Disinformation: What happens when information is weaponised

Last week, I was invited to one embassy in Dar es Salaam for a roundtable discussion on misinformation and disinformation. We had the embassy officials, a subject matter expert from Europe, and individuals representing different news and media houses in Tanzania. I was asked to provide an African perspective on the issue, and I relished the experience.

Misinformation and disinformation are different but related terms. Misinformation means wrong information. We are humans; we know things in part and will often unwittingly believe or disseminate misinformation. Disinformation, instead, is intentional. The term generally refers to what governments or their agencies do to intentionally misinform others for political and economic subversion.

That is the essence of the weaponisation of information.

States have always used disinformation in history, but social media has supercharged the impact that disinformation can have on a society. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was the turning point—disinformation became universalised. Since then, Russia has attempted to influence election results in multiple Western nations, as it did in the US election in 2016.

The West had attempted to meddle in Russian elections before, so Putin has only been returning the favour. But given how sacred democracy is—or appears to be—to Westerners, the fact that you cannot with certainty know whether someone became president without the Kremlin doing its thing, for example, is the end of everything that they hold dear.

As a result, disinformation has become a popular discourse nowadays, and when a subject becomes an agenda in the West, it becomes an agenda for the rest of the world, right?

When you check online sources about misinformation and disinformation in Africa, you are taken to sources that identify Russia, China, and the Gulf states as perpetrators. It is in Russia's interest to build support for its war in Ukraine, increase Wagner's influence, and ultimately advance its geopolitical interests in Africa. The issue is that the games Russia plays can unravel Africa. It is a serious threat.

But I asked myself, Why just Russia, China, and the Gulf States? Where are the Western nations in that picture? Don’t they disinform Africans? We all know better. Stories about the IMF and the World Bank's impact on the continent abound.

In my presentation, I highlighted that what Russia is accused of—the use of mercenaries, cyber warfare, and disinformation in general—is of Western origin, so to speak.

So, when you hear Americans grumbling about Russian or Chinese hacking into their systems, you might be tempted to think that they are just sitting ducks, taking anything that their adversaries are throwing at them. Far from it.

This brings us to an important point: the African tendency to identify certain groups or states as good guys and others as bad guys. The good-guy or bad-guy paradigm implies that one has fallen prey to disinformation. We need to look at others' interests to understand what their narratives mean. Quite often, the guys we consider our friends might be working to our detriment.

Consider the Chinese. Their embassy employs more people than some of our ministries. At their peak, before Magufuli sent many of them packing, they had a network of over 60,000 nationals in Tanzania.

Their numbers are bouncing back with vengeance. They invest in training institutions for CCM, UDSM, TPDF, etc. And they teach Chinese ‘democracy’, the parallels between CCP and CCM, and so on. Tanzanians can’t be amused to learn that CCM is taught the merits of CCP party supremacy in our multi-party system, huh?

Close observation would reveal that some institutions built as gifts by foreign governments are tools of disinformation. In the grand scheme of things, say security, they offer what you need least, not most. The training is weaponised to distract you from focusing on the right things. They dread the day when Tanzania will be strong.

The information doesn’t have to be false; subversion occurs by keeping you occupied with minor things. Our nations will continue to bleed if we don’t learn about the machinations of powerful foreign actors within us.

The most outstanding difference between disinformation in Europe and disinformation in Africa is the nature of the actors and their interests. Disinformation in the West is mostly done by foreign actors for political objectives, but in Africa, it is mostly done by our governments for their own political and economic gain.

We are used to seeing promising state-owned businesses offered to foreign operators under false pretences. They say that we cannot manage our institutions successfully. Disinformation at work.

The weaponisation of information intends to steal, kill, and destroy. Resources will be plundered. Systems that make a nation strong will be broken. You will always fight your shadows. That is why we must be sober. African intellectuals must debunk the disinformational fodder given to us since our school days.

We need to challenge the lies told to us. Then we can develop an informed citizenry capable of protecting its interests. The world is a hostile place. We must wake up.