This is the last in a series about how communities can fight back and protect themselves against weaponized disinformation campaigns. You can read our previous articles here:
As a damaged and rapidly changing climate creates new, unforeseen issues around the world with wars and power struggles in their wake, it has birthed a new type of attack – one that is all but invisible to many, but which is devastating nevertheless. It is powerful and can destroy communities overnight, and it is being leveraged all over the world.
That tactic called resilience targeting, part of a wider group of emerging hybrid threats. It is a simple enough mechanism — remove your adversary’s ability to recover after a catastrophic event, whoever or whatever that adversary might be — but thanks to social media and climate change, it is now an extraordinarly robust and cost-effective set of weapons. It is also difficult to fight with traditional weapons. By its very nature, much of it takes place at the individual level, in our own minds and perceptions.
How and Why Are Disasters and Disinformation Connected?
Resilience is the ability to recover, whether physically, emotionally, socially, or geographically, from a disaster. Resilience targeting interferes with that ability.
Dr. Chad Briggs, a hybrid threat and climate disinformation expert and co-author of Disaster Security, has written that resilience targeting is a type of attack that is tailored for use in a world in the process of being re-made by climate change and massive technological advances, both of which have taken place in a relatively brief timespan:
In conducting assessments of post-conflict regions and reconstruction, a pattern emerged that suggested many actions taken during a conflict were designed not to target military units, or even civilians directly, but were intended to prevent communities from being able to recover from the conflict. By attacking or blocking access to critical nodes in essential systems, aggressors could exploit key vulnerabilities and actively target those factors that constituted resilience and the ability of systems to recover following a conflict. The specific tactics could vary, from sowing landmines in agricultural areas, destroying environmental or health infrastructure (for example, wastewater treatment facilities), or undercutting livelihoods, this practice of resilience targeting often occurred in civil wars and was tied to policies of ethnic cleansing.
Similar tactics are observed in hybrid warfare environments. Hybrid warfare strategies are often employed in asymmetric conflicts, where the less powerful actor takes advantage of the adversary’s vulnerabilities to create instability and disruption. As resilience is a key component of vulnerability, actively undercutting resilience of critical systems automatically increases associated vulnerabilities, whether the ability to withstand outside attacks, maintain social, political, and economic stability, or to recover following a disaster. In a general sense, any reduction of resilience in a society or its underlying support systems increases that society’s vulnerability to emerging hazards linked to climate change. When Ukrainian society, for example, is polarized through social media and disinformation campaigns, energy utilities suffer cyberattacks, financial systems are delegitimized and fail, the country loses its ability to develop climate mitigation policies or respond to hazards such as extreme heat events.
“Identifying resilience targeting can be tricky, as very often target groups are led to believe that this process is either ‘just politics’ or somehow their own doing,” Briggs told us via email, adding:
“Austerity measures” are a common cover for undermining community resilience, or following a disaster, groups may have land or services taken away for their own protection (e.g. confiscation of land following the 2004 Asian tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005). Undermining trust in science and local experts is also a common tactic, as it removes the ability to question government or corporate actions. Generally, think of what makes a community resilient in terms of connectivity, trust, access to information, and local resources — once those are deliberately taken away, there is often a goal behind doing so.
