Truth is always the first casualty in war. This well-worn maxim serves as an important reminder that mis- and disinformation is not a new problem. However, with today’s fast-changing communications landscape and developing digital platforms, the scope of the problem is turbo-charged, making it even harder for fact-based information to prosper in conflict settings.
On the one hand, digital platforms provide opportunities for empowerment, participation and influence, which are crucial to transforming social and political interactions. On the other, they can enable increased polarization, while intensifying the spread of mis- and disinformation.
The so-called weaponization of digital communications and social media poses new challenges for identifying and combating hostile influences, which has severe negative effects on United Nations peace operations. Today’s peacekeepers not only have to deal with disinformation in their operational contexts, but they are also increasingly becoming the targets of disinformation campaigns. Such campaigns are often designed to erode trust in peacekeeping operations, to delegitimize international interventions and to deepen divisions in conflict regions. In a 2022 UN internal survey, 75 per cent of UN peacekeepers said that mis- and disinformation impacted their safety and security, and 70 per cent said it significantly impacted their work. Ultimately, by jeopardizing the safety and security of peacekeepers, mis- and disinformation along with hate speech limit the mobility and reach of peace operations, thereby reducing the operations’ capacity to protect civilians in the host country.
Misinformation, disinformation and conflict
Misinformation is simply the spread of inaccurate information; it may well be done in good faith. Disinformation, on the other hand, is manufactured falsehood—deliberate misinformation—usually with a strategic purpose. The main difference between the two concepts is in the intent. As an Institute of Peace report on the use of disinformation against UN peacekeeping operations points out: disinformation gains a second life as misinformation.
Disinformation is particularly dangerous and effective in divided and war-torn countries, where the countervailing forces that might otherwise neutralise it are weak. The scarcity of accurate information in such settings also makes people more likely to turn to untrustworthy sources. It can be hard for anyone to distinguish between accurate information and mis- or disinformation. And it can be even harder to recognize how our own biases steer how we perceive and sometimes unintentionally spread misinformation.
Truth might also fall victim to inequalities in terms of access to information. People in urban areas generally have more access to telecommunication and media than people in rural areas. Gender and intersectional dimensions are also important. There are often wide gaps in terms of access to digital platforms, and certain types of media (traditional and social) can resonate differently within different groups in a society.
Seven insights on how to tackle mis- and disinformation in UN peace operations
At the 2023 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, the Challenges Forum and the UN Department of Peace Operations organized a roundtable to discuss how to mitigate the effects of mis- and disinformation on peace operations and what different actors could do. This blog presents seven insights that emerged from those discussions.
Understand and address the roles of different actors when it comes to the spread of mis- and disinformation. In the case of disinformation, government officials might sometimes take the role of instigators, targeting the legitimacy and mandate implementation of a UN peace operation. Similar patterns can be discerned among civil society organization representatives, who may also be manipulated and instrumentalized by various interests, or genuinely misled. These two examples show the need for more guidance and political support from the UN Security Council.
Recognize that multiple narratives may exist within a country and analyse who owns them. Understanding local cultural nuances, historical grievances, and existing power dynamics can offer a more holistic perspective. Given the central role of the host government and local communities, it is important to identify whose voice is perceived as legitimate in a particular context, as well as determining the agenda of the ruling elite. Members of a diaspora can also have an agenda and strong influence on the political and social landscape in a country, which is important to analyse and assess. Multiple narratives exist in any society, and one must be aware of the sources of information and their potential biases.
Analysis of the root causes of a shifting media landscape. Modern conflicts are often characterized by a dynamic media environment. This is illustrated by the case of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which shows the need to understand the politicized and polarized media landscape. In Lebanon, political parties finance media outlets, which are sometimes used for propaganda purposes, disseminating contradictory narratives. When European and NATO countries started to deploy troops in UNIFIL after the hostilities between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah in 2006, this exacerbated the media narratives of a Western intervention in the Middle East.
Keep investing in mission-wide communication strategies. Reaching out with stories of what the mission is actually doing and its purpose can counteract the rise of fake news and disinformation campaigns. The mission’s mandates need to be well communicated, both in the capital and in more remote areas. Strategic communication is key and all senior mission leaders need to receive media and communication training.
Whole of mission approach.UN peace operations should adopt a more proactive ‘whole-of-mission’ approach, where the risk of mis- and disinformation should be part of the cycle of planning and the decision-making process as well as for supporting mandate implementation and the safety of personnel. Partnerships and coordination with stakeholders are essential.
UN peace operations are complex and large, involving actors with different social, language and cultural settings. The gap of understanding between peace operation personnel and local communities might create distrust and undermine the legitimacy of the field mission. Improving social, linguist and cultural understanding is critical to developing trust, transparency and better conditions for dialogue with local communities. This, in turn, can reduce the risk of mis- and disinformation.
Keep in mind that criticism of the UN is not always mis- or disinformation. Freedom of expression must be protected, even while strengthening communities’ resilience to the threats posed by mis- and disinformation. Engaging in dialogue with local communities is key for successful mandate implementation. It is also important to make accurate, unbiased information easily available for communities. This could be done by training journalists, supporting independent media and civil society organizations as fact checkers and protectors of truth as well as supporting rule of law in the host states.
Social media is not just weaponized within conflicts; it can also decisively influence how, when and whether conflicts manifest in fragile states. UN peace operations cannot afford to ignore this challenge. When the spread of mis- and disinformation threatens their ability to deliver on their mandates, operations must have the capacity and the readiness to respond—without the risk of affecting information integrity on digital platforms. The weaponization of social media is certain to remain a challenge for future work on peace and security. It should be reflected in moving forward with the New Agenda for Peace, towards next year’s Summit of the Future.
This blog was co-authored by the members of the Challenges Forum International Secretariat and first published by SIPRI