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From debunking to prebunking: How to get ahead of disinformation on migration in the EU

Disinformation / ISSUE PAPER
Alberto-Horst Neidhardt , Paul Butcher

Date: 29/11/2021
Despite increasing efforts, EU institutions, national governments and civil society still struggle to deal with disinformation on migration. Recent events in Afghanistan and Belarus show how fast fake news can spread, fuelling public anxiety about a possible repeat of the 2015 'migration crisis'. Attempts to 'debunk' falsehoods – fact-checking individual false claims after publication – are often too slow. They also usually fail to prevent individuals, groups, or governments keen on spreading disinformation from manipulating public perception and steering social divisions by exploiting attention-grabbing events.

That is why, in contrast with debunking, this Issue Paper argues that disinformation should be pre-empted by taking strategic action before it begins to circulate. The guiding principle of this approach is that of prebunking.

Prebunking relies on two pillars. In the short to medium term, efforts should be devoted to identifying false stories as early as possible or even anticipating future narratives. In the longer term, citizens should be provided with the critical skills to distinguish facts from falsehoods and filter out manipulative content.

The success of the first pillar relies on the EU institutions and civil society expanding their monitoring activities, building early warning systems and using foresight techniques to anticipate which disinformation narratives might spread in response to particular events.

These short-term measures must be complemented by measures that promote stronger societal resilience against future disinformation. Literacy campaigns can equip citizens with the skills they need to spot disinformation and resist bias and common manipulation techniques. And because migration remains a sensitive and highly politicised subject, the EU and civil society should team up to establish more 'migration literacy', not only among citizens but also among intermediaries, such as journalists and teachers. Finally, media literacy efforts should consider the age, attitudes and value systems of those targeted by disinformation campaigns.

These measures will not only support ongoing efforts against disinformation. They will also help European citizens cope with and orient themselves within a rapidly changing information environment. They will promote an inclusive and fact-based public discourse. In a context where migration-related disinformation creates tensions and threatens the peace and security of European societies, prebunking efforts will also promote social cohesion, rebuild public trust and protect democratic institutions.

This Issue Paper is the result of a collaboration between the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the Friedrich- Ebert-Stiftung, and the European Policy Centre. It is part of the joint follow-up project Disinformation about migration in the EU, and the third in a series of publications on communicating about migration in Europe. 

Read the full paper here.
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