Environmentally-related resilience targeting might look like refusing to release funds for storm cleanup, or destroying granaries ahead of harvest season during a violent and unprovoked invasion of a neighboring country, or simply elected officials refusing to address an ongoing lack of potable water:
The narrative side of resilience targeting affects emotional as well as physical states, and one line of attack can be used to support the other. For example, a population exhausted by years of firehosing falsehoods might be less likely to adopt masking in the face of a global airborne pandemic; right-wing groups ginned up by years of weaponized narratives about “antifa” and anti-immigrant messaging might be easily encouraged to set up armed roadblocks during a wildfire or other natural disaster; emboldened conspiracy theorists might heavily recruit using narrative and algorithmic targeting, leading to a society that cannot agree with itself enough to build – or rebuild – democratic institutions and norms:
There are myriad examples of how this has played out in the 2022 U.S. election cycle alone, such as the inauthentically organized narratives about critical race theory, which are and always were simply attacks on public schooling:
Or narratives weaponized against students, such as one using a phony and absurd narrative about “litterboxes in classrooms” as a thin pretext for rhetoric and policy decisions targeting queer and transgender youth:
Or anti-masking and anti-vaccine disinformation campaigns:
Which were in turn parlayed into attacks on medical professionals:
This also demonstrates how these poisoned narratives can effectively play off each other in order to create a sense of an alternate reality — one that is ruled over by disinformation purveyors, and which often has hideous real-world effects that spill out in stochastic violence and bad-faith politics.
What are Hybrid Threats?
Hybrid threats, sometimes also called “blended aggression,” are an emerging front in regions roiled by major natural disasters or heightened tensions:
Hybrid threats combine military and non-military, as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber attacks, economic pressure, and deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces.
Hybrid activities are often used by adversaries because they realise they cannot prevail in a conventional conflict with NATO, or broadly with the West, or even compete politically, militarily or economically.
Hybrid methods create turmoil and disunity among us—they quietly undermine democratic states and institutions, blur the lines between war and peace, and attempt to sow doubt in the minds of target populations, all while avoiding traditional conflict.
These threats are in our social media feed, usually without our awareness. They are influencing the media and academia. Adversaries use hybrid methods to make us feel unsafe, make it hard for us to distinguish the truth from lies, and erode our trust in our leaders and governments.
They are called “hybrid” or “blended” threats because they blur boundaries, especially between state and non-state actors and combatants versus noncombatants. Resilience targeting is part of that hybrid activity:
The ambiguity is created by combining conventional and unconventional means – disinformation and interference in political debate or elections, critical infrastructure disturbances or attacks, cyber operations, different forms of criminal activities and, finally, an asymmetric use of military means and warfare.
By using the aforementioned unconventional and conventional means in concert, hybrid actors veil their action in vagueness and ambiguity, complicating attribution and response. The use of different intermediaries – or proxy actors – supports the achievement of these goals. Hybrid action is cost-effective as it turns the vulnerabilities of the target into a direct strength for the hybrid actor. This makes hybrid action more difficult to prevent or respond to.
That makes quickly and effectively getting accurate information to populations crucial, particularly during times of flux or great change, so that they can protect themselves during a communications breakdown or other disaster, such as a fire or an earthquake that destroys an aqueduct. Otherwise, those events are harnessed in order to feed divisive rhetoric, as happened during September 2020 wildfires in the American Pacific Northwest, when weaponized, false rumors about anti-fascist protesters led directly to white supremacists organizing roadblocks to pull over people fleeing the flames:
But there do not need to be ongoing, shocking disasters for hybrid threats to be effective; there only needs to be heavy tension and interference in the way information is gathered and disseminated, both of which can be achieved by harnessing propaganda and disinformation narratives. Those can be used to turn the institutions that keep democracy safe and stable by educating the population at large, such as public schools or newsrooms, into places that are pummeled by rhetorical attacks — or fully co-opted by bad actors in order to enact their own agendas:
As many counterdisinformation experts have repeatedly noted, the rise of these new types of weapons is no accident — rather, it is the result of technology and a rapidly changing climate, which are rapidly redrawing geopolitical powers and borders:
The ongoing transition in international power structures provides a fertile environment for hybrid action. The intensifying conflict of values between the West and authoritarian states erodes international norms and institutions and makes open Western societies targets of comprehensive hybrid action. A conflict of values that extends to the domestic sphere of Western societies increases polarization and disunity within and among Western actors, making them more vulnerable to external interference. Recent developments in modern technology and an increasingly complex information environment provide powerful instruments for hybrid actors if not properly countered by the Western community.
