Nature and Biodiversity

Could disinformation reshape the risk of post-disaster civil unrest?

Disinformation flows easily after a natural disaster.

Disinformation flows easily after a natural disaster. Image: Unsplash/Saikiran Kesari

Thomas Johansmeyer
Global Head of Index Classes, Inver Re
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Cybersecurity

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  • Civil unrest post disaster is a rare occurrence but disinformation could instigate the tipping point and change the status quo.
  • Disinformation flows easily after a disaster and proactive campaigns to deter it are needed.
  • Plans to counter disinformation should include investment before an incident and a resilience plan after the incident.

Civil unrest arising from natural disasters is an emerging risk and it’s already changing rapidly.

The onset of climate change is likely to drive further instances of civil unrest after natural disasters but that isn’t the only factor that could make these compound disasters more frequent and powerful.

Disinformation, already a problem in the post-disaster environment, could be used to intensify grievances among affected communities, leading to further civil unrest. State-sponsored disinformation campaigns on the backs of natural disasters have yet to arise with scale but the risk is evident and now is the time for action.

According to my prior research, disaster-induced civil unrest is historically uncommon, coming in fewer than 0.1% of the disaster events recorded in EM-DAT since 1970 or in 22 cases. However, with climate change increasing natural disaster frequency and severity, the rate of disaster-induced civil unrest events seems poised to increase significantly, particularly if exacerbated by such climate-related factors as the food and water insecurity, involuntary human migration and increased competition for resources.

This dynamic, on its own, is worrisome. And state-sponsored disinformation campaigns could make it worse. Targeted disinformation campaigns could be used to manipulate vulnerable societies into civil unrest by making the attendant risks look more manageable.

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An opportune time for disinformation?

Disaster-induced civil unrest comes down to a concept called the “ripe moment.” In diplomacy, the ripe moment indicates an opportunity to negotiate for a cessation of hostilities. The fact that conventional use has included a dash of optimism doesn’t mean that always has to be the case. There can be ripe moments for civil unrest, too. It simply requires broadening the definition of the ripe moment from a readiness to negotiate for peace to any readiness (positive or negative) for a change in the status quo.

Ultimately, a ripe moment for civil unrest involves a change in the opportunity cost associated with taking action. The risks of action, including an unsuccessful outcome and negative consequences, must seem more favourable than the status quo. It’s a difficult threshold to reach, requiring the sacrifice of even an unsatisfying daily certainty for a potentially remote likelihood of success. Disinformation could skew how a local population perceives the opportunity costs associated with action against existing institutions after a natural disaster, making it seem more attractive when it is not.

Disinformation circulates easily during natural disaster events. News coverage of sharks swimming on flooded highways followed Hurricanes Florence, Irma, and Ian. Other examples include the supposed wisdom of storing your values in a dishwasher and shooting at a hurricane. These are known hoaxes that somehow continue to arise after having been exposed and debunked. I get nervous mentioning them, even in this context, out of fear that doing so could give new life to them.

When there’s a shortage of useful, real and productive information during heightened risk or need, disinformation always seems ready to fill the vacuum.

The motivation for creating and amplifying disinformation after a disaster can vary from nefarious intentions to a misdirected desire to help. The motivation isn’t important, at least short of state-sponsored campaigns. The pathways that disinformation can follow after a natural disaster seem to be crystalizing, especially with the help of social media. Soon, it may be possible for state actors to use those information pathways offensively, manipulating sentiment and grievances in a way that changes the apparent opportunity cost associated with civil unrest, even if the risks of action are far more onerous than they are made to seem.

The increasing risk from state-sponsored disinformation campaigns is beyond dispute.

Tom Johansmeyer, Head, PCS

Targeted action

In certain circumstances, a state may benefit from offensive information operations against an adversary or rival following a natural disaster event. Depending on the strength of local institutions and the state’s resilience (societally, economically and politically), a targeted disinformation campaign could attempt to destabilize official institutions and organizations, providing the state sponsor of the campaign with at least a temporary advantage.

Further, in extreme cases, foreign influence during post-disaster vulnerability could be leveraged to instigate civil unrest, at a minimum, by inflaming pre-existing local grievances. Large-scale disinformation efforts related to natural disasters have yet to materialize and what few past instances found have been isolated and of limited impact.

The fact that the risk hasn’t manifested yet doesn’t mean disaster-affected societies are safe. Rather, early action can mitigate the risks of post-disaster disinformation campaigns in the future – a future in which they could be more likely. Faith in institutions and their reliability remains the best protection against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns but that takes time, effort and resources.

In the near term, establishing lines and methods of communication now that could be used after a disaster event is an important step, as are investments in digital literacy. Finally, the actions taken after a disaster can speak louder than words, posts and tweets. A robust resilience plan that addresses post-disaster risks and returns a community to safe functioning (and then normal) as quickly as possible gives disinformation – intentional or otherwise – little opportunity for traction.

There were 170 natural disasters in 2021 (the last year listed) – compared to a mere 43 in 1970. The trajectory is clear. And at the same time, the increasing risk from state-sponsored disinformation campaigns is beyond dispute. The next big risk is upon us – post-disaster civil unrest stoked by disinformation. And we have a chance to manage that risk from the start. Preparing for the risk of targeted disaster-adjacent disinformation campaigns to foment civil unrest is much easier than responding to them.

The views expressed herein are those of the author, based on research conducted by the author, and may not necessarily represent the views of others, unless otherwise noted. Any reference to industry-wide is based on this research and the author’s view of trends in the industry and does not necessarily represent the view(s) of others in the industry.

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