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Handbook to combat CBRN disinformation - January 2023


Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) disinformation is defined as intentionally misleading and deceptive information about CBRN threats that can potentially cause serious political, financial, and physical harm to governments, international organizations, the scientific community, academia, industry, and the population at large.

CBRN disinformation has become a significant problem in the last few years due to the particular nature of CBRN threats, involving dangerous substances that can generate fear and inappropriate responses through social networks and the media. An example is the wave of disinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The problem has been amplified by many factors. New digital platforms have created greater connection and global exchange of content and knowledge between millions of users, modifying citizens’ behaviours regarding news consumption. However, as so often with technological advancement, social media platforms are also posing new challenges. One of them is the proliferation of false information and conspiracy theories.

In recent years, non-state actors (including terrorists, violent extremists, and organized criminal groups) have exploited the social media ecosystem vulnerabilities to spread conspiracy theories and manipulate people in relation to CBRN threats.

Today, more than ever, individuals and organizations have been targeted by CBRN disinformation. Viral online and physical attacks have been conducted against almost every stakeholder operating in CBRN risk mitigation.

Combating disinformation is not an easy task. A successful strategy requires a combination of different actions from governments, educational institutions, the media industry, and technology companies. This includes the monitoring of disinformation on social media, the debunking of false information and conspiracy theories, investment in technological tools to identify false news, education about media literacy, the adoption of adequate legal instruments in line with human rights and freedoms, and the training of law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.

To produce this Handbook, UNICRI has monitored several social media platforms, paying specific attention to the role of violent non-state actors, namely: violent extremists; terrorist organizations (particularly those associated with ISIL, also known as Da’esh and Al-Qaida); and organized criminal groups.

The Handbook aims at enhancing understanding of CBRN disinformation on social media while developing competencies to prevent and respond to disinformation with a specific focus on techniques for debunking false information. It has been designed for individuals or agencies working in CBRN risk mitigation at different levels (communication, decision-making, managerial, operational, technical, etc.) who have been or could potentially be exposed to and targeted by disinformation.

The Handbook equips practitioners with the competencies to effectively analyse, understand and respond to CBRN disinformation in the media and on social media platforms.


Background information

Since 2020, UNICRI has been monitoring the malicious use of social media. In November 2020, UNICRI published the report Stop the virus of disinformation, which describes how malicious actors took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to jeopardize the efficacy and credibility of response measures by governments. UNICRI has also analysed existing technological options to detect and debunk false information (e.g., Big

Data, Artificial Intelligence tools and platforms, mobile apps and chatbots, etc.,) to understand the advantages and possible challenges of each technological option in the short and long term. In 2021, UNICRI, in alliance with the World Health Organization (WHO) and in cooperation with the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), began to develop strategies to increase awareness of CBRN disinformation and to deliver trainings to Member States.