Accordingly, Hybrid CoE characterizes hybrid threats as:
- Coordinated and synchronized action that deliberately targets democratic states’ and institutions’systemic vulnerabilities through a wide range of means.
- Activities that exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution, as well as the different interfaces (war-peace, internal-external security, local-state, and national-international).
- Activities aimed at influencing different forms of decision-making at the local (regional), state, or institutional level, and designed to further and/or fulfil the agent’s strategic goals while undermining and/or hurting the target.
As this 2019 story explains, environmental changes over time translate to major refugee movements as people leave their homes to search for safer places elsewhere:
Climate change is exacerbating already severe droughts in the Horn of Africa. An average 21.8 million people are already forced to leave their homes as a result of climate change – every year. Parts of Southeast Asia risk becoming uninhabitable, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Risk Studies reports. The Maldives may disappear altogether.
Here’s the thing: people don’t lie down and die when their home community becomes uninhabitable. They find an inhabitable place to live. Climate change risks creating enormous population movements in the direction of North America and Europe. Will those refugees collectively flee to Russia or China as well? Unlikely. Most migrants make their way to a neighboring country – which is why Lebanon and Jordan are now home to so many Syrians – or to countries that hold promise of a significantly better future. Today, that is “the West”.
Since disinformation is inherently centered on people and their basic rights, this creates multiple, overlapping opportunities for resilience targeting. In the United States and in other countries with formerly robust democracies, resilience targeting looks like corrosion or corruption of its democratic institutions — elections, public schools, libraries, unions, and so on.
What Is Disaster Resilience?
The term “disaster resilience,” or simply resilience, can refer to individuals, groups, or societies; it can also describe the environment that people live in. The term means roughly the same thing no matter what context it is deployed in — the ability to bounce back from a setback or a disaster — but it takes on additional, overlapping connotations when used in climate or information issues, specifically the ability for an individual, a group, or a region to return to a baseline of safety or security after a major disaster or calamity.
Interfering with that resilience is a highly cost-effective way to attack populations, which can also set up the public for future disinformation campaigns.
Hybrid threats, including resilience targeting and disinformation campaigns, look more complicated than they are because they use human nature as their fuel, which is inherently complex and full of different responses. They can also be intentionally terrifying and disorienting, as in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. general election:
But, as knotty and tangled as disinformation narratives and related campaigns can appear, their solutions are relatively simple and straightforward — although, as with every other aspect of hybrid threats, they may not be easy. Resilience targeting is a combination of disinformation strategies, plus policy changes, violence, and anything else that will keep populations from recovering or progressing after a disastrous event, and as such it requires a multipronged approach for pushing back, but always favoring truth and transparency over manipulation and lies:
While these attacks are systemic and have a stated goal of destroying democratic institutions, they can be fought very effectively at the grassroots level by building individual resistance to disinformation campaigns. It can be fought in the same way as any other disinformation campaigns — through a combination of strategies that prioritize accuracy, truth, mutual aid, and protecting the vulnerable, as we have written in the past:
Cultivating radical compassion is one way to counteract the confusion and frustration from the emotional and psychological attacks that are part and parcel of hybrid threats. Reach out to your neighbors, establish mutual aid networks, be kind to one another, but do not tolerate intolerance in your networks and do not be afraid to take time to establish boundaries.
These strategies are part of what has come to be called building resilience, or forming a cultural immune system against disinformation toxicity. Building up institutions — particularly journalism — is essential, but the fight begins at the individual level, which effectively democratizes the response to warfare and threats.
The most potent weapons that disinformation purveyors can deploy against democracy are despair, nihilism, and confusion — especially around elections. Those are intentional narratives designed to keep people from standing up for their rights and using their voices to shape their surroundings. To put it one final way, it could be argued that disinformation attacks have existed all along for one reason: so that propagandists and liars can separate you from your vote for their own gain by creating an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and doubt around the interpersonal relationship around which democratic processes are built.
Don’t let them.