Sean Healy Head of Reflection and Analysis, Médecins Sans Frontières Operational Centre Amsterdam

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Victoria Russell Communications Adviser, Médecins Sans Frontières Operational Centre Amsterdam

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The Critical Risk of Disinformation for Humanitarians – The Case of the MV Aquarius

The search and rescue of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants on the Mediterranean has become a site of major political contestation in Europe, on the seas, in parliaments and government offices and in online public opinion. This article summarises one particular set of controversies, namely, false claims that the non-government organisations conducting such search and rescue operations are actively ‘colluding’ with people smugglers to ferry people into Europe. In spring and summer 2017, these claims of ‘collusion’ emerged from state agencies and from anti-immigration groups, became viral on social media platforms and rapidly moved into mainstream media coverage, criminal investigations by prosecutors and the speech and laws of politicians across the continent. These claims were in turn connected to far-right conspiracy theories about ‘flooding’ Europe with ‘invaders’. By looking at the experience of one particular ship, the MV Aquarius, run in partnership by MSF and SOS Méditerranée, the authors detail the risks that humanitarian organisations now face from such types of disinformation campaign. If humanitarian organisations do not prepare themselves against this risk, they will find themselves in a world turned upside-down, in which their efforts to help people in distress become evidence of criminal activity.


This is the story of a meeting between a humanitarian operation and a conspiracy theory, and what happened next. The operation was a search and rescue mission run on the Mediterranean by many different non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Médecins Sans Frontières,1 aiming to save the lives of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers lost at sea. The conspiracy theory2 was that this operation was the opposite of what it seemed: that it was actually a plot in which search and rescue organisations were actively and directly colluding with people smugglers to ferry ‘migrants’ from Libya to Europe. And even that this was only part of a deeper plot to ‘invade’ and ‘flood’ the continent and make ‘we Europeans … a minority in our own European homelands’ (statement by Defend Europe, quoted in Holthouse, 2017). From December 2016, this conspiracy theory spread from the far-right anti-immigrant fringes, was bolstered by the statements of the European border control agency Frontex, caught fire on social media, was then repeated by major media outlets, politicians and prosecutors, and eventually became policy of the then-government of Italy, under Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. It achieved its moment of (temporary) victory in 2018 with the closing of Italian ports to NGO vessels and the halting of search and rescue operations by NGOs on the Mediterranean. The collision of these two wildly different points of view provoked significant political and humanitarian consequences across Europe.

There is, of course, nothing new about disinformation, or its use in conflict and crisis, or its implication of humanitarians. The aphorism, ‘In war, the first casualty is truth’, goes back to World War I, or perhaps Aeschylus. Throughout their history, humanitarian actors have worked in many conflicts deeply marked not only by the clash of metal and bodies, but also by the din of conflicting words, claims and narratives. But the forms that this disinformation has taken have constantly changed as technology has changed, from printing presses to wireless and TV and now to social media. The rapid growth in internet penetration and social media usage worldwide has made it easier and quicker to access and share vast quantities of news, information and entertainment – and this has proved fertile ground for all kinds of political propaganda, conspiracy theories, disinformation campaigns and hybrid warfare.

This case of the MV Aquarius highlights the increasingly dangerous environment that humanitarians are now operating in in the early twenty-first century: meaning not the Mediterranean, but the emerging information space. If humanitarian organisations do not ready themselves for this space, they will find themselves in a world turned upside-down, in which their principles have no meaning, in which suffering is the fault of those suffering and the responsibility of no-one, and in which their efforts to help people in distress become evidence of criminal activity.

The Case of the MV Aquarius

It Begins

On 13 December 2016, a humanitarian adviser at MSF in Brussels received a call from the correspondent of the Financial Times. He wanted to know if MSF had any comment on a report he had received confidentially from within the European border agency, Frontex. With a headline alleging that search and rescue organisations on the Mediterranean were actively colluding with people smugglers, the eventual article read:

Frontex put its concerns in a confidential report last month, raising the idea that migrants had been given ‘clear indications before departure on the precise direction to be followed in order to reach the NGOs’ boats’.

The agency made the accusation explicitly in another report last week, which stated: ‘First reported case where the criminal networks were smuggling migrants directly on an NGO vessel’. (Robinson, 2016)

At that point, MSF had been running search and rescue operations since mid 2015, with three ships then operational on the Mediterranean: the Bourbon Argos, the Dignity I and the Aquarius, the latter run in partnership with SOS Méditerranée (Figure 1). The organisation was only one of many running such rescue operations, all prompted into doing so by two horrific shipwrecks in April 2015 in which 1200 asylum seekers drowned (Heller and Pezzani, 2016).

