Navigating the Harmful Consequences of Disinformation in War

For Ukrainian civilians, surviving Russia’s offensive means not only escaping bullets and artillery, but also navigating a flood of disinformation targeted at them by Russian and Russian-affiliated actors. Research by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) identified a variety of disinformation narratives spread since February 2022 that have endangered civilian lives.

By Alexander Grif and Lauren Spink — Source EUvsDiSiNFO

Information operations are now commonly incorporated into national military and defense strategies. States recognize that dominance of the information sphere—including the ability to identify and counter disinformation—can contribute significantly to the success of military operations. In Ukraine, the government and military have been keenly focused on how to counter disinformation that has accompanied Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country. Ukraine also has a robust civil society working to identify and debunk mis- and disinformation. However, most government and civil society efforts to identify and dispel false information narratives have focused on strategic and far-reaching narratives that threaten to undermine the credibility of the Ukrainian government and military, and that attempt to justify Russia’s aggression.

However, many of the harmful narratives that CIVIC identified in its recent research are spread through social media platforms and messaging applications in specific geographical areas at the tactical and local level. As a result, they are over-looked, even though it is at this level that disinformation can more immediately contribute to civilian deaths and suffering. In the longer term, these narratives can also undermine a country’s war effort by eroding community resilience, social cohesion, and trust.

The Dangerous Spread of Tactical Disinformation

Among the harmful disinformation narratives that CIVIC documented were those aimed at trying to manipulate population movements. According to civilians who viewed the posts and civil society organizations tracking the spread of disinformation, such narratives included Russian and Russian-affiliated actors sharing false information about the timing, location, and existence of assisted evacuation efforts. As the Russian military was bombarding and attacking cities, online users frequently discouraged civilians from fleeing on certain routes by claiming they were being blocked or that civilian vehicles traveling on them were fired on by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). CIVIC’s report details, for example, how the pro-Russian media outlet ANNA News posted a video on March 17, 2022 that they claimed showed civilians whose evacuation bus was fired on by the AFU while they were trying to flee from Mariupol. CIVIC did not find any credible evidence that would support the claim in the video.

Other narratives sought to spread confusion and panic among civilians by, for instance, making false claims about which areas of the country were under Russian occupation or about spies working covertly within communities. Civilians who reported viewing such posts told CIVIC that they led civilians into harm’s way.

Although not a new phenomenon in Ukraine, disinformation narratives intended to drive a wedge between different segments of the population also proliferated in 2022, and have included messages intended to exacerbate tensions between displaced Ukrainians and host communities as well as between those civilians within Ukraine who are primarily Russian-speaking and those who primarily speak Ukrainian.

Some online narratives may have discouraged civilians from seeking medical attention. Russian media outlets claimed hospitals in some towns were overwhelmed or ambulances unavailable. On and offline, Russian authorities directed civilians to registration sites with the promise of humanitarian assistance. While some assistance was provided, Russia also used these sites to collect biometric data and funnel some civilians on to filtration camps and detention.

Reliability and trust: Social Media’s Role in War-Time Information Warfare

On social media, disinformation flourished at the same time that civilians were increasingly relying on these platforms to make life-saving decisions. A CIVIC survey found that before February 2022, 42 percent of respondents were relying primarily on television for information about the political and security situation and 14 percent were relying on Telegram, a popular social media platform. In the two weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion, these numbers flipped, with 46 percent naming Telegram as their primary source of information and only 12 percent continuing to rely on television. The growth in disinformation on social media and shifting patterns of Ukrainian information consumption have implications for how government institutions and others aiming to protect civilians need to identify and counter disinformation.

Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian government invested heavily in building government institutions to detect and respond to disinformation. After February 2022, civilian and military authorities in Ukraine increased their use of social media platforms to proactively communicate with civilians and discredit disinformation. One Ukrainian official explained to CIVIC how the institution he works within diversified the social media platforms they communicate on, increased the number of messages they shared each day, and saw a 25-fold increase in their social media followers on just one platform. In August 2022, the mayor of Melitopol—a town on the frontlines of the war—used Telegram posts to share information about Russian rocket attacks along one crowded evacuation route. Russian and Russian-affiliated social media users tried to label the rocket attacks as fake news–endangering civilians who continued to use the route. Recognizing that some areas of the country were cut off from social media access, Ukrainian authorities also communicated across a variety of platforms while trying to repair destroyed telecommunications infrastructure to keep vital information lines open across the country. For example, another Ukrainian official related how she attempted to counter false information about evacuations and share true information to civilians by telephone. After electricity was cut off in one town and telephone communication was no longer sufficient, the authorities attempted to clarify information about evacuations through word-of-mouth and loudspeakers.

Strong and collaborative relationships between government officials and civil society built before February 2022 carried over into wartime and were critically important to combatting the spread of disinformation. The Ukrainian government and civil society also engaged with the parent companies of social media platforms to identify disinformation and request that harmful content be removed. Ukrainian civilians told CIVIC that all of these actions helped dampen the negative impact of disinformation.

Challenges and Strategies in Countering Localized Disinformation in Ukraine

However, the Ukrainian authorities and civil society organizations were least-equipped to identify and respond to the types of locally-spread disinformation narratives that stakeholders identified as being particularly harmful to civilians. This reality underscores the need for government and military information operation strategies to include monitoring and responding to disinformation that negatively impacts civilian protection, as well as the need to build systems that can spot disinformation threats at a community level and elevate these for national action. While civilian trust in the Ukrainian government and military remains extremely high , strategic communications efforts that discredit valid threats to civilians or paint an overly positive picture of events that is out-of-step with reality can undermine credibility over time. Moreover, even the most engaged social media companies were slow to respond to requests for improved content moderation and struggled to contextualize their response—pointing to the need for stronger legal mechanisms to shape the behavior of technology companies. Ukraine’s experience also demonstrates the importance of widespread media literacy training for civilians and government officials at the local and national levels and the importance of tailoring some information outreach to older persons and persons with disabilities.

As a growing number of militaries come to recognize the importance of protecting civilians during military operations as well as of the value of controlling the information space, they should be focusing some of their efforts at the intersection of disinformation and human security. It can be easy for states to overlook the impact that adversarial information operations in war can have on civilian security and well-being and to focus exclusively on the implications of disinformation on warfighting. But a cohesive, comprehensive approach to countering disinformation includes both aspects.

This article is based on the research carried out by and for the Centre of Civilians in Conflict and published in a recent report, ‘When Words Become Weapons: The Unprecedented Risks to Civilians from the Spread of Disinformation in Ukraine.’ Sources for the Data, examples and analysis in the article can be found in the full report.

Alexander Grif © CIVIC Photo

Alexander Grif is the Country Director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) in Ukraine, a non-governmental organization that works to protect civilians caught in conflict. He leads a team of experts in providing policy advice and technical assistance to the Ukrainian government on civilian harm mitigation. He and his team also engage with civil society and international partners to advocate for the rights and needs of conflict-affected communities. He has over 10 years of humanitarian experience, with a focus on protection of civilians, visiting people deprived of liberty, humanitarian diplomacy and negotiations. He has previously worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) including in Myanmar, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. With a Master of Arts in International Relations and Affairs from The Fletcher School at Tufts University and a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Vienna, he speaks six languages.

Alexander Grif © CIVIC Photo

Lauren Spink is CIVIC’s Senior Advisor on Research. She provides high-level research support across CIVIC’s country and thematic programming, leads on drafting strategic guidance on research for the organization, and implements research on cross-country and emerging trends in warfare for CIVIC. Prior to joining CIVIC, Lauren worked in refugee resettlement, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, where she was deployed to UNHCR offices throughout the continent to interview civilians fleeing conflict. She has also worked as a researcher for the World Peace Foundation, Conflict Dynamics International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Humanitarian Evidence Program at the Feinstein International Center.

Lauren Spink © CIVIC Photo

Lauren Spink © CIVIC Photo

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