39

There is a kind of message in espionage that is meant to be intercepted by an adversary for the purpose of spreading false information: For instance, by sending a letter stating that troops are moving north when they're really moving west. As an example, this tactic was used by the British during the American Revolutionary War, according to the National Library for the Study of George Washington website.

British Generals Burgoyne, Clinton, and Howe, several times during the war, created letters with false information that they hoped would fall into American hands. They hoped the Americans would be deceived by the information.

I'm wondering if there is a word to describe this kind of message, colloquial or otherwise. My initial research centered around the term false flag, but that term refers specifically to disguising an activity by making it appear to have been carried out by a different party.

Q:

Is there a term of any kind that means "a message sent that is meant to be intercepted by an adversary for the purpose of spreading false information?"


An example sentence would follow from the description above:

Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were ______, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines.

19 Answers 19

59

The word you are looking for is disinformation. From MW:

false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth

  • 2
    Disinformation carries connotations of deliberate spreading, not expectations of interception under the guise of secrecy. – MooseBoys Jul 12 at 15:32
  • 3
    Deliberate spreading, targeted at known intelligence collectors, with the expectation of interception. – Davo Jul 12 at 17:26
  • Not targeted at intelligence collectors, but rather the general public. For example, the ongoing disinformation campaign to sow public doubt on the scientific concensus on anthropogenic climate change. – MooseBoys Jul 13 at 2:52
  • Just because disinformation can be targeted at the general public does not mean that it must be targeted at the general public. – Davo Jul 15 at 14:23
  • My point is that the word disinformation has strong connotations with the information being made widely available, and would therefore not be misunderstood by an intelligence agent to be supposedly secret. This isn't to say it can't be used in conjunction with espionage - a disinformation campaign could create a public impression of a chemical spill to cover up some secret military research. But IMO, if the general public is not aware of the information, it cannot be disinformation. – MooseBoys Jul 15 at 23:35
38

I would use decoy:

a person, thing, or action that lures another into danger or a trap

The word decoy is also used in military contexts:

The decoy in war is a low-cost device intended to represent a real item of military equipment. They may be deployed in amongst their real counterparts, to fool enemy forces into attacking them and so protect the real items of equipment by diverting fire away from them.

It is worth noting that the only purpose of a decoy is to make the enemy focus their attention in the decoy to protect the real target. The word "decoy" does not imply "meant to be intercepted". If you want to emphasize "meant to be intercepted", see bait, honeypot and sting operation instead.

Therefore, in your sentence:

Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were decoys, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines.

  • 4
    I would typically think of a decoy as a lure rather than a misleading piece of information – Alexandre Aubrey Jul 11 at 18:42
  • @AlexandreAubrey Yes, It's a decoy to lure you away from the target – Stan Jul 11 at 23:41
  • @stan from the definition posted (emphasis mine) "lures another into danger or trap". Decoys are used to attract the prey to you, not to divert them away. – Alexandre Aubrey Jul 12 at 18:00
36

Red Herring comes to mind for me.

Via Lexico:

A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading or distracting.

Though not strictly limited to espionage - it meets your criteria of something intended to be seen with the goal of misleading or distracting and can easily be applied to the example.

Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were a red herring, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines.

Here's a nice link to the etymology: Where does the phrase "red herring" come from?

  • The term red herring carries connotations of breaking the fourth wall, as of a clue intended by the author of a mystery to be distracting, but in-universe it's simply a false lead. There's a subtle mismatch in using it for this case. – chrylis Jul 11 at 21:20
  • 3
    @chrylis I think the intended use fits perfectly in this case - it's a deliberate fake clue planted by the author of the message, intended to mislead the reader of the message. To the reader, it seems legitimate, but winds up being a false lead. It requires that the author have knowledge of whoever will intercept the message and what they'll likely infer from it. I'm not seeing any mismatch in this term. – Nuclear Wang Jul 11 at 21:29
  • 1
    I agree with @chrylis. Red herring has the wrong connotations. "The Angry Janitor" is a classic trope in a murder mystery, as typically the character that has a murderous rage and sinister appearance, but ultimately is innocent. Yes, the origin and "author" intentionally attempt to mislead, but colloquially, a "red herring" in-universe is considered an "happenstance distraction." Red herring is frequently used for "distractions" or "false leads" -- particularly in data and science as well -- that were not INTENTIONALLY misleading, despite the original definition. – user45867 Jul 11 at 22:14
  • I think the issue with red herring is it's not necessarily false/deceptive. As noted in the definition, it could just be distracting. With a military example: If you have a force of 10,000 marching from the East, you could give evidence of 1,000 marching from the West, which could be considered a red herring. Not necessarily false or deceptive, but still a red herring. – Zack Jul 12 at 17:33
  • @user45867 "Red herring" carries some connotation of intention to mislead, going right back to the origin of the term. Those "false leads" you mention might be better called a "wild goose chase" - a pursuit that holds promise but ultimately leads nowhere, although that fruitlessness is not known to anyone at the outset.. – Nuclear Wang Jul 12 at 19:54
27

