Disinformation and the autoimmune insurgency


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.

Over the past 17 months we’ve witnessed the impact of disinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic leading to deepening societal division, vaccine hesitation and even disinformation-driven violence. Attacks on vaccine centres and 5G towers throughout Europe have caused great concern in capitals as disinformation has caused citizens to attack their own health systems and critical communications infrastructure.

Disinformation-driven violent extremism has also led to direct attacks on the institutions of democracy themselves. In August 2020 a large group of anti-lockdown protesters and right-wing extremists attempted to storm the Bundestag in Berlin but security forces prevented them from breaching the epicentre of German democracy.

Six months ago in Washington, the world witnessed the sacking of the United States Capitol by a violent mob, motivated and energised by disinformation from outgoing US president Trump and much of his party. In this case, the false narrative that animated the insurrectionists was a claim that the election had been ‘stolen’ from Trump when in fact his loss to now-president Joe Biden was proven dozens of times in vote recounts and legal challenges.

Last week The New York Times released the results of their own six-month investigation in a video which synchronised and mapped out thousands of videos and police radio communications from the Capitol riot, providing a disturbing the picture of what happened on 6 January. More importantly, it also depicts why.

When an autoimmune condition is present, the immune system mistakes part of the body as a threat

Looking at The New York Times video and scanning statements from insurrectionists over the past months and years, it’s clear that what is happening is an autoimmune insurgency.

In medical terms, an autoimmune disease is a one in which the immune system mistakenly attacks its own body. Our immune system normally guards against foreign threats like bacteria and viruses so when it senses these harmful invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them. When an autoimmune condition is present, the immune system mistakes part of the body as a threat and attacks it as such.

In the same way that disinformation has caused people in Europe to attack medical facilities and critical infrastructure, the US Capitol insurrectionists attacked their country’s temple of democracy because they were convinced it was a threat to…democracy.

The lies about the election that drove them were built on a foundation of years of disinformation and messaging which delegitimised the other side in the broader political debate and demonised its leaders. The final push by Trump to fire them up with his false grievance was gas thrown on an already burning fire.

Disinformation campaigns by both foreign and domestic actors can lead to such outcomes if they are not challenged early but left to fester and grow. Whatever the source of disinformation, when societies are divided and the split is exploited and widened to the extreme, the next logical step is toward a hybrid civil war. In this case, it generates an autoimmune insurgency by people convinced they are saving their country when, in fact, they are wrecking it.

Europe today is not immune from such movements

In almost every case, the autoimmune insurgency is fuelled by the ‘Big Lie’ (große Lüge in German) and seeks to establish an authoritarian regime in place of a democratic one. As both science and recent history tells us, people are more susceptible to such disinformation in times of uncertainty.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Nazi party in Germany used the ‘Big Lie’ to blame Jews for their loss in the First World War and to delegitimise general Erich Ludendorff. Their ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth was spread by Nazis and other far right groups for years until it finally took hold and led to a new form of authoritarian government built on the dehumanisation of Jews and other minorities.

If left unchecked, such movements will keep trying until they either achieve their goal or are de-radicalised and integrated back into society. Six months after the ugly but unsuccessful insurrection in Washington, Trump is still stirring up crowds with the ‘Big Lie’, even making calls to avenge a fallen insurrectionist.

Europe today is not immune from such movements. Some far-right politicians in Europe have voiced support for Trump’s ‘Big Lie’, including Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, in addition to France’s Marine Le Pen. This past spring a group of active soldiers and retired generals in France warned of a looming “deadly civil war” due to Islamist extremism, urban violence and government weakness. What is not clear in their message is whether they believe this civil conflict will be started by Islamist extremists or the backlash against them.

These societal divisions are not new and both the pandemic and a flood of disinformation have only made them wider. Whether or not they widen even further depends on what Europe’s leaders do over the next two years.

There must be a sustained effort to heal societal divisions

So, what can be done to prevent societal divisions and disinformation from evolving into disinformation-driven violent extremism and creating autoimmune insurgencies?

Firstly, take the threat seriously. These threats are often seen as almost comical in their early days and leaders don’t start to take them seriously until they have grown into a viable threat. Any group or narrative which promotes or seeks to change society through non-democratic means should be taken seriously from the start and their messages must be challenged and refuted. This task can be taken on by local civil society ‘information first responders’ who are in a position to detect and respond to these threats before they can grow. European Union and member state leaders should seek to build, train and support these local ‘information first responders’ as part of its broader European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP).

Secondly, there must be a sustained effort to heal societal divisions which can be exploited by both foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns. Citizens across the political spectrum are both complex and capable of change. In the case of the autoimmune insurgency effect we’ve seen in 2020 and 2021, those committing acts of violence did so because they were convinced they were doing something good for their society, but their care and empathy were hacked and exploited by malign actors.

What this should tell us is that these people are both reachable and care deeply about their communities – but often only in a narrow sense that is limited only to people who are like them. So, they need a different approach to help expand their definition of ‘we’ and be encouraged to join positive community efforts instead of destructive ones.

Centre-right and centre-left politicians need to denounce extremists on either end of the political spectrum

For those who have already chosen to believe in a disinformation narrative, building cognitive off-ramps and difficult in-person dialogue with someone they know and trust are key – but these can take many weeks and months to make progress.

For those who have not yet bought into a disinformation narrative but are open to considering them, a similar approach is required; in-person intervention by someone with whom they have personal traction, but also public dialogue and narratives which acknowledge and address the grievances that can make people more susceptible to disinformation.

For example, public concern about personal data collected in contact tracing during the pandemic has fuelled disinformation narratives claiming that governments are seeking greater control over people’s lives. One solution is to provide greater transparency and public oversight over decisions about how contact tracing data is stored, used and erased. Appointing ordinary citizens to oversight boards and encouraging them to report to the public is one way to prevent a disinformation narrative from gaining traction.

Finally, the centre must hold. In the same way that Western governments have long called on moderate Muslims to denounce extremists in their midst, centre-right and centre-left politicians need to denounce extremists on either end of the political spectrum. Their hesitancy to do so in recent years has allowed extremist narratives and parties to gain traction and seats in parliaments. Only by politicians in the centre uniting around shared values, renouncing extremism on a continuous basis and delivering real solutions for their citizens can extremists and their narratives be kept on the margins.

Democracy cannot be defended by one faction alone but only by a broad coalition who, despite their difference on various political issues, are willing to take joint action to protect democracy and its institutions.

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