NATO’s approach to countering disinformation
NATO views disinformation as the deliberate creation and dissemination of false or manipulated information with the intent to deceive or mislead. The word “disinformation” is commonly used as an umbrella term to represent a wide range of tactics, techniques and procedures, which are described by NATO as “hostile information activities.” These activities seek to deepen divisions within and between NATO member countries and ultimately weaken the Alliance.
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- NATO has been dealing with the challenge of disinformation since its creation in 1949 and has been actively countering a significant increase in hostile information activities since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
- NATO’s approach to countering disinformation is based on two key functions: Understand and Engage. NATO continuously analyses the information environment in order to understand what people are saying, hearing and reading about NATO and key topics related to its work. Based on this understanding, the Alliance engages with audiences through various channels, providing accurate information in its public communications.
What is disinformation?
Disinformation is false or inaccurate information that a hostile actor uses deliberately to deceive people. Usually, disinformation seeks to stir up a particular strong emotion (anger, fear, disgust) and override rational and critical thinking in the intended target.
“Disinformation” is just one element of a broader set of hostile information activities, which can include many tactics, techniques and procedures.
- Disinformation – false or inaccurate information spread deliberately to manipulate the opinions and actions of others
- Misinformation – false or inaccurate information spread without malicious intent, although its effects can still be harmful
- Propaganda – information designed to manipulate a specific target audience toward a particular behaviour or belief, often as part of a prolonged campaign by a state actor with a political agenda
- Hostile narrative – a specific story developed to discredit or defame a particular target
- Hostile information activities – a wide range of coordinated actions designed to sow distrust and manipulate opinion, usually involving one or all of the above methods and techniques, such as misleading memes, conspiracy theories, deepfake images or videos, quotes taken out of context, or simply outright lies that people tell to manipulate others
- Foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) – a pattern of behaviour that threatens or has the potential to negatively impact values, procedures and political processes in a target country. Such activity is mostly non-illegal, but is manipulative in character, conducted in an intentional and coordinated manner, by state or non-state actors, including their proxies inside and outside of their own territory
- Hybrid warfare – use of military and non-military as well as covert and overt means (including disinformation, cyber attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces) to blur the lines between war and peace, sow doubt in the minds of target populations, and destabilise and undermine societies
Why is disinformation so dangerous?
Disinformation tears at the fabric that holds our societies together. It destroys people’s faith in traditional news sources – which, unlike disinformation agents, have ethical standards and legal responsibilities to report the facts, which are often more complex and less satisfying than a simple hostile narrative. It undermines people’s trust in governments and other public institutions. It is usually designed to appeal to our worst impulses, fears and prejudices – pitting neighbour against neighbour, poisoning social groups against each other, validating and inflaming extremism, degrading our feelings of belonging to a community or a country – all in an attempt to divide and conquer a society on the information battlefield.
Disinformation is not always designed to persuade people to believe a specific lie. Sometimes it is designed to confuse and to muddy the waters with contradictory information in order to prevent people from differentiating between fact and fiction. Some people will be swayed by disinformation and help it spread. Others will be frustrated by the flood of lies and completely disengage. Both of these outcomes can be useful to hostile actors seeking to degrade the resilience of a society.
Disinformation is able to provoke real-world harm. Protecting citizens from these threats is therefore a national security priority, and NATO and its members have an essential role to play.
Why does NATO care about disinformation?
NATO’s success as a collective defence alliance depends on the strength and resolve of its member countries, called NATO Allies. Any foreign information manipulation and interference that attempts to weaken Allied societies – and thereby degrade NATO’s ability to protect its members – is therefore of interest to NATO.
Furthermore, as an alliance of democratic countries, NATO derives its legitimacy from the ongoing trust and support of Allied citizens. This is why NATO itself faces disinformation campaigns from malicious actors – including Russia and China – who seek to diminish public trust and undermine the Alliance’s solidarity. These actors deploy a wide range of disinformation against NATO (see NATO-Russia: Setting the record straight for some specific examples).
How does NATO counter disinformation?
NATO follows a twin-track model of countering disinformation: Understand and Engage.
Understanding the information environment
NATO must understand the information environment in order to respond effectively to disinformation. To that end, NATO continually tracks and analyses information relevant to the Alliance, including by monitoring and identifying sources of disinformation and analysing hostile narratives as they emerge and propagate. NATO’s Information Environment Assessment capability is a combination of skilled people, repeatable processes and technology aimed at leveraging publically available information to guide communications planning and execution, and shape the Alliance's response to information threats. In addition to analysing disinformation, it also enables NATO to evaluate the effectiveness of its own public communications. NATO also enhances its understanding of the information environment through regular media monitoring and analysis.
Engaging with the public
NATO’s most powerful means of countering disinformation is by proactively sharing accurate information. Through open, transparent and clear public communications, NATO is able to “pre-bunk” potential disinformation, anticipating hostile narratives and getting out ahead of their spread.
The Alliance engages with the public through a wide variety of channels, including social media, media relations with journalists and the NATO website. NATO is fully committed to transparency and regularly publishes information about its activities and plans, for example by sharing a schedule of NATO and Allied exercises well in advance. All of NATO’s communications activities are in line with the Alliance’s core democratic values, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
In addition to its digital and media communications, NATO also engages directly with people from NATO members (Allies) and non-member countries (partners) to promote a better public understanding of the Alliance’s purpose, values, policies and activities. Through these engagements, NATO builds relationships and helps strengthen resilience against disinformation among audiences who may be targeted by hostile actors. These stakeholders can then share the tools and knowledge they acquire through these interactions, expanding resilience to disinformation through their own networks. NATO provides grants to non-governmental organisations, universities and think tanks to fund projects that contribute to better understanding of the Alliance in their home countries.
In order to reach audiences that are less likely to follow the Alliance’s activities, NATO also runs specific communications campaigns. For example, under the Protect the Future campaign, NATO has been working with young content creators from across the Alliance, helping them go behind the scenes at NATO Headquarters, meet the experts and discover what NATO does – and giving young people a voice in telling NATO's story in their own way. Communications campaigns are also a key tool for NATO to ”pre-bunk” against disinformation.
Exposing major cases of disinformation
Disinformation is often deliberately sensational and provocative, trying to increase its reach by triggering a response that will amplify the falsehoods. As such, in many cases, the best way to deal with disinformation is to recognise it as such and refuse to engage with it. But in some cases, especially when a hostile narrative has already spread far and wide, it’s worth directly addressing and debunking the myths that hostile actors are pushing. In those cases, NATO sets the record straight with its public communications on the NATO website, social media and through statements to media and the public from the NATO Secretary General or other high-level NATO officials. For example, NATO has directly and repeatedly called out the Kremlin’s litany of lies in regards to its war of aggression against Ukraine, and continues to debunk Russian myths directed against NATO.
Coordinating with Allies and partners
NATO’s work to counter hostile information activities is bolstered through its close cooperation with Allies and partners. First and foremost, NATO works with the Allied national governments to counter disinformation. The Alliance also cooperates with the governments of partner countries and other international organisations like the European Union, the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism and the United Nations. NATO also connects with private companies, media organisations, social media platforms, civil society organisations and academic institutions to learn more about disinformation and to develop strategies to stop its spread. All actors in the information environment – from large organisations like NATO to individual people in member and partner countries – have a part to play in countering disinformation.
How can you stop the spread of disinformation?
Disinformation can feel overwhelming – as if everything we see online is fake and everyone is complicit in spreading lies. But there are simple things we can all do to make sure that we’re not contributing to the problem. Click through the gallery below to see the top five tips to spot disinformation and stop its spread.