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

MSF search and rescue operations – overview

Source: MSF, (accessed 28 March 2021).

Citation: Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 3, 1; 10.7227/JHA.056

The MSF adviser replied that NGOs were in no way colluding with people smugglers but were rather simply doing their job of saving lives – and that perhaps Frontex might be better off doing the same (Ponthieu, 2016). This exchange between MSF and Frontex, in public and via the media, and later also in private, was not the first such dispute, but it would prove to be the opening salvo in a two-year-long propaganda campaign.

The Claims

Opponents of dedicated search and rescue (SAR) missions in the Mediterranean had long criticised such efforts for being a ‘pull factor encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea’ (House of Lords, 2016)3 or a ‘magnet’ (Farrell, 2014) or a ‘bridge’ (Anetzberger, 2014) for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Before the arrival of NGO vessels, this same claim had been made against naval SAR operations such as Mare Nostrum.4

Naval and NGO rescuers and their supporters have, in reply, argued that the numbers of people attempting the Central Mediterranean route is largely driven by ‘push factors’ such as conflict in the countries of origin, violence in Libya, the closure of other routes and lack of safe and legal pathways. The principal effect of reduced SAR resources, they have claimed, is not reduced numbers of people attempting the journey, but an increased risk of death.

For example, MSF conducted its own research (Arsenijevic et al., 2017) into this claim of a ‘pull factor’ which compared the trends in attempted sea crossings and adverse sea outcomes over three time periods: during Operation Mare Nostrum (dedicated SAR mission but no NGO presence), during the period of Operation Triton5 but before the start of NGO operations, and following the start of NGO SAR missions. It found that there were only 1.6 per cent more attempted crossings in the period of NGO involvement than during the period of Triton-only SAR resources. It also found a reduction in adverse sea outcomes (deaths and missing) from 39/1000 attempted crossings to 16/1000. Other analyses by different researchers (Steinhilper and Gruijters, 2017; Villa, 2020) have reached broadly similar conclusions. The commanders of the naval missions have argued likewise, such as Operation Sophia’s commander, Admiral Enrico Credendino (quoted in Floris and Bagnoli, 2017).

The claim of ‘collusion’, however, made in the confidential Frontex report and carried by the Financial Times, was an escalation. A ‘pull factor’ might operate despite the intentions of the rescuers and be simply the unfortunate side-effect of a well-meaning endeavour. ‘Collusion with people smugglers’, ‘trafficking’, and ‘being complicit’ implies criminal intent on the part of the rescuers. It implies a conspiracy.

The Conspiracies

The ‘first reported case’ cited by Frontex (2016) concerned an incident in which a small Libyan-flagged fishing boat handed two individuals to a rescue vessel, the Minden. The Frontex report claimed that this fishing boat contained people smugglers, and that the incident was evidence of ‘smuggling migrants directly on an NGO maritime vessel’. Meanwhile, when sought for his side of the story, the captain of the Minden claimed that the boat appeared to be ‘engine fishers’, locals who often appear around rescues to salvage the engines from stranded vessels (Campbell, 2017).

Two other accusations originated from a right-wing anti-immigrant foundation in the Netherlands called Gefira (Pellagatta, 2018). A report from the group (Gefira, 2016a) claimed to have found proof that, in October 2016, the Italian coastguard authorities and an SAR vessel had foreknowledge of a rescue, showing contact and planning with smugglers. The basis for this was a single tweet by a Dutch journalist on board the rescue vessel Golfo Azzurro from 10–12 hours before the rescue occurred. The captain of the Golfo Azzurro counter-claimed that the notification and the rescue were two separate events related to two separate vessels (Hopkins, 2017).

A month later, Gefira released another report along with a YouTube video (Gefira, 2016b). The article and video combined AIS data on ships’ locations from the Maritime Traffic website, with the daily arrival figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The video comprised a wordless time-lapse on a map of search and rescue vessels starting close to Libya and finishing in Italy. The report and video presented the existence of legal and coordinated rescue operations from outside Libyan territorial waters as ‘evidence’ of an ‘illegal human traffic operation’. The report and video then concluded that more asylum seekers, refugees and migrants would ‘undermine Europe’s stability raising racially motivated social tensions’.

