Countering FIMI: A Critical Imperative for Mission Safety
Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI) has been largely viewed as a communications’ threat undermining the soft cornerstones of the democratic order, e.g., trust, legitimacy, and cohesion.
Disinformation is not just a communications challenge, it is a force protection threat
Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference (FIMI) has been largely viewed as a communications’ threat undermining the soft cornerstones of the democratic order, e.g., trust, legitimacy, and cohesion. This is an accurate description and diagnosis in a broad sense. There is, however, a more narrow, focused, and direct military security dimension. FIMI poses a malign, dangerous, and direct security threat to UN and EU missions overseas potentially leading to lethal outcomes. It is, in effect, a force protection threat during deployments, whether civilian, military or in peacekeeping operations. FIMI is the umbrella description for disinformation, misinformation, malinformation, and other form of malign operation in both the information and cognitive domains. FIMI can also undermine the public’s and political support in the countries that participate in sending personnel for these missions, thus undermining the commencement or continuity of such missions.
Wellbeing of individuals is the other face of maintaining political support
A variety of Hybrid tools, such as fake news as well as DeepFakes, are deployed to attack the wellbeing (and possibly the physical safety) of individuals in the field, as well as their families. This can include the individual’s and their families’ psychological and mental wellbeing. Moreover, a key aim of FIMIs is to whip up resentment against the mission and the individuals participating in these missions, both in the recipient as well as the sending countries. This latter objective can lead to undermining the physical security of the individuals and their missions as local populations become enraged by fake news and DeepFakes. Moreover, the public and political sentiment in the home (sending) countries of the individuals participating in the missions can turn hostile against the individuals, their families, and the missions. This not only further undermines the safety and mental wellbeing of the individuals and their families, but also undermines the budgets, recruitment, and participation in future missions.
DeepFakes are video and audio clips that depict individuals doing and saying things they never did or said. They were already deployed even when the technology and software required actors and a great deal of time. As technology rapidly developed, the factors of time, cost, and technical skills required to produce convincing Deepfakes have been shrinking exponentially. This is making DeepFakes more accessible. With the advent of A.I., however, A.I.-enabled DeepFakes are likely to become a key security threat in the hands of malign actors operating in the Hybrid domain. This is mainly the case as DeepFakes currently can be produced using completely synthetic data – the faces of people who never existed speaking with voices that never existed doing things they never did. Combining, for example, a DeepFake depicting mission personnel torturing a local individual, with a social media campaign spreading this Deepfake, including targeting the deployed individual’s family and friends back home, and crossing them into the digital and other media, can lead to wide-ranging consequences: from security threats related to force protection because of an outraged local population, to the physical security of the individuals concerned and that of their families, to the latter’s psychological and mental wellbeing (through for example social ostracization in their home communities). A snowball effect of incremental tactical security threats can lead to broader malign strategic threats, such as undermining political support for continuing a particular operation, or budgetary cuts.
Developing an emotive narrative key to defeating FIMI
A key longer-term step is to stop relying on facts alone to defeat and counter emotively formulated FIMI. We have targeted the minds for far too long using blunt facts, and perhaps more often than not ignored the hearts. We need to deploy our own positive emotive narrative and reclaim dominance in the cognitive domain. We have a great story to tell – but facts alone won’t win us the hearts in many regions of the world where we have been deploying missions. A strategic communications approach should be structurally incorporated into the Global Gateway, not as an exercise in “communications”, but as an integral part of the strategic objectives underpinning values and interests.
FIMI is a war which we must win. There are no prizes for second place. This is a war fought in two domains: the Information Domain and the Cognitive Domain. The former aims to influence “What you think”, the latter aims to influence “How you think”. Whereas facts play a key role in the Information Domain, the battle in the Cognitive Domain is for the shaping of perceptions. This is about emotions as much as it is about facts. Narratives play a key role in shaping perceptions. Countering emotive narratives shaping perceptions with cold facts hasn’t delivered the desired results. It is equally clear that always acting in a defensive mode risks two outcomes. The first is that to counter a piece of disinformation it will need to be repeated first to refute it. This simply, in the majority of cases, contributes to the spread and enhancement of the piece of disinformation, thus not only undermining the effort to counter it, but may in fact lend it additional credibility. The second outcome is that the information and cognitive domains will remain in need of proactively and preventively “filling” them with positive emotive narratives that act as natural barrier against malign disinformation if the current modus operandi continues to prevail.
Local civil society organisations can play an important role in countering FIMI and enhancing force protection. Positive narratives and open-source support can play an important role in enhancing their ability to defeat FIMI in locally acceptable cultural methods and delivered in the languages of the deployment locale. Establishing a centre for open-source information will enhance the ability of local NGOs and others to defeat malinformation locally.
The need for overseas missions, civilian as well as military, whether the EU or the UN, will continue to grow in importance. There is a clear need to develop an effective set of both tactical as well as strategic responses to FIMI as pertains specifically to mission security. The continued political support for these missions over and above the generalised responses to FIMI as a communications threat is paramount. It is, and will continue to be, a key security threat requiring a commensurate, imaginative, and effective set of measures.
(Photo credit: Nijwam Swargiary, Unsplash)