Community Engagement Weaponization of Information

Weaponization of Information, Data Literacy and Inclusion

ICRC’s Hugo Slim has published an insightful call to thought on the issue of trust. Trust in the humanitarian label, he rightly warns, must be “regained and earned” on an ongoing basis. Slim highlights two disconcerting deficits: operational trust and accountability trust.

Last week I had the great honor and privilege to participate in the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, invited by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. I was asked to discuss humanitarian action in the digital era, with a focus on how to shift vulnerabilities and find the right balance between risks and opportunities linked to digitization.


So, what are we talking about when we talk about digitization in the humanitarian sphere? And most of all, why are we still talking about it, almost 10 years after the publication of Disaster Response 2.0, back in 2010?

Using information as a weapon war: low tech is as effective as high tech

So, let’s start with a story. Back in 2013 I was working in Central African Republic, at the time not yet in full civil war but already plagued by the presence of armed groups, endemic poverty and a level of economic development that placed it in the last positions of the Human Development Index. Central African Republic had at the time a mobile coverage of 0.5% and an Internet penetration of 0.1%.

Back in 2013 young people in CAR used to create what we started to call the Frankenstein phones, basically phones created by disassembling older broken mobiles and re-assembling them into one functioning phone. These phones had two things in common: a camera to take pictures and video, and Bluetooth.

I was working with displaced population and sometimes I would find that people were running away from their own villages, fearing an attack, without actually having seen or experience any attacks from armed groups. Actually, the majority of the displaced people were moving with no apparent reason whatsoever, except some “rumors” that they were going to be the next to be attacked. I started to become curious about how simple word of mouth would convince hundreds of people to leave their own homes and run away, knowing that they would have not been able to come back.

What I discovered then changed by take on technology and how it can be used in a country where no connectivity exists. Somehow young people in CAR were sharing videos of massacres and killings with their phones. The videos were often not actually recent but taken years before or sometimes not even taken in CAR, and they almost all showed rebels attacking a village, killing people and burning all they could.

Especially in the capital of Bangui, youth were gathering in groups to share videos and pictures of the violence claiming it was happening in their areas or villages, by using Bluetooth, or sometimes by exchanging memory cards. The videos will then travel with them back to their villages and were being shared with the rest of the population. Hundreds of people were convinced by these videos to leave their villages in fear of an imminent attack. Most of the time, thanks to this system, rebel groups could take tens of villages without having to shoot one single bullet.

Digital literacy: are we speaking the same language?

In the case of CAR, it is clear that a low-tech system like videos exchanged on Bluetooth is as an effective weapon of war as any AI system you could think about. Not only that, given that the system is completely closed (I wrote here about closed networks) it has a comparative advantage with respect to any other online system, which is that it is virtually undetectable and unstoppable.

This story for me is a good example of why we talk about digital literacy in the wrong way, and why we need to understand the nuances of technology uptake based on a much more in-depth analysis of the information ecosystem.  If we define Digital Literacy as “the ability of an individual to find, evaluate, and compose clear information through writing and other mediums on various digital platforms”, than we have to agree that in CAR rebels and youth are very much literate. Oddly enough though, normally digital literacy is evaluated against our use of technology, and specifically against the ability of others to use technology in the same way we use it.

I see three problems in this:

  1. The definition of digital literacy as a relative issue seems to ignore the fact that technology use is firmly defined by the cultural and ethnographic characteristic of a population, and therefore much more complex to evaluate as a relative matter to other populations.
  2. As often Digital literacy is associated with the ability of people to understand privacy and security issues related to the use of online and digital tools, the definition of what is a “digitally literate” individual or population has not yet been defined, and therefore we lack the taxonomy to define and measure digital literacy. If we look at events like Cambridge Analytica, or the Russian interference in the USA elections, can we say that the western world is digitally literate?
  3. Historically, the development and therefore the uptake of technology progressed in very different forms in between the western world and, for example, the African continent. While in the western world technology development followed a steady and increasing curve, going from the old PC, to ADSL, to fiber optic, to feature phones, to smart phones and so on, in most countries in the African continent entire steps have been skipped. In Zambia for example, in a span of 10 years the country went from 5.5% internet penetration rate to 40%, almost entirely skipping feature phones to jump immediately to smart phones and almost never even saw a market for PC.

What emerges here is that digital literacy cannot be easily addressed, as it is done now, with some trainings on digital security and privacy, but requires an in-depth analysis of context, and a detail taxonomy that helps us understand against which framework we are measuring literacy.

