Disinformation: a threat to Europe’s competitive edge


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Chris Kremidas-Courtney
Chris Kremidas-Courtney

Senior Advisor at Defend Democracy, Lecturer at the Institute for Security Governance and former Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe.

One year into the pandemic and we find ourselves in a world far different from the one we knew prior to February 2020. Today, much of our lives and livelihoods are spent in the digital environment and the lockdown measures intended to prevent the spread of the virus are producing social isolation for millions of citizens, leading to increased mental health challenges.

At the same time, a tsunami of online disinformation is aimed at the citizens of democracies who are more susceptible to believing it due to their social isolation. Everything from conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine containing a 5G microchip to the bizarre beliefs of QAnon followers to far right extremist messages are bombarding millions of people who feel increasingly disconnected from their own societies and are looking for a sense of belonging.

For tens of millions, they face not only the effects of long term social isolation but also the economic anxiety as they face an uncertain future in a fast-changing economy that threatens to leave many behind.

All of these factors have combined to create a “perfect storm” which is making more people vulnerable to radicalisation and we are seeing the results in disinformation-driven violence in Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Malta, and the USA. We’re also seeing it in attacks on mobile phone infrastructure, not to mention the sabotage and disruption of vaccine shipments. And even for disinformation believers who are not resorting to violence, their actions risk prolonging the pandemic even further, delaying our social and economic recovery.

Disinformation-driven attacks on 5G infrastructure have been caused by people who have been convinced that it poses a health hazard to their communities. This has led to over 226 arson attacks on mobile towers in 19 countries with the vast majority of these incidents (185) occurring in Europe.

Disinformation campaigns need not result in radicalisation to have an impact on Europe’s competitive edge

Europe is also the main target of Russian disinformation related to both the pandemic and the rollout of 5G mobile technology. Messages from Russian disinformation sources refer to radio waves from 5G towers as “radiations” and claim that 5G waves cause health problems such as cancer.

Once the pandemic began and work on vaccines started, Russian disinformation sources shifted their campaign to conspiracies involving 5G microchips being contained within the vaccine for the purpose of “mind control”. Other disinformation messages from both Russia and China were aimed at increasing vaccine hesitation and reducing faith in democratic institutions across not only Europe, but among all Western democracies.

These disinformation campaigns serve two main purposes: to weaken faith in democratic institutions and to weaken Europe’s global competitiveness. A Europe that is slow to recover from the pandemic and even slower to roll out advanced digital networks will be less competitive in the post-pandemic global economy. For a number of technical and regulatory reasons, Russia’s ability to roll out its own 5G network is already years behind the West and is projected to remain so for some time. So, in order not to get left too far behind, Russia has chosen to dull Europe’s competitive edge – choosing competition over cooperation.

Disinformation campaigns need not result in radicalisation to have an impact on Europe’s competitive edge. According to mobile communications industry experts, disinformation about 5G technology is leading to town councils and other government officials to slow down the process of installing new equipment and even causing their installation workers to be blocked and harassed.

So what can Europe do to address this disinformation wave and not allow its competitive edge to be eroded? While previous efforts to track and analyse disinformation have been superb and extremely helpful in understanding the nature of the challenge, most of the responses have yet to prove their effectiveness.

We must also build cognitive on-ramps to fact-based information

Education is certainly a valuable tool, especially when aimed at children, to create a generation of more information-savvy citizens. But for those whose beliefs in disinformation have led them all the way to radicalisation, such efforts have not proven effective.

One approach to countering disinformation which has very limited success is to merely present facts to counter the conspiracy theories and fabrications. We should of course always present facts but we cannot rely on them to convince conspiracy theorists to abandon their views. As we’ve learned from science, human beliefs are far more complex and are strongly tied to emotions and identity.

When people are living in times of stress and uncertainty in a complex world, believing in certain kinds of disinformation not only gives them simple answers to hold onto, it also gives them a sense of belonging with other like-minded people. Believing is belonging and belonging is believing. And during extended periods of social isolation and uncertainty, that newly found sense of belonging can be very difficult to give up.

