Disinformation and the Closing of Civic Space
Disinformation Toolkit 2.0
Repressive leaders and governments use disinformation attacks to solidify their hold on power.
Disinformation attacks on civil society organizations, NGOs, their leaders, and staff are one way that repressive leaders and governments use their power to close the civic space for dissent, protest, and free speech and solidify their hold on power. InterAction Member Oxfam explains that recent autocratic leaders launch such attacks on civil society actors to protect or strengthen their political and economic patronage networks and that such attacks hinge on a language of nationalist or traditional values, “alongside concerted ideological efforts to discredit or delegitimize specific” civil society actors. The International Center for Nonprofit Law (ICNL), also an InterAction Member, explains that the growth in the global movement for climate justice has been met with an accompanying crackdown on civic space for activists around the globe, who have deployed a variety of methods to quell dissent, including “laws criminalizing legitimate expression and assembly, to attempts to paint activists as ‘eco-terrorists,’ to civil lawsuits and physical persecution.”
In this context, disinformation campaigns are a potent tool for closing civic spaces. As powerful actors leverage disproportionate access to, or control of, local media platforms and social media channels to spread disinformation designed to malign civil society organizations, their leaders, and political goals by falsely associating them with bad actors, blaming them for crises, and launching rhetorical attacks to provoke a reaction and justify repressive policies such as state-led discrimination and human rights abuses, lawlessness and an increase in social tensions.
The arrival of the digital age, signaled by the sweeping adoption of mobile technology and social media in middle- and low-income countries, was hailed initially as a game-changing tool for civil society, particularly youth who represented the early adopters of social media platforms. The Arab Spring, a series of citizen-driven uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa during the early 2010s, spread across the region thanks in part to ad hoc networks of youth connected via Facebook, a civic space which repressive governments around the region had not previously seen as a threat. Since the Arab Spring, though, such governments and their leaders have worked together to crack down on digital civic space in new ways made possible by the opacity of the data economy, proliferation of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms built to reinforce societal biases, and lack of rights-based regulatory frameworks governing new technology.
InterAction’s Together Project is a hub for advocacy and solidarity for U.S.-based NGOs that provide development and humanitarian relief around the world, particularly faith-based organizations who confront targeted prejudicial regulations in the U.S. due to their operating principles or faith. Read more about the project and how it has helped its members prepare for, prevent, and respond to attacks HERE.
Understanding these strategies and the role disinformation plays in closing civic space and cementing authoritarian rule highlights the urgency of the challenge of combatting disinformation targeting civil society and NGOs.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rode to power in 2016 on the back of a social media-driven disinformation campaign targeting his political opponents, journalists, foreigners, CSOs, and NGOs. Since his election, a campaign of extrajudicial killings—nominally in service to Duterte’s war on drugs—has claimed as many as 20,000 people’s lives, most with total impunity on the part of the killers.
According to Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, Duterte has used social media-driven disinformation to lead people “to believe the government’s draconian measures [are] justified” and “hit the credibility” of trusted news sources and other human rights defenders (HRDs) by “chipping away at facts, using half-truths that fabricate an alternative reality by merging the power of bots and fake accounts on social media to manipulate rea people.” Using Facebook, Duterte and his followers have consistently launched disinformation attacks on Duterte’s enemies, falsely associating opposition leaders with criminals, fabricating stories implicating them in crimes, or accusing them of infidelity. These attacks have been amplified by a network of pro-Duterte Facebook groups, which create, share, and promote these accusations, as well as pro-Duterte material, out across the Philippines—the country with the highest Facebook penetration rate in the world with over 83 million users.
According to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights’ July 2020 report, under Duterte, 134 HRDs “have reportedly been killed since the beginning of the term of the current administration.” Broadly speaking, a “climate of impunity” has been established in which HRDs are a legitimate target of violence. Further, the report contends that this dynamic is “largely attributable to the pronouncements of the President.”
ICSC’s Solidarity Playbook
The International Civil Society Center’s (ICSC) Solidarity Action Network has covered the closing civic space extensively and, in 2021, published a Solidarity Playbook which includes a variety of case studies from around the globe on how civil society organizations are responding to repressive actions by governments, including disinformation campaigns. This resource includes recommendations on how civil society organizations can respond to attacks through solidarity, collective action, and a unified voice.
Read more HERE.
Like President Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro rode a campaign of divisive rhetoric and social media-driven disinformation to the Brazilian Presidency, which he assumed on January 1, 2019.
Bolsonaro and his supporters have used disinformation attacks in a variety of ways throughout his presidency, including a campaign of defamation targeting his own pro-quarantine health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, before Mandetta’s firing in April of 2020. In the Brazilian Amazon, massive wildfires broke out in 2019 and again in 2020, set by illegal loggers, land grabbers, ranchers, and miners who act with Bolsonaro’s backing—both implicit and at-times explicit. Bolsonaro joined local police in providing rhetorical cover to the business interests responsible for the fires by placing the blame at the feet of local firefighters and NGOs, accusing them of using the crisis for fundraising.
Since taking office, Bolsonaro has continued to employ the same methods: attacking his detractors and critics, where deforestation has increased to more than 200% of pre-Bolsonaro levels, harming Indigenous communities’ livelihoods and impacting the Amazon’s ability to absorb the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, exacerbating global climate change. According to March 2021 research in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, “that current warming… in the Amazon Basin largely offsets—and most likely exceeds—the climate service provided by atmospheric CO2 uptake.”