Specific to the example you give, it would make sense to say the letters/missives/etc. were planted. That is:

Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were planted, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines

You could combine this with other answers: for example, "though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were in fact planted as part of a deception operation. The disinformation contained therein..."

  • 1
    TBH your example sounds a little weird to me. I'd interpret planted to mean secretly placed, and then I'd expect it to be followed by a target location – crizzis Jul 12 at 8:56
22

You could say that the messages were a ruse:

n. A crafty stratagem; a subterfuge.

In your sample sentence,

Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were a ruse, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines.

For an example of this usage, see this question on the History Stack Exchange, discussing whether the famous Zimmermann Telegram was a ruse designed to be intercepted.

  • Ruse specifically carries military connotations, so would be especially appropriate here. – MooseBoys Jul 12 at 15:34
21

As in:

Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were subterfuge, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines.

subterfuge TFD

A deceptive stratagem or device; Deception used to achieve an end.

And as in:

The meeting was a subterfuge to get him out of his office while it was searched.

8

If you are looking for the "official" term, based on jargon as seen in US War College usage...the general term is:

deception operation

From the Bibliography of the same name written by Dr. Gary J. Byorge, and published by U. S Army Command and General Staff College (1986)

The paper describes a number of operations that were designed to distract the enemy throughout the history of modern warfare. A famous example includes the ruse called Operation Mincemeat, also known as The Man who Never Was.

…and his detailed description of these events gives a special insight into how deception operations are planned and implemented. The analysis of German reactions to the deception presents useful lessons in the psychology of deception. This deception operation, which caused the Germans to redeploy…

enter image description here

7

For completeness, a honeypot should be mentioned. It's an information security term that refers to a server dressed up to look like the real thing and intentionally left less secure to detect attackers.

As a modern term, it doesn't quite fit your particular use case. But in other circumstances it could be the right word.

Generally, a honeypot consists of data (for example, in a network site) that appears to be a legitimate part of the site, but is actually isolated and monitored, and that seems to contain information or a resource of value to attackers, who are then blocked.

  • By any chance do you know where that term derived from? i.e. cold war? – Cascabel Jul 11 at 22:09
  • @Cascabel I don't, unfortunately. – Spitemaster Jul 11 at 22:16
  • According to wikipedia "The metaphor of a bear being attracted to and stealing honey is common in many traditions, including Germanic and Slavic. ... The tradition of bears stealing honey has been passed down through stories and folklore, especially the well known Winnie the Pooh." and "The earliest honeypot techniques are described in Clifford Stoll's 1989 book The Cuckoo's Egg." – Mark Booth Jul 12 at 10:25
  • The odd thing about honeypot is that the word 'honeypot' -- well it means a trap now of course, but the origins of simply a pot filled with honey don't imply a trap at all. Even for bears, it's the bait, but not the thing that 'traps' the bear. Compared to something like a pitcher plant/ venus fly trap, whereas the 'you die' part is heavily implied. – user45867 Jul 12 at 14:55
  • "Honeypot" is much older and much more general than this. The OED defines it as "A person who or thing which is very attractive, tempting, or a source of pleasure or reward; spec[ifically]. an attractive young woman" going back to the 17th century. – David Richerby Jul 12 at 15:50
6

The words deception, disinformation, false information, and planted information were used in the U.S. Air Force, in an formal written context, circa 2001. I don't know how widely they were used outside those contexts.

