Most of this chapter has explored civil society interventions that can address challenges to information integrity. Another important consideration, however, is how civil society organizations, their beneficiaries, and the issues they work on often become the targets of disinformation campaigns.
Research Focus: Retaliation Against Counter-Disinformation Initiatives
Beyond threats associated with disinformation campaigns targeting civic groups, perpetrators of disinformation also target organizations working to fact-check statements, identify narratives, and/or build public awareness of the issue of disinformation. Respondents to CEPPS interview research in Ukraine noted several instances of retaliation against civic groups working on disinformation, ranging from public rebuttals and rhetorical attacks to harassment, physical threats, and vandalism.
This has a number of potential impacts: it can undermine trust in the group or organization, reducing their impact, and undermining funding; can lead to attacks against the groups served by CSOs, particularly marginalized communities, often leading to political disempowerment and – in the worst cases – loss of life; and, finally, issue or group focused civil society groups often get caught up in disinformation campaigns designed to discredit or undermine their agendas, even if they are not attacked directly. As such, every civil society organization – regardless of its focus – is impacted by disinformation and has a role to play in combating it.
In addition to those civil society groups and interventions explicitly working on disinformation, the democracy assistance community must work with civil society writ large to ensure that they are prepared for information attacks designed to discredit an organization, its beneficiaries, or the issue area they work on.
That preparation should include:
- All civil society groups should be trained in basic data protection and information security to ensure that sensitive financial information, interior workings, and – most critically – membership databases or communications with vulnerable groups and individuals remain secure.
- Civil society groups should be encouraged to have a crisis response plan for information attacks. Who needs to be involved in response discussions? In what instances would the civil society group respond? How quickly will they respond? How will they ensure that a response reached the target audiences? Will beneficiaries or member groups be notified of information attacks or data breaches? How?
- Groups working on issues likely to be subject to disinformation should be trained in how to anticipate, identify, report, and counteract disinformation. Rapid response grants and capacity building initiatives should be put in place around specific issue areas.
8. Interaction has developed a toolkit to help CSOs and INGOs prepare and respond to disinformation targeting their organizations: https://www.interaction.org/documents/disinformation-toolkit/. Resources such as this should be widely distributed, and more such resources tailored to particular information environments and types of organization would also be useful. Likewise, the AccessNow Digital Security Helpline, a free service to activists experiencing digital safety threats, could be a useful model for a similar initiative focused on civil society confronting information security challenges.