku nearly fell off a branch; it was rare that trees spoke to birds.
“How do you know my name? Who are you?” he stammered.
“Oh, we know much more than that,” said the bamboo as it swayed in the breeze.
“Yes,” exhaled the plum happily, “we’ve been expecting you. We know you tried to defend your father by using logic and reason.”
“Yes,” rumbled the pine, “logic and reason are in short supply these days. They dissipate like rain droplets into parched ground.”
The bamboo clacked its shoots in agreement. “Getting to the point,” it snapped peevishly, “we are the Three Friends of Winter. Listen closely. Your community has been the target of cuckoo disinformation. While you were all at the autumnal celebration, the cuckoo birds destroyed your eggs and replaced them with trick eggs of their own.”
Raku was stunned.
“In time,” cautioned the plum, “the cuckoo chicks will hatch and try to push the remaining magpie eggs from the nest. Even the magpie chicks that hatch will compete with the larger cuckoo hatchling for resources, the mother magpie is blind to the truth of brood parasitism.”
Horrified by this news, Raku asked what was to be done.
“Raku,” warned the bamboo, “if you return to parliament with this news, it will set off pandemonium, fear, and confusion. It could even lead to the loss of more innocent lives — including your own. On the other hand, if you do nothing with this knowledge, you could still lead a peaceful life, but your former community will in time be dominated by cuckoo birds.”
“But the truth needs to be heard! It must be heard,” the magpie replied.
The pine gently patted Raku’s back with its needles. “Just as the cuckoos were strategic in their egg deception methods, you too, must be strategic as a truth-bearer in how you share this news with the magpies. When you return to parliament, encourage them to learn about brood parasitism techniques and be mindful of trick eggs. We have heard that other magpie communities have been successful in being able to spot and reject false eggs from the nest.”
“Perhaps we could mark our eggs to distinguish them from false ones?” asked Raku.
“It has been done and may help in some circumstances,” answered the bamboo. “Remember that the cuckoo is ever-inventive and will mimic the markings. Some cuckoos even lay dark-colored eggs deep within a nest’s darkest crevices. This way, the host bird does not discover them until they hatch and is deceived into raising the intruders.”
“I see this is a perpetual struggle. Clearly, the cuckoo birds are concerned about playing the long game,” sighed Raku.
“Precisely. And there will always be a struggle between what is true and false,” sang the plum. “That is life, Raku.”
The pine shook excitedly. “The task before your community is how to manage that challenge: applying reason and healthy skepticism to guide you in distinguishing between the trick and non-trick eggs. You are not the first generation of birds to deal with this issue. History can be a guidebook for those curious enough to turn the pages and learn from it.”
Raku thanked the Three Friends of Winter for their kindness and sage counsel. As he flew back to his community, Raku thought about how to best share this news with the other magpies.
Many years from now, when our grandchildren visit Ehota, what birdsong will they hear filling the woods?
Author’s note: This article is reprinted with permission from Defense One.
Copyright © 2019 by Jessica ‘Zhanna’ Malekos Smith, J.D.,