Going Viral

The Gefira reports and video were reblogged by several far-right, Islamophobic and conspiracist websites, such as Infowars and Zerohedge, in English and in Italian and began circulating among such audiences. These sources connected the alleged collusion between smugglers and rescuers to much larger themes, in particular to the idea of the ‘Great Replacement’, a white-nationalist conspiracy theory that claims that powerful institutions in Europe are seeking to supplant white people with immigrants from the Middle East and Africa (Holthouse, 2017). YouTube comments (Gefira, 2016c) on it illustrate the extreme conclusions drawn by some of its viewers: ‘When will European people rise up and fight this before their continent is destroyed? It needs to happen soon for the sake of your kids and grandkids lives’, ‘All funded by George Soros, the devil in disguise’ and ‘Mass deportations and ethnic cleansing is morally justified to counter this, and these bleeding heart NGO’s [sic] will be wholly responsible.’

Then, a second video, ‘La verità sui MIGRANTI’ (Donadel, 2017), was uploaded to YouTube in March 2017 by a 23-year-old Italian right-wing activist and vlogger Luca Donadel. It used a similar methodology as the earlier Gefira video, including tracing the routes of rescue vessels on a map from close to Libya back to Italy. But this was produced in a more engaging, sensationalistic and personal style, elements more likely to help it become viral. This video is credited as a ‘tipping point in a campaign against NGOs’ (Oliveri, 2017), especially in Italy. It was viewed more than one million times within two weeks, and millions more since then. It was shared by politicians including Matteo Salvini, mentioned by major newspapers and shown by mainstream television outlets in Italy, vastly increasing its reach.

Over the Easter weekend in 2017, more than 2000 people needed to be rescued trying to cross the Mediterranean by an operation involving the Italian coastguard and three NGO vessels, including 1000 by the Aquarius alone (CBC Radio, 2017). Claims that NGOs were colluding with people smugglers now reached a mass audience via the mainstream media, and not only in Italy but throughout Europe by a variety of media outlets. Perhaps most prominently, the controversial but widely followed columnist Katie Hopkins went to Sicily in April 2017 to investigate the story for the Daily Mail, alleging:

Right under the noses of the Italian authorities and the EU border agency, Frontex, a charitable ‘ferry service’ has been launched, with shiny new boats and sympathetic staff allegedly colluding with the people smugglers controlling the migrant trade. (Hopkins, 2017)

For evidence of this claim, Hopkins repeated the details of both the incident mentioned by the December 2016 confidential Frontex report, and copy-pasted directly, maps and graphs included, from the report by Gefira (2016a) about the October 2016 rescue. She then turned to themes of criminality, terrorism and the threat of swamping:

Italy will not survive this. I do not believe Europe will, either – certainly not as the countries they have been for centuries. The monster that drove a truck into the Christmas market in Berlin arrived into the EU via boat to Italy. My fear is that these NGO ‘ferry services’ will ensure many more monsters to come (Hopkins, 2017).

From Propaganda to Action

On 12 May 2017, as the MV Aquarius was leaving the port of Catania, a small skiff attempted to impede their passage, with passengers launching flares and unveiling a banner reading ‘No way for human trafficking’. The action was live-streamed on Periscope, shown on YouTube6 and attracted considerable social media attention (Broderick, 2017). The campaign was called ‘Defend Europe’ and the group behind it was Génération Identitaire, a European white-nationalist group. They received support from US far-right social media personalities such as Lauren Southern, Breitbart and various neo-Nazi sites, as well as Katie Hopkins (Holthouse, 2017). The publicity helped the group raise $178,000, with which it hired a much larger vessel, the C-Star, to try again to block the Aquarius.

The far-right activists were to discover that mounting an action ‘in real life’ was much harder than online. A public backlash led by anti-racist activists pressured websites PayPal and Patreon into cutting off their fundraising, the Daily Mail recalled Hopkins, and a series of ports in Suez, Cyprus, Tunisia (where fishermen in Zarzis refused to allow the boat entry) and Malta held the boat in custody or banned it from docking altogether. In Famagusta, Cyprus, authorities found 20 Sri Lankan men on board, who had each paid $12,000 to be smuggled to Europe; the owner, captain, senior officers plus one of the Génération Identitaire activists were arrested and charged with human trafficking. At one point, they even needed to be rescued themselves, by the Sea-Eye (Mulhall, 2017). Finally they were forced to cancel the mission on 19 August 2017. On land, the group held protests at commercial entities associated with search and rescue and, in October 2018, invaded the Marseilles office of SOS Méditerranée and threatened the staff (SOS Méditerranée, 2018).

