Manipulation of information and dissemination of “fake news” are having negative effects on transboundary water cooperation, according to an advisor to the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), reproduced, December 2019, by Global Water Forum.
The report explains how the complex intersection of changing climates and increasing environmental challenges, a general lack of data availability, and weak communications from riparian governments to the general public regarding the benefits of transboundary water cooperation can open the door to information manipulation.
“With the increasing urgency to improve understanding of how our future will be affected by climate change and the availability of natural resources, including water resources, disinformation campaigns are able to flourish where there is relatively weak public knowledge about existing and future environmental challenges,” according to the article's author Martina Klimes.
The report suggests that “it may be more politically convenient for governments to attribute increasing water scarcity to the impacts of climate change, rather than make visible politically challenging reasons such as unsustainable water use or internal water mismanagement. In other cases, governments have amplified information on ongoing drought conditions to galvanize public support for harder negotiation positions against upstream countries.”
For example, Klimes warns that public support for transboundary cooperation is likely to diminish if perceptions are developed in such a way as to convey that cooperation means “giving up” something, especially given fears over water insecurity.
Deliberate disinformation can be and has been used to manipulate the narrative of causes and effects of climate change, for instance, in order to achieve a specific goal and to control decision-making and the processes of water governance. Klimes claims that water diplomacy processes are particularly vulnerable to such disinformation campaigns and cites the use such negative propaganda in Iraq and surrounding the Lake Chad Basin.
“Both state and non-state actors have resorted to malicious use of social media and closed communication platforms to spread disinformation. This can range from the propagation of specifically targeted campaigns spreading deliberate, polarizing misinformation to selective highlighting of aspects of a challenge in order to tilt public perceptions in one direction,” Klimes writes.
Klimes calls for riparian governments to improve their scientific literacy. This would improve decision-making as well as provide some protection against disinformation attacks. But this effort also needs to be support by specific capacity-building to ensure that decision-makers and the general public more aware of how disinformation and manipulation campaigns work.