The tendency of authoritarian regimes to learn from each other is particularly worrying when combined with the earlier threats from Libya. Libya, long a preferred starting point for refugees and other migrants seeking to reach Europe from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, is likely to be a destination for many fleeing hunger conditions, especially in The Horn of Africa, where 18 million people are now food insecure. Since 2019, security researchers have warned about the possibility of Russia is using control of the Libyan migration route to terrorize and coerce the EU.
If migrant numbers swelling in response to food shortages, it is highly likely that Russia will try to use the threat of a new migration crisis on Europe’s southern flank in conjunction with a stream of disinformation and fear-mongering amplified online. A new influx of refugees and increased fear of them may serve not only to distract from the conflict in Ukraine, but also to draw new attention to the costs of supporting existing Ukrainian refugees in Europe. Together, they could undermine the EU’s resolve and fracture the currently united opposition to its invasion of Ukraine, as officials seek to quickly resolve the previous crisis to focus their attention on a new one. Russian state media have been strikingly transparent about their intentions to exploit the looming crisis, with Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, stating on Russian state television that “all our hope is attached to famine.”
As the Ukrainian experience shows, the mere existence of large refugee populations does not guarantee a crisis. Instead, the public must first be prepared through narratives of existential threat, often supported by state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. But we have the means to disrupt these campaigns.
One of the most effective tools is a technique called prebunking. An extension of work pioneered by social psychologist William McGuire in the 1960s, prebunking—like the more commonly known strategy of debunking—seeks to limit the spread and effectiveness of disinformation. Critically, however, prebunking works to counter these campaigns before individuals ever encounter false claims. This makes prebunking far more effective, as disinformation can be “sticky” and much harder to refute once accepted.
Prebunking works by introducing a weakened version of the false claims that individuals are likely to encounter—for example, “refugees are not actually fleeing conflicts, they seek benefits in European countries”—followed by a thorough refutation of the same claim. In this case, prebunkers could cite the continuing risk to people in conflict zones and refugees’ true motives for fleeing.
The technique is highly adaptable to different media, from billboards to pre-roll video ads, and has been demonstrated under laboratory conditions to be effective against a wide range of False storiesfrom election disinformation to vaccine skepticism.
Proactive protection of the information environment is essential not only to counter Russian efforts to break resistance to their attack on Ukraine, but also to ensure the safety of vulnerable refugees, both those likely to emerge from the looming famine, as well as the Ukrainians , who are currently sheltered in Europe. As early as May, locals told me that rumors had begun to circulate about Ukrainian women “stealing” Polish men, and concerns had begun to mount over the financial cost of supporting the displaced population—both issues prime for Russian disinformation campaigns.
For now, however, the most immediate threats to the refugees who will be forced to flee famine in the coming weeks and months are the obstacles to their safety that Russian interference and disinformation campaigns represent, and the potential for those fear campaigns to crack . NATO’s unity in the defense of a future rules-based international order. To mitigate this threat, it is critical that we act now to counter the threat narratives that will soon emerge.