Picture: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti – In Peacekeepers at the MINUSMA camp in Kidal, Mali, following an attack, June 8, 2017.
By Albert Trithart
In early November, a false rumor began circulating among Facebook and WhatsApp users in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation, MONUSCO, had provided transport to a group of M23 rebels. In September, an online news outlet in the Central African Republic (CAR) published a false story that government security forces had intercepted military equipment that the UN mission, MINUSCA, was sending to armed groups. And in December of last year, a video of a helicopter was widely shared on social media—including by a member of Mali’s National Transitional Council—alongside false claims that it depicted peacekeepers from the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, delivering supplies to terrorists.
These are just a few examples of the growing barrage of disinformation that has targeted UN peacekeeping operations, especially in CAR, Mali, and the DRC. In all three countries, anti-UN disinformation often involves false claims that peacekeepers are supporting armed groups or (in the case of Mali) terrorists. Another common theme is that peacekeepers are pillaging natural resources. Sometimes the disinformation targets the mission as a whole, and sometimes it targets individual UN personnel. It has taken various forms, including fake letters from mission leaders and photos or videos taken out of context and mislabeled.
Misinformation about UN peacekeepers is nothing new. Rumors have long flourished in the conflict-affected areas where peacekeepers operate. With limited access to reliable news media to obtain essential information about security threats and humanitarian assistance, people living in these areas may rely on untrustworthy news sources or information passed along by word of mouth. Rumors are particularly likely to spread during periods of heightened uncertainty such as CAR’s contested 2020–2021 elections, Mali’s successive coups in 2020 and 2021, and the resurgence of the M23 rebel group in eastern DRC in 2022. The proliferation of misinformation against UN missions also reflects local communities’ frustrations with ongoing insecurity despite years of foreign intervention.
These frustrations have given rise not just to rumors but also to broader negative narratives about the UN, many of which are not necessarily untrue (complaints that the UN is incompetent or isn’t doing enough to protect civilians do not qualify as misinformation). It is also important to keep in mind that claims about peacekeeper misconduct are not always unfounded, especially when it comes to sexual exploitation and abuse.
That said, the amount of baseless allegations and egregious lies about the UN being shared in CAR, Mali, and the DRC is seemingly unprecedented. Two things in particular set current anti-UN disinformation apart: the scale at which it is being manufactured and the speed at which it spreads.
Understanding the scale of disinformation requires understanding who is manufacturing it. In CAR and Mali, researchers have traced much of the recent online disinformation to Russia. Tracing disinformation back to its source is difficult, especially because Russia increasingly spreads disinformation through local proxies such as Radio Lengo Songo in CAR.
But in both CAR and Mali, online disinformation against the UN sharply escalated at the same time that Russian Wagner Group forces were deploying (in 2019 and 2021, respectively). The predominantly pro-regime, anti-French, and pro-Russian narratives pushed by much of the online propaganda also align with Russia’s geopolitical interests, as well as with the broader “anticolonial,” anti-Western narrative Russia is exporting across Africa, Asia, Latin American, and Southern Europe. But not of all the blame goes to outside actors; domestic and regional actors also play an important role, including the governments of CAR and Mali, which have abetted anti-UN disinformation campaigns, whether by declining to push back against it or (increasingly) by spreading or amplifying falsehoods.
In the DRC, by contrast, there is little evidence of Russian meddling. Anti-MONUSCO disinformation appears to be more varied in its political motivations and to come more from people with direct political or economic interests in the areas where UN peacekeepers operate. While little research has been done to trace the exact origins of anti-MONUSCO disinformation, some UN officials feel that its growing sophistication suggests coordination and outside involvement, as in CAR and Mali. Disinformation against UN peacekeepers in the DRC is also spread using similar tactics and touches on similar themes as in CAR and Mali, including false claims that MONUSCO is supporting armed groups and foreign troops. This disinformation taps into broader narratives against external intervention, including pervasive false rumors that outside actors such as the United States, France, or the World Health Organization intentionally brought Ebola and COVID-19 to the DRC.
