"We need to get ahead of the spread of disinformation."

Debunking needs to be complemented with ‘prebunking’ to stop the spread of disinformation, say Alberto Neidhardt and Paul Butcher in their latest publication for the European Policy Centre.

The increasing spread of disinformation and fake news is worrying. Especially when it comes to migrants, as we are seeing at the Polish-Belarusian border or in the run-up to the French elections, but also more generally, for example in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Against this backdrop, we talked to Alberto-Horst Neidhardt and Paul Butcher about their latest publication for the European Policy Centre: "From debunking to prebunking: How to get ahead of disinformation on migration in the EU” to explore how we can better identify and counter such disinformation.

FES: Disinformation campaigns often try to set the tone and content of the debate, feed public anxieties and reinforce divisive narratives. Are there recurring themes when it comes to migration-related disinformation?

Alberto:Since 2015, migration has become an increasingly sensitive topic in European political discussions and a key subject of disinformation campaigns.In our research, we found that the most dominant disinformation narratives depict migrants as an invasion force which undermines national traditions, as a source of violence, or else as an economic threat. Virtually all stories can be linked to fears about health, wealth and identity. In other words, migration-related disinformation seeks to exploit readers’ value-systems and most pressing needs, amplifying them in the process. Disinformation narratives are also in a process of constant evolution, quickly adapting to the shifting news cycle. This is demonstrated by the rise of health-related disinformation after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and, recently, by the re-emergence of invasion narratives following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the ongoing border crisis with Belarus.

FES: What has been done so far by the EU, its member states and other actors to counteract such disinformation and promote a more inclusive and fact-based approach towards migration?

Paul: So far, the response to disinformation threats has been primarily reactive. Currently, rather than trying to change the debate, many of the initiatives seek to fight back against disinformation through fact-checking and debunking: A story or claim begins to circulate, then a civil society organisation or journalist researches that claim and writes an article rectifying it. One example is the “EU vs. Disinfo” website by the European External Action Service (EEAS) which focuses on Kremlin-linked disinformation narratives.

Besides this, the EU institutions and member states dwell on rather ‘technical’ approaches to counteract disinformation, such as forcing social media companies to step up efforts to find and delete bots, crack down on manipulative use of their platforms, increase the transparency of advertising, and so on.

FES: Are such approaches sufficient in effectively addressing disinformation and its detrimental effects?

Paul: We know that false and misleading narratives can spread very quickly – often more quickly than fact-based information, especially because of their emotional appeal. That’s why, in our last study “From debunking to prebunking: How to get ahead of disinformation on migration in the EU” we advocate for debunking to be complemented with a ‘prebunking’ strategy, or in other words, getting ahead of the spread of disinformation.

EU efforts are beginning to explore this angle. For example, the EEAS runs a ‘Rapid Alert System’ (RAS) that seeks to deliver early warning signals for emerging disinformation threats. However, the RAS can only cover threats from ‘external’ sources outside of the EU, like Russia and China, due to the EEAS’ limited mandate. We therefore call for an ‘actor-agnostic’ approach which should lead to timely interventions, regardless of the origins of disinformation.

FES: In your recent study, you describe three short-/medium-term methods that could help communication actors get a first-mover’s advantage over disinformation: monitoring, early warning and foresight. How would they look in practice?

Alberto: The fact that disinformation travels fast requires better preparedness. The first step is to stay informed about the latest disinformation trends through real-time monitoring. Monitoring ensures that all stakeholders understand what disinformation consists of, how it spreads and how effective responses can be crafted. Early warning and foresight also build on monitoring efforts. Early warning measures enable fact-checkers and communication professionals to assess the likely reach and impact of disinformation and craft swift responses where necessary. Although responding quickly is important, this approach remains ‘reactive’ and also carries the risk of reproducing or giving further visibility to false claims.

Recent events such as those taking place in Afghanistan and Belarus – which several analysts have argued were not unforeseeable – have shown the need for better preparedness and pro-active strategies. This is where foresight comes in: a systematic analysis of potential future scenarios would make it possible to determine which disinformation narratives and frames may be used in response to particular events and which population segments may be targeted. This would allow communication actors to evaluate potential future risks and, if necessary, disarm disinformation narratives in advance with evidence-based messaging and other pre-emptive strategies.

