The effects of disinformation are far-reaching, and directly erode the foundations of our capabilities for collective security, political action, and effective strategic leadership. One particularly concerning aspect is the way disinformation relates to the most vulnerable or marginalized groups, and the effective weaponization of information against them.
Sigma European Think Tank organized an expert working group roundtable on gender-based disinformation which took place on 21 October 2022. Several questions were tackled such as:
♀️ What is gender-based disinformation?
#️⃣ What is the role of the online space in amplifying gender-based disinformation targeting vulnerable groups?
💡 What can we learn from cases of online disinformation campaigns?
🔍 What impact and solutions can we explore in this field?
🛡️How can NATO counter gender-based disinformation and build societal resilience?
While experts have debated and reflected upon how to fight disinformation at great length within their respective fields, the value of an expert working group is found in the cross-sector, multidisciplinary recommendations from a large set of stakeholders. Hostile states weaponise information to capitalize on social division, and a core part of that is gender as a focal point of cultural debate. Culture- and identity-based narratives represent particularly fertile ground for divisive, polarising disinformation that can effectively create cleavages across large segments of society, and women and other vulnerable groups (including minorities - be they sexual, religious or ethnic) face additional risk when speaking out against disinformation.
With the direct and indirect dangers that disinformation poses by creating or exacerbating divisions from within communities, NATO is interested in identifying intersectional aspects of different vulnerable groups, and promoting an understanding of disinformation that is gendered.
Exploring these concepts is made more challenging due to several factors. Firstly, while some imagine the social media space as a single cohesive bubble, it is in fact a highly diverse ecosystem with each platform representative of a tailored audience, algorithm, and content style. Within each platform further segmentation occurs, based on age, geography, interest community, etc. In practice, if we are not aware of how to correctly map out this ecosystem correctly, we will be unable to identify or address who is active where, what is being talked about, and with whom they are engaging. . This then segments into age and country viewership, and if we are
In addition, it is important to take not just the content that is being spread into account, but how and with what intent it is being spread. We risk focusing on debating the truth of content, or the right to free speech, when disinformation is not an issue of false content - the means - but of malicious intent - the ends. Those who spread disinformation are already aware of these concepts, and NATO and allied countries must get up to speed.
In order to comprehensively address such a far-reaching and nuanced threat, it is fundamental to adopt an intersectional approach to understanding gender-based disinformation (the implications of class, race, caste, religion in intensifying cases of abuse). However, intersectionality as a word carries weight and can invoke different reactions based on preconceived notions or contextual biases.. As with concepts or frameworks like “emotional intelligence,” intersectionality is often understood as a very progressively coded word. As such, while intersectionality is vital in the context of the challenge faced, definition and terminology become an unavoidable pre-requisite so as not to alienate more conservative elements of the anti-disinformation community, which undermines NATO’s pursuit of a “whole of society” approach to disinformation.
Furthermore, acting to protect vulnerable groups brings with it several key issues. When combating disinformation through the creation of bespoke content targeted at vulnerable groups, one runs the risk of cronifying the exclusion of the vulnerable in question, from society’s mainstream discourse. Several such groups have a complex relationship with various institutions, authorities, or particular groups of stakeholders, meaning that campaigns are ineffective unless trust is built.
In a similar vein, while anyone can draft policies that ostensibly serve a given vulnerable group, effective delivery requires the vulnerable groups in question to be engaged and involved in the process as stakeholders, not simply passive subjects. Trust and equity in the process and the policy is essential to support outcomes, and raises an equally essential question: how can trust be built?
Against this background, we open up the conversation on Policy Kitchen. Below follows a brief breakdown of the issues as discussed at the Sigma expert working group meeting in Brussels, segmented by different vulnerable groups.