It is not only the scale of disinformation that is different than what’s been seen in the past; it is also the speed at which it spreads. Many anti-UN falsehoods originate online (especially on Facebook) and rapidly spread through social media networks and messaging applications (especially WhatsApp). While most people in CAR, Mali, and the DRC do not have access to social media, those who do are often the most powerful and influential people in the country, making it an effective tool to reach them.
Moreover, misinformation quickly spreads between online and offline spaces, including traditional media (especially radio) and the “radio trottoir” (or word of mouth). When it passes from online to offline, misinformation can become even more potent, as people receiving information from trusted sources like family members or religious or community leaders may be less inclined or able to verify it.
This anti-UN disinformation makes it harder for peacekeeping operations to implement their mandates. For example, a UN official in Mali described how some local residents have become afraid of peacekeepers who come to their villages on patrol, attributing this at least in part to false claims that the UN mission is in league with terrorists. The task of engaging with or protecting civilians becomes much more difficult when those civilians do not want the UN to be there, fueling a growing “crisis of legitimacy” in some missions. Anti-UN disinformation can also put the safety and security of peacekeepers at risk, especially when it targets individual UN personnel. In CAR, for example, an online disinformation campaign in 2020 falsely accused four MINUSCA staff members of trafficking weapons to armed groups, referring to them as “genocidal mercenaries” and calling for violence against the mission.
It is not only anti-UN disinformation that affects UN peacekeeping operations. Misinformation and disinformation that is not directly related to the UN can also impact a range of mandated activities such as support to elections, peace processes, the protection of civilians, and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. This impact was reflected in a survey of peacekeepers conducted by the UN Department of Peace Operations (DPO) in early 2022: 41 percent of respondents said misinformation and disinformation critically or severely impeded mandate implementation, and 45 percent said it critically or severely impacted the safety of peacekeepers (versus just 29 percent and 25 percent, respectively, who said the impact was minor or nonexistent).
The fact that the UN conducted this survey reflects its growing attention to disinformation, especially within the past year. In early 2022, DPO began implementing a workstream focused specifically on addressing misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation and disinformation featured prominently in the Security Council’s open debate on strategic communications in July 2022. And all four of the UN multidimensional peacekeeping operations have now been mandated to address or report on disinformation, following the addition of this language to MINUSMA’s mandate in June 2022.
Peacekeepers on the ground are also stepping up their efforts to respond to misinformation and disinformation, as discussed in more detail in a recent IPI report. Missions have supported local fact-checking organizations, launched radio programs focused on countering false claims, and implored tech companies to do more to stop misinformation from spreading. Some are also planning to develop mission-wide strategies on misinformation and disinformation and forming working groups to better coordinate monitoring and responses.
But considering how quickly this challenge has grown in scale, UN missions are still playing catch-up. Their capacity to monitor and analyze disinformation (especially offline) remains limited. In responding to disinformation, missions remain largely focused on using social media, UN radio, and press releases to counter individual falsehoods. The result can be a game of whack-a-mole, with one falsehood followed by another while the larger anti-UN narrative remains intact. Missions have also often been slow to respond to false claims. As one peacekeeper lamented, missions “leave the space empty, and [other] people take up that space; the conversation is about [the mission], but [the mission] is not involved.”
In the longer term, missions will need to try to address the root causes of misinformation and disinformation, including by proactively reshaping narratives about the UN and contributing to a healthier information environment. This requires coordinating with other actors to proactively spread authoritative information and fill information vacuums. Toward this end, UN missions have, for example, trained local journalists and provided equipment to community radio stations. Such preventive efforts can mitigate not only disinformation against the UN itself but also misinformation and disinformation more broadly, including in the context of political and peace-building processes that missions are mandated to support.
Ultimately, disinformation is a symptom of broader challenges facing UN peacekeeping operations, including international and regional geopolitics and often-tense relationships with host-state governments and populations. To effectively tackle disinformation, the UN will have to situate this phenomenon in the broader political context and collaborate with other actors within and outside of the UN system to understand its drivers.
Albert Trithart is Editor and Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI).
This article was first published in The Observatory.