The paper "Two Taxonomies of Deception for Attacks on Information Systems" (Neil C. Rowe and Hy S. Rothstein, year unclear) gives the following graphic and definition list, citing Dunnigan, J. F., & Nofi, A. A. (2001). Victory and Deceit, 2nd edition: Deception and Trickery in War. San Jose, CA: Writers Press Books.

Given the above principles, let us consider specific kinds of deception for information systems under warfare-like attacks. Several taxonomies of deception in warfare have been proposed, of which that of (Dunnigan and Nofi, 2001) is representative. Figure 1 shows the spectrum of these methods, and Table 1 summarizes our assessment of them (10 = most appropriate, 0 = inappropriate).

  • Concealment ('hiding your forces from the enemy')
  • Camouflage ('hiding your troops and movements from the enemy by artificial means')
  • False and planted information (disinformation, 'letting the enemy get his hands on information that will hurt him and help you')
  • Lies ('when communicating with the enemy')
  • Displays ('techniques to make the enemy see what isn't there')
  • Ruses ('tricks, such as displays that use enemy equipment and procedures')
  • Demonstrations ('making a move with your forces that implies imminent action, but is not followed through')
  • Feints ('like a demonstration, but you actually make an attack')
  • Insight ('deceive the opponent by outthinking him')

We evaluate these in order. Figure 1 presents a way to conceptualize them, and Table 1 summarizes them.

Spectrum of different types of military deception based on passive/active and short/long term. Discussed in paper: "Two Taxonomies of Deception for Attacks on Information Systems"

Figure 1

(NB: I found this via the Wikipedia articles on military deception and Operation Bodyguard, which might also interest you.)

4

The problem with a lot of these answers is that they are actually too general.

Disinformation, subterfuge, ruse, and red herring are far too general. They don't necessarily imply false information about onself. Decoy implies distraction and doesn't fit.

I believe a more specific word, albeit far from perfect, is "False Tell" -- which is a poker term.

A "Tell" is information that conveys information about yourself, typically your strength and intentions.

A "False Tell" is deliberating faking/ leaking info about yourself to lead your adversary into concluding false beliefs concerning your strength/ plans/ intentions, usually the exact opposite of reality.

Disinformation could be spreading lies about your opponent.

Ruse or subterfuge are too broad in defining deceptions. Again, not necessarily about oneself.

False Tell though connotes more physiological "acting" than messages, but it's close.

For your specific sentence:

"False signals"

"Performative art."

"Planted evidence"

"Deliberate falsehoods."

  • Please elaborate your suggestions. – JJJ Jul 12 at 1:11
4

I'm fairly sure I've heard this kind of material referred to as chaff, by analogy with the strips of foil that military planes throw out to confuse enemy radar. However, I can't find a source for this; probably I came across it in a Cold War spy novel.

2

At first glance, it kinda sounds like you are talking about a Canary Trap, but that is a detection scheme, not a disinformation scheme.

In this case, I would go with Ostensible to describe a document meant to look genuine, but is actually a diversion.

ADJECTIVE

attributive

Stated or appearing to be true, but not necessarily so.

The plan as a whole would either be Bait or a Diversion (depending on if you are trying to lure the enemy in or away respectively).

2

Consider calling it a leak.

From Oxford Lexico:

2.1 [with object] Intentionally disclose (secret information)

‘a report was leaked to the press’

This doesn't tell whether the intentional disclosure was true or false information, only that it seems like secret information to whoever hears it. Secret information is considered more credible in some situations, which makes it more useful for spreading disinformation.

  • You need to call it an "intentional leak" if you want to convey the fact that it's a trick. When an organization has a normal leak, it's intentional on the part of one person (e.g. Edward Snowden), but it's real information whose disclosure is damaging to the organization. (The NSA, or the British military.) The default implication of "leak" is very much of the Edward Snowden variety, not of the disinformation variety. With the right context the meaning could still be clear (that the opposition thought it was a real unintended leak), but your answer needs to say that. – Peter Cordes Jul 11 at 21:15
2

For completeness, I'll mention counterintelligence (emphasis mine):

organized activity of an intelligence service designed to block an enemy's sources of information, to deceive the enemy, to prevent sabotage, and to gather political and military information

However, the term "counterintelligence" was coined in the late 19th century, so I think it's not appropriate to use it in the context of the American Revolutionary War.

