Disinformation as a weapon of war: the case for prebunking


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Yasmin Green
Yasmin Green

CEO of Jigsaw

In the first eight months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nearly a fifth of the country’s population has been forced to take refuge across Europe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Hundreds of kilometres from the frontlines, however, these refugees remain vulnerable to the ongoing conflict. Through both traditional and digital media, the battlefield has been extended around the world as disinformation campaigns, waged by the Russian state and its allies, seek to transform those fleeing the conflict into weapons to sow division and conflict abroad.

Russia has previously demonstrated its willingness to use refugees as both a target and a subject of disinformation campaigns to drive a wedge in Europe. In 2016, Russian state-backed media and government officials amplified false claims of the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a group of Arab migrants in Germany through traditional and social media, seeking to create a crisis for Angela Merkel’s government, in what would come to be known as the ‘Lisa case’. That same year, US and Turkish officials accused Russia of attempting to dramatically increase the flow of refugees from Syria into Europe through a campaign of indiscriminate violence aimed equally at military and civilian targets in order to heighten political conflict across Europe. More than merely stoking online outrage, cases like these have led to real-world violence. In the year the refugee crisis began, incidents of violence targeting accommodation for asylum seekers in Germany rose more than fivefold, as reported by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

This autumn, the Atlantic Council warned that Russia may be attempting the same in Ukraine with a ramped-up assault against civilian infrastructure, hoping that a fresh wave of refugees forced into Europe, which is already struggling with crippling inflation, will at last break the Union’s united opposition to the war.

Behavioural science research has produced encouraging evidence for a potential alternative to traditional approaches to countering manipulation

Countering anti-migrant disinformation is vital both for the safety of refugees and the broader information environment in targeted countries. Debunking and fact-checking play a critical role in many platforms’ responses to the proliferation of disinformation. And while fact checks are of vital importance to individuals seeking accurate information online, they face limitations. Information that we encounter can often be sticky in our memories. Once we’ve accepted it, it can be challenging to dislodge a false claim, even after we’re presented with new evidence.

For over a decade, Jigsaw, a unit within Google, has worked to counter a range of online harms, from violent extremism and repressive censorship, to digital harassment and the diverse risks to our information environment. In the autumn of 2022, Jigsaw launched its largest experiment, seeking to pre-emptively warn millions of central and eastern Europeans of attempts to manipulate their attitudes toward Ukrainian refugees.

To curb the effectiveness of disinformation campaigns, it’s critical to get ahead of them. Dating back to the work of social psychologist William McGuire in the 1960s, behavioural science research has produced encouraging evidence for a potential alternative to traditional approaches to countering manipulation: ‘prebunking’.

Prebunking is highly adaptable to an array of media

Prebunking works by helping individuals develop psychological resilience to disinformation before they ever encounter misleading claims. The tactic consists of three parts: alerts of attempts to manipulate individuals and the wider information ecosystem; a ‘microdose’ of the false narrative, allowing individuals to identify it in the future; and finally, a refutation of the false claims.

Prebunking is highly adaptable to an array of media, from long-form articles to short pre-roll advertisements and interactive video games. Academic research has found prebunking to be effective against a variety of misleading narratives, including those around climate change, white supremacy and vaccine harms. The technique can even be used to help individuals build resilience to rhetorical tactics that are commonly used to spread disinformation, such as fear-mongering and scapegoating, rather than attempting to counter any specific claim.

The campaign to get ahead of anti-migrant hate was informed by conversations with experts from more than a dozen organisations, including NGOs, universities, think tanks, media groups, fact-checking organisations and official government sources across Poland, Czechia and Slovakia. These conversations helped identify emergent disinformation narratives focused on refugees in central and eastern Europe. That research led to the creation of six videos designed to prebunk two narratives that had begun to appear online – scapegoating Ukrainian refugees for the rising cost of living and fear-mongering over the supposedly violent nature of refugees.

Further learnings from this campaign will help us better understand the effectiveness of prebunking at scale

In the first two weeks of the campaign, Jigsaw was able to reach nearly a quarter of the Polish population and a third of all Czechs and Slovaks. A survey run after the first two weeks indicated that viewers’ ability to discern disinformation tactics improved after watching a campaign video. Further learnings from this campaign will help us better understand the effectiveness of prebunking at scale and the specific narratives and tactics that can be most successfully prebunked. This foundational work will also grant us some insight into the variations between local contexts that may make prebunking a more or less appropriate intervention.

Prebunking is just one of several approaches informed by behavioural science research that can help individuals build resilience to online harms. While there is no single answer to the challenges of disinformation, the promise that prebunking has already demonstrated provides a glimmer of hope that the impact of online disinformation campaigns can be blunted and that the most vulnerable among us can be better protected.

This article is a contribution from a member or partner organisation of Friends of Europe. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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