So, what does work? In this case, we must address both aspects of believing and belonging. First off, we must accept that someone who believes in the worst kind of disinformation cannot be expected to just quit and start reading La Stampa or Le Monde tomorrow. The answer comes to us from years of experience with countering other kinds of radicalisation; by building off-ramps, in this case from conspiracy theories and disinformation to fact-based information. These cognitive off-ramps only work when they are adjacent to where the disinformation believer is now. In this case, news and information sources which are rooted in healthy scepticism while still being based in facts is a good start.

We must also build cognitive on-ramps to fact-based information. To do so, information sources must be prepared to acknowledge and address the very reasons people are attracted to disinformation and radical extremism in the first place; worries about the future, concerns about being left behind, and concerns about their voice being heard. For it is these legitimate concerns that are leveraged by the purveyors of hate and disinformation to lure people into their sphere.

The campaign employed comedians and comic writers and was boldly fact-based but proved to be very effective

Scratch the surface of any believer in disinformation and you’ll find someone who deeply cares about their community, their society, and the future. But what causes them to attack their town’s critical infrastructure or sabotage a vaccine shipment is that purveyors of disinformation have hijacked their empathy. They think they are protecting their community when instead, they are doing it harm.

One excellent example of an effective off-ramp is the way Australian telecommunications company Telstra responded to disinformation about 5G technology – with humour. After a “counter with facts” based campaign was quickly being overwhelmed by outlandish disinformation, Telstra decided to take a more effective approach based on recent cognitive research.

Telstra carefully constructed a humour-based social media campaign which was not aimed at the most vehement opponents of 5G but rather the larger part of the population which was not sure and looking for information. The campaign employed comedians and comic writers and was boldly fact-based but proved to be very effective. By employing the disarming nature of humour, this campaign addressed the various concerns and conspiracy theories in an approachable way and led to a major shift in public opinion away from belief in disinformation about 5G technology.

Another example of a successful off-ramp is a recent social media effort by a local activist group in a northern European town where right wing extremists were threatening violence over an influx of refugees. The citizen activist group cannot be identified for safety reasons. In this case, the effort involved leveraging loyalty to the local town over differences with the newcomers. In the words of one person involved with the project: “we wanted to see if their love for the town was stronger than their hatred of the newcomers.”

In this case, positive social media messages and memes were shared praising immigrant newcomers for their accomplishments which made the town a place to be proud of. In one case, it even involved highlighting how an immigrant helped to save locals from a burning house. All of these messages were framed in terms of local pride and belonging and eventually even shifted to pride in how well immigrants were integrating into their town as compared to much larger cities in the same country.

We’ll need to usher in a new era of renewed social connections

The results were astounding and the atmosphere in the town changed drastically for the better. Threats of violence gave way to more social cohesion and harmony. Even some of the hard-core right wing extremists were observed taking pride in how well “their” immigrants were fitting into the town.

In addition to building off-ramps from disinformation in the midst of this ongoing pandemic, governments and societies must find ways to satisfy the hunger for human connection that makes people vulnerable to such messages in the first place. For it is at the café, the senior centre or in the knitting circle where the concerns of the day can be discussed with others and our ideas be challenged by people we know and trust. As best practices on such efforts indicate, local actors are the most effective when it comes to finding ways to replicate these connections while staying safe from the coronavirus.

Building these off-ramps from disinformation are a most urgent matter since far right extremist groups are already online recruiting anti-vaxxers and disaffected QAnon followers. If we don’t build off-ramps, extremists will (and already are).

As we look to a future beyond the pandemic, this challenge will not completely subside as some will remain radicalised or at least susceptible to disinformation. For this reason, we’ll need to usher in a new era of renewed social connections – a revival of local clubs and interest groups, and a more inclusive renewal of the practices and social rituals that keep us connected.

By renewing and making these bonds more inclusive both socially and digitally, we’ll make our societies more resilient so we are better prepared for potential future systemic shocks. They’ll also make our communities better places to live. In this way, our solutions to these challenges not only improve social cohesion and protect democracy, they also enable us to maintain economic competitiveness.

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