Social Media, Technology and Peacebuilding By Prithvi Iyer and Zoe Skoric  |  08 August, 2022

Disinformation: A Growing Threat for Faith-Based Organisations 

Image: Ariya J/Shutterstock

From hindering public health efforts to disrupting election cycles, it is clear that disinformation threatens public trust and democratic principles worldwide. Yet, despite disinformation becoming a more prevalent topic within the international community, its impact on the operations and public image of faith-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) remains relatively unexplored. With nearly 60% of U.S.-based foreign assistance organisations being faith-based, it is essential to not only understand the impact of disinformation on these organisations, but also to examine the strategies used to counter disinformation so that it does not adversely impact their humanitarian work. 

While disinformation campaigns are typically state-sponsored, additional actors can play significant roles in deliberately disseminating false or inaccurate information. A new report suggests that private third-party entities or "disinformation consultancies” are increasingly used to initiate and promote disinformation campaigns. Such campaigns promote false narratives for political gain.   Politicians and governments stay in the background while pulling the strings of these disinformation engines as has been seen in countries like India, France, Germany, and Honduras.

Yet, it is not just these so-called “disinformation consultancies” pushing disinformation. Think tanks and news outlets are doing the same.  U.S.-based Muslim NGOs have been victims of targeted disinformation campaigns. Recently, the right-wing anti-Islam think tank Middle East Forum (MEF) published an article that attempted to tie faith-based organisations to terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia using guilt-by-association along with third and fourth degree-of-separation arguments. The article employs the trappings of legitimacy as it presents the reader with various datasets, charts, and figures that service their overarching goal of reinforcing worn-out stereotypes about Islam’s linkage with terrorism.  However, a closer analysis reveals that the data does not prove there is a link between faith-based organisations and terrorism but instead loosely lists the revenue and grant streams of faith-based NGOs, – providing the reader with unrelated yet seemingly compelling content. Furthermore, the article claims that statements such as a more significant “mapping of [American Islam] will serve as a powerful counter-extremism tool.” This signals how the article strengthens the allure of disinformation by tapping into Western Islamophobia and stereotypes that serve to discriminate against American Muslims.   

Faith-based NGOs in the U.S. have spoken out about how such disinformation tactics have damaged their reputation and ability to operate as relief and development organisations. As a result of disinformation, these organisations report Congressional attempts to cut their U.S. grant funding, challenges with banking, and safety risks to their personnel on the ground. For example, recently, Bank of America closed Islamic Relief USA’s (IRUSA’s) bank account after 23 years without explanation, further reiterating how negative perceptions created by online disinformation can have real-world consequences. 

Islamic Relief USA is not alone. Two-thirds of surveyed U.S.-based NGOs working abroad report difficulties related to financial access. These challenges are often a result of a strategy used by banks called “derisking,” – the practice of financial institutions terminating business relationships to avoid, rather than manage, the perceived risk of working with a client. Derisking practices are particularly devastating for NGOs doing humanitarian aid work, as funds support programmes abroad that provide lifesaving assistance. NGOs then need to allocate valuable resources to finding alternative ways of moving money abroad or setting up new bank accounts in the U.S.  

To counter such disinformation tactics, some organisations have invested in online search engine optimisation and government relations officers. Yet, these response strategies are often costly, require significant time and resources that could be allocated to critical humanitarian work, and are only marginally successful against disinformation campaigns.  

One way to forge resilience against disinformation campaigns is to build strong solidarity and collaboration among the U.S.-based faith-based organisations and advocacy groups.  The Together Project, a hub of U.S-based organisations working to counter discrimination and prejudicial policies against NGOs, consistently demonstrates how alliances within the civil society space can help counter disinformation and facilitate positive change.  

In 2017, former Rep. Ron DeSantis pushed to eliminate U.S. funding for the NGO Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA). To confront DeSantis’ proposed funding amendment, IRUSA coordinated with The Together Project and chartered a response strategy with secular and religious allies such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The response leveraged the influence of a coalition of NGO allies and members of Congress that support the mission and work of faith-based NGOs. The effort was ultimately successful as the DeSantis amendment was withdrawn.    

Another effective strategy faith-based NGOs can use to counter the negative implications of disinformation involves increased information mapping and sharing. Information mapping and sharing would allow faith-based NGOs in the U.S. to learn best practices and share tools – preparing them to be proactive rather than reactive towards disinformation. Additionally, faith-based organisations in the U.S. should prioritise educational outreach to lawmakers. These regular visits can help faith-based NGOs create a positive public image and allow them to educate members of Congress who may be susceptible to disinformation.  

Interfaith collaboration, along with information mapping and educational outreach to legislators, should be integral to faith-based NGOs’ response strategies when faced with disinformation. However, these strategies are not enough to overcome disinformation successfully and sustainably. A durable and effective response to disinformation requires greater cooperation among not only faith-based organisations, but also data scientists, tech engineers, global media figures, policymakers, students, and social activists. It is only with a multi-faceted and evidence-based approach that faith-based organisations will be able to prevail in the face of disinformation. The time to start building these innovative and changemaking coalitions is now.  

Prithvi Iyer is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School pursuing a MA in Governance and Policy. He  also holds a bachelors in psychology and International relations from Ashoka University (India) and  worked as a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, an eminent public policy think tank based in New Delhi before starting graduate school.

Zoe Skoric graduated summa cum laude with a degree in International Studies from the University of Wyoming. There, she founded and led an organization that works to establish a U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in Wyoming – the only state without one. She has also worked with internally displaced persons in Kenya, for the U.S. Department of State, and for NGOs such as AMIDEAST, Partners Global, and the American Relief Coalition for Syria. Zoe is currently working with InterAction’s Global Development Policy and Learning team.