Social media as collective knowledge

Back in 2018 I conducted an assessment in Italy, following the route that refugees, migrants and asylum seekers follow from when they land in Italy, to when they cross the border with France (if and when they do) in the north. The goal of the assessment was to understand what information migrants had and how they were making decisions based on the information they had.

During the assessment we discovered that there was one group of migrants, Eritrean, that was consistently escaping the formal asylum system to try to reach other European countries. The particularity of this group was that they always seems to be aware and find informal support mechanisms across Italy: they knew where the bars with Wi-Fi was, they knew where the little volunteers groups were distributing food, they knew which routes where not patrolled by the police and so on. In between all the groups of migrants, they seemed to be the one that were most informed about how to find alternative support in their journey to Europe.

What we discovered was that there was a Facebook group, with more than half a million people in it, composed exclusively by Eritrean. This group gathered Eritreans still in their country and planning their trip, Eritreans on the journey, in Sudan or Libya, Eritreans that were already in Europe and still on their journey, and Eritreans that had already reached their destination in a third EU country. The group was only accessible via word of mouth and only by being introduced by someone already in the group. Each migrant would add the services they found, the places they stayed in, the informal system they had access to, and therefore everyone else starting the journey could leverage on the collective knowledge of hundreds of other migrants before him/her.

Digital Inclusion: who needs to include whom?

If we define Digital Inclusion as ensuring that individuals and disadvantaged groups have access to, and skills to use, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and are therefore able to participate in and benefit from today’s growing knowledge and information society, the story above forces us to ask one question: who needs to be included?


The assumption when we speak about digital inclusion is often that marginalized groups, women, migrants, people with “low digital literacy” have to be included in the conversations we are having on digital tools. In fact, often organizations make Digital Inclusion one of their goals and set up strategies to achieve it: training on digital tools for women, setting up wi-fi hotspots to allow migrants to go on-line, etc. The assumption here is that without “us” they are not included.

However, the Italy case above shows us that maybe it is us that needs to be included. In fact, in many other situations, I have found and see communities finding ways to use digital tools to gather and discuss, share information and to make decisions, entirely outside of the tools and systems INGOs or UN agencies were using.

Often the real advantage of digital tools is that people have the choice to talk to whom they want. This choice is often absent in a humanitarian setting when it comes to receive information and services: if I live in a camp in Cox’s Bazar and I need a surgery, I will only be able to use the services provided to me by the INGOs and UN agencies managing these camps. If I want to know the criteria that are used to be selected for a third country relocation, only UNHCR will be able to let me know, and if they don’t, I don’t have any other place to go to source that information.

This is why I think we may have been looking at inclusion in the wrong way:

  1. “Need is the mother of invention” they say in Italy. When people are in need, they find ways to source the information they need. The Internet on this side, offers a great advantage: you can have access to a range of sources, good and bad, but definitely you have a choice to whom to ask;
  2. Conversations are happening online, and we are not always part of it. Communities in need find the way to discuss and talk about their problems and find solutions for it. They are not looking to be included in our conversations, they are looking for answers, and if we don’t have them, they’ll find somewhere else;
  3. Communities in need want to talk to someone they trust. The building of this trust is not up to them, but up to us. We are the one that need to show that we are committed and that we care, and if we are not able to do this, people will not want to talk to us.

Inclusion is a not about us including them in the conversation or our online systems, it is about finding where they are and gain the trust needed to be included in their conversation. Again it is about them not about us.

Information as a weapon: are we fighting the right war?

When communities do not trust us, they look for other source of information. When communities are scared and vulnerable, information can be easily used to manipulate them. If we continue to look at inclusion and literacy as systems where we are at the center, we are cutting ourselves out from the places where conversations are happening, and where bad actors can fill the gaps we are leaving behind.

The international community keeps trying to fight the information war by setting up more information systems that by itself are expected to gather communities at its feet listening to what they have to say. The reality is that the first step to fight this war is to become trusted sources for communities in need.

The building of this trust is not related to how many Facebook pages or call center humanitarian responders set up, but by how their intentions and motivations are perceived by the communities they are supposed to help. Trust is not build by feedback systems, but by the creation of true partnerships, something that starts with the co-design of projects, and ends with the ability of communities to evaluate the services they receive and to have a say about how they want these services to be organized.

Trust is the main weapon we can use, and should use, in this information war.

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