Disinformation is increasingly being used against all types of organisations to cause disruption. Journalists are frequent targets. Colin Pereira, Director of RiskPal, a security company that assists journalists and NGOs to counter threats, highlights some recent cases and their possible extension to aid workers.
Images of the Syrian Civil Defence or as they are more popularly known, the White Helmets, have shaped the debate on the Syrian civil war. Their photogenic exploits, rescuing injured men, women and children from the rubble in the aftermath of Syrian or Russian bombs, featured in newspapers and social media around the world.
However, today, the group is synonymous not just with its humanitarian efforts but with a virulent disinformation campaign. To discredit the photos of badly injured and dead children that shocked the world, Russian backed conspiracy theorists and trolls launched a concerted campaign. Their goal was to paint the White Helmets as al Qaeda sympathisers and fakers of imagery. According to the BBC, the trolls claimed that far from being heroes, the White Helmets had harvested organs from the dead. In the face of the disinformation attacks and subsequent public scrutiny, the group’s founder James Le Mesurier committed suicide in 2019.
Few cases capture so succinctly, the high stakes for organisations and individuals that find themselves in the battle of competing narratives. Organisations, including humanitarian NGOs, should factor in the potential of smear campaigns into their risk assessments.
As ‘purveyors of truth,’ journalists have likewise been targets of disinformation campaigns for some time. Disbelievers in a journalist’s narrative adopt a two-pronged approach. They will seek to discredit and, if necessary, intimidate to enforce silence. The tactics used are continually evolving and NGOs should be aware of them and include them in both their organisational and individual risk assessments.
Brand undermining and organisational reputational attacks have been common for some time.
In 2013, after years of having to defend its reporting on the Sri Lankan military campaign against the Tamil Tigers, Channel 4 News found its entire brand in question. The Sri Lankan government issued a 222 page book called ‘Corrupted Journalism’, which attacked the credibility of the programme and the authenticity of the footage used.
This reputation assassination and literal rewriting of the narrative by the Sri Lankan regime was just a precursor of what authoritarian and in particular nativist politicians are now doing across the world.
It was, of course, President Trump who took the concept of ‘fake news’ mainstream. His rhetoric attacked the entire industry of journalism and he took every opportunity to individually target organisations and journalists. In doing so, he devalued the trust people had in journalists and created an atmosphere of hostility which resulted in direct attacks on the media.
The Alternative Media
At the same time as undermining the media, extremists from both sides are trying to establish themselves as ‘alternative influencer networks’, providing contrary news, views and commentary to the mainstream. The network is proving adept at spreading extremist ideology and radicalising its audience, absent of the same ethical standards and regulations that govern the mainstream media.
By claiming to be alternative journalists, extremists legitimise their intimidatory tactics against the media.
At the source of the animosity, is a rejection of anything different to their world view, which often revolves around identity politics. Any sector, organisation or individual representing or assisting groups or people from other cultures is a threat. The humanitarian sector is an easy target.
The far right activist in the UK, Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, filmed himself threatening a Huffington Post journalist at a night time visit to the reporter’s house. Robinson had posted similar videos to YouTube in the past and is generating content for his own online brand. He has now been banned by several social platforms.
- Swatting and Doxxing
In America, the far right extremists are not just satisfied with making content. They have taken things considerably further as the case of journalist A.C.Thompson highlights.
Thompson is an investigative reporter who has unmasked the activities of several far right extremists. In retaliation, members of a white supremacist group called the Atomwaffen Division called the police on A.C. Thompson and his employer ProPublica, alleging a series of false crimes. This a practice that is common enough to have a name – ‘swatting.’
In December 2018, Atomwaffen Division told the police that there was a pipe bomb, hostage and dead body at the office of ProPublica. This led to a police invasion of the office, much to their workers’ shock.
Two months later, the group told police that Thompson was armed and had killed his wife in his house in California. Thompson and his wife were subsequently detained but were able to explain the situation.
Another favoured tactic used against journalists is ‘doxxing.’ This is the publication of an individual’s personal information (telephone numbers, emails and addresses) into the online environment. Others can then use these details to harass, issue threats, and carry out pranks and financial attacks.
- Malicious abuse and deep fakes
Online abuse has become endemic, particularly for women. Sadly, many journalists now just accept it as part of the course. However, a case of intimidation in India shocked even the most hardened.
Journalist Rana Ayub was covering a story about the rape of an eight year old girl. Local politicians had taken the side of the accused. Rana received a slew of online abuse, but was completely shocked when she saw her face morphed into a pornographic film circulating on Whatsapp. The technology to produce a ‘deep fake’ is now easily available on desktop and mobile applications.
In a conservative culture, the abuse increased exponentially, and Rana was even verbally harangued by people in the street. She eventually had to be hospitalised with anxiety for a brief time. Her case was taken up by the United Nations and received international attention.
Today discrediting, intimidating and smearing are all viewed as ‘legitimate’ tools by extremists of all walks of life in order to destroy trust and position an alternative narrative. International humanitarian and aid organisations need to start preparing to counter such attacks as part of any risk assessment.
About the Author
Colin Pereira is a Director of RiskPal and HP Risk Management. He advises journalists and NGO’s every day about their safety and security. He has spent the last two decades shaping the risk management and assessment model for the media. He was previously the Head of High-Risk Security for ITN News and Deputy Head at the BBC High-Risk Team. Colin was also a producer for BBC Newsnight, Radio 4, and World TV.
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