FES: In 2020, you already conducted a study on fighting disinformation on migration and recommended to counteract disinformation with fact-based alternative narratives. Does that strategy still work with these ideas?

In the best-case scenario, when disinformation circulates it would meet with a less susceptible audience so that there is less demand for it in the first place. This could be achieved partly by changing the debate, for example with a different that is, an alternative – more balanced, factual narrative that diverts attention away from popular disinformation narratives. We hope that our short-/medium-term prebunking strategies can help to inform and prepare the content of those messages and get them to the right place at the right time. This would not only expand the toolbox of communication actors counteracting disinformation, but it would also contribute to creating an environment where disinformation struggles to spread.

FES: In addition to short and medium-term approaches, you also refer to long-term efforts to increase societal resilience to disinformation, such as through media and information literacy. How would such resilience help?

Alberto: European citizens should be supported in understanding the media environment and the particular role that disinformation plays in it. If citizens are unaware of the risks of disinformation and unable to spot manipulation, hoaxes will continue to be shared and spread further, contributing to a polarised debate.

For this reason, efforts should go into promoting media and information literacy. Rather than being informed about individual false stories, citizens should be equipped with critical skills enabling them to spot and resist bias and manipulation. We think that this would help to protect others too, as ‘watchful’ readers would also be able to filter out manipulative content they come across online.

FES: You also recommend strengthening ‘migration literacy’. What do you mean by that?

Alberto: The critical skills required to recognise and reject disinformation partly vary with each subject area. Migration is an inherently complex subject that can be easily twisted or misrepresented by disinformation actors. It is also connected to broader social and political issues with great symbolic and historical meaning, such as religion, identity, and borders.

Since facts and evidence relating to migration are often difficult to access and understand, we also call for improving ‘migration literacy’ to promote greater understanding and awareness. We believe that such awareness-raising efforts should be directed towards those with an ‘intermediary’ role, notably journalists and teachers. Migration literacy would enable them to act as ‘gatekeepers’ against disinformation narratives while also creating the preconditions for a more balanced and informed public discussion.

FES: Taking your research into account, what hurdles might policymakers face when it comes to counteracting disinformation and what are your recommendations to move forward?

Alberto: None of this is straightforward. There are lots of challenges, practical and political. To start with, the fight against disinformation must go hand in hand with the protection of freedom of expression and the promotion of a democratic and inclusive public debate.

Migration, media and information literacy are so important because they enable all citizens, regardless of their views and beliefs, to make informed choices, without pushing them in any specific direction in current debates.

Paul: Yet, boosting media literacy and migration education in schools depends to a great extent on the national curricula of each member state and teachers’ knowledge and awareness. And reaching certain other demographic groups, such as the elderly or those already under the influence of disinformation will require sustained long-term efforts to break down barriers. Nevertheless, the objective must be to provide easily accessible information and enable citizens, regardless of their views, beliefs and background, to make informed choices. Only then will we gain the upper hand over disinformation and be able to have more balanced and informed discussions.


Study 2020: Fear and lying in the EU: Fighting disinformation on migration with alternative narratives

Study 2021: From debunking to prebunking: How to get ahead of disinformation on migration in the EU

About the authors

Paul Butcher is a former Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions Programme at the European Policy Centre. His primary research interests relate to disinformation and tech policy, democracy and citizens’ participation, and EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. As of 2022, he is the Political Advisor to the European Free Alliance, part of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament.

Alberto-Horst Neidhardt is a Policy Analyst in the European Migration and Diversity programme at the European Policy Centre. His research areas include asylum, migration and integration matters, with a particular interest in the politics of migration and specific expertise on EU law. He also lectures on comparative law and legal pluralism at the University of Antwerp. Prior to joining the EPC, he was a PhD candidate in law at the European University Institute (EUI), Teaching Assistant at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Research Assistant at Queen Mary University of London. He holds a PhD and a Master of Laws in Comparative, European and International Laws from EUI and a Master in International and Comparative Legal Studies from SOAS.