UN peacekeepers face greater dangers today than at any time in recent history. That’s because they aren’t only pitted against guns and explosives, but also disinformation. Hate and lies have become increasingly popular weapons of war. And they can be as deadly as conventional missiles.
By disinformation I mean deliberate lies. Falsehoods spread with the intention of doing harm. Particularly when repeated by those with great power and influence, baseless rumors can quickly erode public trust in institutions. In febrile situations, they can easily spark violence.
And violence is often the ultimate aim of these campaigns. Exploiting social media platforms, bad actors seek to “weaponize information to sow confusion, feed hate, incite violence and prolong conflict,” according to a report on disinformation in conflict published this month by UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan.
For peacekeepers around the world, these destabilizing lies are proving devastating. They are making their task of preventing violence and protecting civilians more difficult and more dangerous. What’s more, they themselves are increasingly the targets.
Take the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example. Tragedy struck in July during an aggressive disinformation campaign calling for the UN peacekeeping mission there to withdraw early. It began with allegations spread online. Before long, hatred spilled over into the real world.
Mission leaders received death threats. The private addresses of staff were posted all over the web and they couldn’t move freely for several weeks. UN bases were set on fire, petrol bombs thrown, offices looted. As the protests turned violent, three peacekeepers and numerous civilians were killed.
We’re seeing this pattern play out elsewhere. In Mali, communities were recently riled up by a bogus letter posted to Facebook claiming peacekeepers were collaborating with armed groups. Shared widely, the letter was picked up and covered by national media. The mood rapidly turned hostile.
Locals turned on peacekeepers during patrols, hindered their movement and denied them access to areas where they were trying to prevent and investigate violence against civilians. Peacekeepers, too, were attacked. As in DRC, lies spread online undermined and threatened the safety of the entire mission.
These aren’t isolated incidents. In a recent survey, 44 percent of UN peacekeepers said mis and disinformation was having a critical impact on their work. A similar number said it was severely impacting their safety in the field. And that’s not to mention the impact destabilizing disinformation campaigns are having on wider society.
Time and again, we see the language of violence spreading online and reigniting old hatreds. We see it at work in Ethiopia, stoking conflict in the northern state of Tigray. We see it in former flash points in the Balkans, where there’s been a spike in genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals.
And we see how lies fuel the war in Ukraine, where competing narratives sow doubts about the conflict and its origins, or which side is to blame for the latest atrocity, or the related food crisis. In Ukraine’s neighboring countries, meanwhile, bad actors are spreading lies about refugees.
We can’t afford to let this continue. Disinformation is undermining security and peace and preventing peacekeepers from doing their jobs. It is undermining ceasefires and political settlements, and hindering investigations into human rights violations. We must recognize the threat and find ways to fight back.
The UN is working to monitor and counter disinformation impacting peacekeeping missions around the world. This summer, the Security Council met to discuss the role of strategic communications in peacekeeping operations in a High-Level Debate for the first time.
But the solutions are complex. Social media companies and national governments have a huge role to play, as do we communicators. By telling accurate, credible, and human-centered stories, we can defuse lies and build the trust and support of the communities we serve.
Strong storytelling helps us present evidence and verified data to wider audiences. In turn, this fosters understanding and opens dialogue. Two-way conversations between peacekeepers and communities allow missions to build trust and accountability. Where needed, that means owning up to and rooting out all wrongdoing.
This conversation is key. We know that face-to-face communication remains one of the best ways to counter falsehoods. That’s why peacekeepers hold regular town-hall style events to listen to the concerns of communities and learn how better to serve them. Peacekeeping missions also reach vast populations in hard-to-reach conflict areas with UN radio stations with its programs that promote facts and peace. In South Sudan, for example, a recent survey found that 83% of the population received their news from radio.
Yet it’s important to also keep an eye on the bigger picture. Destabilizing disinformation is just one part of a wider struggle over information. Harmful lies are also undermining vital progress in pandemic preparedness and on climate change. One thing is clear, this struggle is here to stay. It should be front and center of our fight for a better world.