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Mis & Disinformation - Handling the 21st Century Challenge in the Humanitarian Sector - February 2022

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Written by Kristen Pearn and Andrej Verity

Key messages

Mis and disinformation have become more pervasive in several discourses, including humanitarianism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an ‘infodemic’, which is defined as an overabundance of information and the rapid spread of mis and disinformation.

Infodemics have occurred alongside previous epidemics, but not on the global scale we are witnessing today. Contributing factors for this include:

  • The plethora of social media platforms and the technological architecture that run them, such as algorithms, bots and fake accounts.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of information, good and bad, online.

  • The changing demographic of social media users – to younger generations, such as Generation Z, millennials and Generation X –and their content consumption.

  • A lack of sufficient digital literacy and critical-thinking skills in today’s media-rich environment.

  • Underlying social, cultural and political issues.

Given the pervasiveness of mis and disinformation in several domains, there is reason to believe the humanitarian sector is highly susceptible to becoming a direct or indirect target on a regular basis.

Several instances in which mis and disinformation have implicated humanitarian relief efforts have already occurred. They include but are not limited to:

  • Brazil and the Zika virus, 2015

  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Ebola virus, 2018

  • South Sudan and the refugee crisis, 2003-2020

  • Syria and the White Helmets, 2018

  • The United States of America and COVID-19, 2020

  • The Israeli and Palestinian conflict in Gaza, 2021

Some humanitarian organizations have taken steps to implement measures to monitor and counter misleading content. They include but are not limited to:

  • World Health Organization
  • United Nations Global Pulse and Verified Initiatives
  • Internews
  • InterAction

The humanitarian sector has not dedicated sufficient analytical resources to implement the prevention and mitigation measures commensurate with the threats posed.

To help mitigate future threats, the humanitarian sector must fundamentally rethink its approach to mis and disinformation and improve its communication strategies, cross-sector collaboration, standardized processes, and online and offline engagement with affected communities.