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8.4 Disinformation and misinformation


Keep in mind

NGOs face increasing disinformation/misinformation campaigns, especially in contexts where stakeholders with specific political agendas seek to undermine them.

They will not be able to counter all these actions, but ensuring that they communicate credible, quality, shared and accepted data and testimonies by the populations they work with will allow them to mitigate the impact of these campaigns as much as possible.

Disinformation and misinformation phenomena are numerous and affect the humanitarian sector, particularly the health sector, as we will see in this subsection, as well as the best practices to limit the risks they represent.

8.4.1 What are we talking about?

Disinformation and misinformation are information relaying perceptions that do not reflect reality and that have consequent and cross-cutting impacts. They affect many sectors and that of Humanitarian Aid and International Development is not spared, especially given the place and importance that NGOs take in certain contexts where States do not always play their role.

According to the Cyberpeace Institute, disinformation or the spread of “fake news” aims “to alter your perception of reality in the long run. Disinformation campaigns are usually launched by foreign states, terrorists and sometimes even domestic actors, with the aim of creating a climate of mistrust. The ultimate goal for these actors is to destabilise regimes and institutions for political purposes, which usually ends in conflict and tragedies. ”

Misinformation “refers to spread false information that is not intended to cause harm” (Source: Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity website). What differentiates it from disinformation is the intent, which is malignant in the case of disinformation.

To illustrate misinformation, here is an example from the Oxfam and the Engine Room Guide on Biometrics in the Humanitarian Sector: misinformation spreading within camps. One interviewee pointed out that a single rumour about the use of the biometric data collected was enough to warrant suspicion on behalf of the populations towards the organisation.

Meant to be neutral and therefore objective actors as to the situations they witness, the voice of NGOs is often taken seriously and relayed, especially when human rights are violated. They are therefore all the more subjected to attempts to undermine credibility by actors who have interests contrary to those of NGOs, which generally take the form of disinformation.

8.4.2 What is at stake?

Disinformation and misinformation are phenomena that are amplified by the mass dissemination that technology allows (an article from Newsguard about massive disinformation). These two phenomena represent major challenges that the humanitarian sector must face, the main risk of which is the loss of confidence of the populations in the actions of the organisations, and therefore the increase of the situation of vulnerability in which they are (See this ICRC article).

These risks are amplified by the fact that AI technologies, through learning and reproduction, can invent information. This is the case of Chat GPT, which created a newspaper article from scratch that appeared very credible and which Chat GPT attributed to The Guardian. It is therefore the environment in which NGOs navigate that has evolved. They must confront this issue if they want the programme data on which they report to continue to be seen as credible in the face of data derived from misinformation or misinformation. Unfortunately, they will not always have the means to counter disinformation/misinformation campaigns in which considerable resources are invested by the actors in question, but with impeccable communication they can protect their reputation as best they can and therefore that of their programmes.

Specific example: Cat GPT and the health crisis related to Covid 19 The Covid 19 pandemic was witness to the extent of misinformation in the health sector. The Cyberpeace Institute reports: “The disinformation campaigns, which have directly and indirectly targeted health, have been at the origin of a real “Infodemic” concerning COVID-19. Some state actors have stolen, manipulated and disseminated information from organisations fighting the pandemic or vaccine research labs. By introducing authentic information into their fictional narrative, they lend credibility to the whole to better misinform. This results in a loss of societal confidence in the structures under attack, which can undermine the response to the health crisis. (Cyberpeace Institute article, March 2021).

8.4.3 How NGOs can tackle the topic?

Grasping the topic is not an easy task for NGOs, as it requires a strong interest in the external perception of NGO actions and the arguments and communication channels of disinformation and misinformation stakeholders, to better counter them.

The NGO communication team is responsible for the bulk of the work, but guaranteeing quality program data, both shared and accepted by the populations with which NGOs work, along with relevant testimonials to support it, is essential. The Programme and Monitoring & Evaluation teams therefore have a key role to play in building this relationship of trust necessary, above all, for the successful running and relevance of the activities, but which will also indirectly serve to counter any disinformation campaign.

8.4.4 Key Resources

  • For more information, you can explore the Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity website, which contains resources that provide information and practical guidance, including Cyber security guidance for heightened threat levels, which gathers best practices to strengthen cybersecurity and be better protected against this type of threat.
  • Internews, an NGO that supports independent media and reliable information, has published a report on Managing Misinformation in a Humanitarian Context, containing a methodology for monitoring rumours or misinformation, with case studies and a guide providing models, examples of rumour management in the sector.
  • We recommend reading the two following articles from ICTworks:
    • The article on How to Address Disinformation in Eastern and Central Europe sheds light on how to manage disinformation campaigns and the importance of building trust and the essential role that civil society plays in these situations,
    • ICTworks contextualises and explains misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, and presents 7 recommendations for reducing them in this article.