2

I want to suggest false intelligence. With intelligence being "information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area" (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intelligence), it seems like putting "false" in front of your word is the way to go. However, I can't actually find "false intelligence" in a standard Google definition search.

I do find the term used in this context, in a lot of places, though, e.g.:

  • "Thus the Germans were able to penetrate the Dutch operation and maintained this state of affairs for two years, capturing agents, and sending false intelligence and sabotage reports until the British caught on." -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abwehr

  • " How much time is needed for the adversary’s detection and collection systems to collect, analyze, and provide false intelligence created by the deception to the deception target? This will vary depending on the target’s level of command." -- https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_13_4.pdf

  • "The concept of a rouge source is that of someone to pass or create false intelligence that not only is found acceptable by the agent (or agency). Most sources as we have seen pass some levels of scrutiny to verify that they are not a plant or source of misdirection. The problem is when a source has no clear ties to the target it is providing information or when the agent (or agency) fails to understand the motivation behind the false information provided. " -- https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/On_spies_and_stratagems/Target

  • "The Persians, acting hastily on this false intelligence, sailed into the Strait of Salamis, where the Greek fleet was waiting and gained a decisive victory." -- https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/spies/miscellany/false-intelligence

  • "During operation VESSEL in the fall of 1944, he was identified as a fabricator providing false intelligence on the Vatican to several agents of the OSS. The OSS acquired his information from two separate sources which eventually allowed OSS counterintelligence officer James Angleton to determine its fraudulent nature, but not before President Roosevelt was provided the reports as genuine." -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabricator_(intelligence)

  • "Local spies are hired from among the people of a locality. Inside spies are hired from among enemy officials. Reverse spies are hired from among enemy spies. Dead spies transmit false intelligence to enemy spies. Living spies come back to report. " -- https://web.mit.edu/~dcltdw/AOW/13.html (That's Sun Tzu's Art Of War, chapter 13.)

1

According to your context many words comes to my mind.

deception, counterfeit, sham, copy, cheat, imitation, charlatan, quack, impostor, fraud, make-believe, pretense, fabrication, forgery, imposition, humbug, sleight, trick, hoax, swindle, stratagem, dummy.

Out of these humbug seems to be more accurate for your usage.

deceptive or false talk or behavior.


Though the letters appeared to describe British troop movements, they were humbug, giving Washington an inaccurate picture of the battle lines.

  • 1
    Bah, humbug. The letters were a fabrication ("an invention; a lie."), +1. Google says it isn't non-count, but I'd swear people use it as such, or as a descriptive noun? : The letters were 'complete fabrication'. – Mazura Jul 11 at 17:04
  • 4
    I don't agree with this. "humbug" is an archaic, polite word for "bullshit". It's usually associated with con men, not sophisticated espionage. – Barmar Jul 11 at 18:54
  • @Barmar: I have suggested many other words. You may choose anyone of them. I find hambug to be appropriate. – Rahul Jul 11 at 21:38
  • Deception looks like the most appropriate of your words for the OP. Many of the rest seem more like cons than subterfuge. "humbug" would be a good word for Trump's bluster, if he weren't President. In his actual role, it seems like too mild. – Barmar Jul 11 at 21:44
  • You suggested many other words, but you highlighted "humbug" as being the best of them. – David Richerby Jul 12 at 15:45
1

The concept "Trojan Horse" would also appliy if your misinformation is intending to lead your enemy into a trap.

1

I'd suggest ploy if the purpose of the misinformation is to be used as a device or means to a strategic end and if it is acceptable that the adversary (later) learns that the misinformation is a trick.

n.
a maneuver or stratagem to gain the advantage; ruse; subterfuge; gambit. 

A few other terms related to this may be trick (from bag of tricks), trojan horse, gift-bearing greek, stalking horse, smoke screen, smoke bomb.

-1

Not sure why this has not been offered yet, Fake News

Fake news, also known as junk news or pseudo-news, is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media.

I don't find it in any dictionarys but google has a billion+ hits on it, and probably every English speaking person has been exposed to it at Nauseam.

  • Fake news is not necessarily information that is meant to be intercepted. It's nothing more than news that is fabricated, typically for the purpose of gaining ad revenue. – forest Jul 14 at 10:57

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