By Chris Brew & Lauren Spink

The use of deception and disinformation in warfare is not new. Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and military strategist was already writing about the phenomenon in the 5th century BC. But disinformation—defined as the intentional dissemination of inaccurate or misleading information—no longer just travels by word-of-mouth or newspaper. Modern media, in particular the widespread availability of the internet and use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram, has dramatically increased the speed at which disinformation can be spread as well as its reach. And unlike the military targets of Sun Tzu’s deception, disinformation in modern warfare is often targeted directly at civilians. 

Impact of Disinformation on Civilians in Conflict

There is a growing body of evidence documenting how online misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech (MDH) have been used to stoke tensions and incite violence between communities in a variety of countries in recent years, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Libya, and Myanmar. In Ethiopia, Facebook publishes advertisements in Amharic containing hate speech despite touting industry-leading efforts to combat the practice. In Myanmar, the UN’s independent international fact-finding mission found a “campaign of hate and dehumanization” targeted at the Rohingya population labelling them “illegal-immigrants” and “terrorists.”  The International Committee of the Red Cross has identified two additional ways that disinformation can harm civilians in conflict : when parties to a conflict manipulate or falsify information that civilians need to access life-saving goods and services or about the organizations that provide these services; and when MDH has an impact on the mental health of civilians. 

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly raising the alarm about the ways disinformation is disrupting their life-saving operations. A recently published study on Syria, for example, highlights the many ways that online disinformation about the White Helmets impeded their work, created challenges in securing and retaining funding, and directly threatened their lives. The White Helmets—known officially as Syria Civil Defense—is a group of unarmed volunteer rescue workers who provide medical care to injured civilians, help civilians evacuate from areas under attack, and dig for survivors buried in bomb blasts. But targeted disinformation campaigns have painted them as parties to the conflict rather than neutral service-providers and made it more dangerous and difficult for them to save lives. 

Mental Health of Civilians 

Although humanitarian organizations are increasingly wary of the ways disinformation can disrupt their operations, there is still not much research or publicly available data on the issue. Even less is known about the impact of MDH on civilians’ psychological well-being during conflict. However, there are studies that investigate the negative impact disinformation about COVID-19 can have on mental health. What these studies show is concerning. 

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have led to a surge of health-related disinformation and misinformation on social media platforms. A 2020 study in South Africa found that the spread of false information pertaining to COVID on social media led to feelings of confusion, fear, and panic among the 60 study participants in three of the country’s provinces. Other studies in India and Gaza highlighted how the fear and confusion which result from consuming false information can lead to more serious feelings of panic, fatigue, stress, insomnia, and anger. A study in China found that people who spent more than three hours a day on social media searching for information on COVID had higher levels of generalized anxiety disorder.  

“As civilians increasingly become the target of disinformation campaigns, governments and humanitarian actors need to be aware that disinformation can undermine protection of civilians in a variety of ways.”

Civilians living in conflict-affected areas can experience numerous and recurring violations and traumatic events—including but not limited to displacement, separation from family members, sexual violence, abduction, or witnessing violence against others. Singling out the psychological impact of disinformation in these settings is a challenge. But given evidence that COVID-19-related disinformation in areas unaffected by conflict can negatively affect mental health, it can be reasonably expected that disinformation targeted at civilians during war also contributes to mental harm. 

Having access to accurate information is even more vital in conflict settings where knowing the correct location of a bomb shelter, potable water, or an evacuation route can mean the difference between life and death. A cloud of conflicting information on these issues, therefore, has even more potential to trigger stress and anxiety, as does information purposefully obscuring the identify of perpetrators, denying the existence of human rights violations, or vilifying humanitarian responders.  

As the reach of MDH grows and civilians increasingly become the target of disinformation campaigns, governments and humanitarian actors need to be aware that disinformation can undermine protection of civilians in a variety of ways: by inciting violence, undermining public trust in protection actors, and causing psychological harm. A larger body of evidence documenting the link between disinformation and protection concerns will be crucial in helping to create norms against it and support initiatives to counter its harmful effects.  

Chris Brew is CIVIC’s Research and Analysis Intern. Follow him on Twitter

Lauren Spink is CIVIC’s Senior Research Advisor. Follow her on Twitter

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