Defanging Disinformation Campaigns in Central & Eastern Europe

Refugees are a perennial subject of disinformation. That fact could help better protect them.

Digital disinformation has become a pervasive threat, posing risks ranging from the safety of individuals to the legitimacy of democratic processes. But its most pernicious effects are often felt amid ongoing catastrophes – conflicts, terrorist attacks, the slow-rolling devastation of the pandemic – when malicious actors deploy false claims and misleading narratives to compound crises, placing the most vulnerable at even greater risk.

Disinformation in times of conflict

In the first eight months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nearly 8 million Ukrainians, almost a fifth of the country’s population – have been forced from their homes to take refuge across Europe. Hundreds of miles 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 others sympathetic to its illegal invasion of Ukraine seek to transform refugees fleeing the conflict into weapons to sow division conflict abroad.

Countering anti-migrant disinformation is vital both for the safety of refugees and the broader information environment in targeted countries. To address this dual challenge, in the fall of 2022, Jigsaw, a unit with Google that explores threats to open societies, launched the largest experiment in our history, seeking to preemptively warn millions of Central and Eastern Europeans of attempts to manipulate their attitudes toward Ukrainian refugees.

Ukraine has served as a lab for Russian disinformation operations for much of the last decade, and current campaigns build on a long-standing tradition of information warfare in Central and Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union began running foreign information operations – euphemistically labeled “active measures” – as early as the 1920s. In one of the most famous cases, KGB agents paid individuals to spray paint synagogues in Germany with swastikas in the winter of 1959–1960, prompting a crisis within NATO over the possibility of lingering antisemitism in Germany that nearly led to the country’s expulsion from the alliance. The global reach and extremely low cost of publishing on the web, however, have dramatically simplified the logistical challenge of deploying and scaling disinformation campaigns.

The complex interplay between disinformation and refugees

Refugees are both a common target and subject of disinformation campaigns around the world, and Russia has previously demonstrated its willingness to attempt to use them as a wedge in Europe. In 2016, Russian state-backed media along with Russian government officials amplified false claims of the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by a group of Arab migrants through both traditional and social media, accusing government officials of inaction and seeking to create a crisis for Angela Merkel’s government in what would come to be known as the “Lisa Case.” More than merely stoking online outrage, cases like this one lead to real-world violence. In the year the refugee crisis began, incidents of violence targeting accommodation for asylum speakers in Germany rose more than fivefold.

Russia has sought to exacerbate refugee crises in the past to provide further fodder for disinformation campaigns. In 2016 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 sow dissent across Europe. This fall 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 a Europe already struggling with crippling inflation and energy costs will at last break the continent’s united opposition to the war.

Prebunking and fact checking disinformation campaigns

Debunking and fact checking have played a critical role in many platforms' response to the proliferation of disinformation online. While fact checks are of vital importance to individuals seeking accurate information online, they suffer some limitations when it comes to addressing disinformation campaigns. Information we encounter can often be sticky in our memories, and once we’ve accepted a false claim it can be challenging to dislodge even after we’re presented with new evidence.

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

Prebunking works by helping individuals develop psychological resilience to disinformation before they ever encounter misleading claims. The tactic consists of three parts: a warning to people, alerting them to attempts to manipulate them 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 further be effective against a variety of misleading narratives, including those around climate change, white supremacy, and vaccine harms. The tactic can even be used to help individuals build resilience to the rhetorical tactics such as fear mongering and scapegoating commonly used to spread disinformation, rather than attempting to counter any specific claim.

Jigsaw’s approach to prebunking

Our campaign to get ahead of anti-migrant hate was informed by conversations with experts from more than a dozen organizations, including NGOs, universities, think tanks, media groups, fact-checking organizations, and official government sources across Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. Through these conversations we were able to 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.

In the first two weeks of the campaign, we were 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 of the ad's ability to discern disinformation tactics improved after watching. 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 a number of approaches informed by behavioral science research that Jigsaw and Google are exploring to help individuals build resilience to online harms. While there’s no single answer to the challenges of disinformation, the opportunity prebunking has already demonstrated gives us hope that the impact of online disinformation campaigns can be blunted, and the most vulnerable among us can be better protected.


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