But these actions certainly proved attention-grabbing, especially on social media, which became extremely hostile to rescuers. The Twitter account of the operation, @MSF_Sea, was routinely ratio-ed by 100s or 1000s of racist and trolling comments. A parody Twitter account was set up, and its false stories (such as that MSF was advocating for the Schengen Agreement area to be extended to North Africa) were even picked up as fact by media outlets. Allegations were invented and distributed widely, for example, that MSF’s fundraising had suffered a ‘vertical drop’. Other rescuers also suffered from dirty tricks: Proactiva Open Arms revealed in July 2017 that its AIS data had been hacked to falsely show its position as 1 mile off the Libyan coast (Open Arms, 2017).

Prosecutors and Politicians

Collusion by rescuers with people smugglers was ‘illegal’ and ‘criminal’, its opponents claimed – and a wide variety of politicians and prosecutors sought to make it so. The first and most prominent was the prosecutor of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro (Latza Nadeau, 2017), who in March 2017 announced: ‘We have evidence that there are direct contacts between certain NGOs and people traffickers in Libya.’ A month later, he admitted he was only raising a ‘hypothesis’ about phone calls and had no proof he could present to a court (Scherer, 2017). The truthfulness or falsity of the allegations was irrelevant to its spread; indeed, very little eventuated from this inquiry in terms of legal proceedings, but the accusations were widely publicised and lent great legitimacy to the mounting campaign against the rescuers.

The Trapani prosecutor, Ambrogio Cartosio, announced in May 2017 an investigation into the alleged involvement of individuals in human trafficking and abetting illegal migration. Two other prosecutors also launched inquiries of their own, in Palermo and Cagliari. Several MSF staff were informed they were under investigation, although none have been charged, as were staff of Save the Children.

Similar accusations were made by senior government ministers in Belgium (Baczynska, 2017), in Austria (Die Presse, 2017) and in Germany (Welt, 2017). In June 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron accused NGOs of ‘playing into the hands’ of people smugglers (RFI, 2018).

Public hearings were launched in the Italian Senate, allowing a high-profile airing of the explanations of the rescuers but also for those accusing them (Heller and Pezzani, 2017). The Senate committee’s May 2017 report found that there was no evidence of collusion between NGOs and smugglers, but it still called for greater government control over search and rescue operations, including the placement of police investigators on board vessels (Heller and Pezzani, 2017).

In July 2017, the centre-left Italian government of Matteo Renzi took up the recommendations of the Senate inquiry and began efforts to exert greater control over search and rescue vessels, via a ‘code of conduct’ that they attempted to enforce on NGOs (Human Rights Watch, 2017). The code included many stipulations which were already in maritime law and which SAR vessels were already following, as well as a range of restrictions, including preventing rescues from taking place in Libyan waters altogether, banning the use of lights at night, preventing transfers of the rescued while at sea and placing police on board vessels. In July, this code of conduct was endorsed at an informal meeting of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers (HRW, 2017).

In the view of those running MSF’s operations, this put NGOs in a situation of ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’. Signing and endorsing the code of conduct would be an admission that NGOs needed regulations and control when in fact all SAR NGO operations were already being carried out under the coordination of the Italian maritime authorities. Those who didn’t accept, however, would appear intransigent and open themselves up to massive public criticism and administrative measures against them, such as vessel seizures and closure of ports. Division between the larger, ‘moderate’ NGOs and the smaller, ‘radical’ ones also might have been an aim, as it was certainly highlighted in the media coverage.

Troubled by this code of conduct, MSF first sought consultations with the Italian government to clarify their intent. But the Italian authorities demanded signature within a week of receiving the text. Ultimately, MSF refused to sign the code of conduct, and was greeted with exactly the massive public criticism it feared in the Italian media for doing so (Galli della Loggia, 2017; Picardi, 2017). But its partner on the MV Aquarius, and the charterer of the ship, SOS Méditerranée, did sign at a later stage, meaning that the vessel did agree to comply with its terms.

The code did not end the issue at all, and seizures of vessels, searches of premises and legal proceedings started soon after.7 Perhaps the most serious actions were taken in August 2017 against ten staff of the German NGO Jugend Rettet, including the captain of its ship Iuventa, Pia Klemp (Maritime Executive, 2017a). Those charged face up to 20 years’ imprisonment for conducting operations which saved up to 14,000 people at sea. Police had bugged the vessel and placed informants on other vessels (Boffey and Tondo, 2019). The charges included specific accusations of collusion with people smugglers, namely that on three separate occasions, on 10 September 2016 and twice on 18 June 2017, the crew of the Iuventa had arranged the direct transfer of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from smugglers and had then returned the empty boats to the smugglers. A report by Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture poured over extensive video footage of the rescues turned over by Jugend Rettet and other sources and concluded that there was no evidence of communication with the smugglers (Heller and Pezzani, 2018).

But nearly all SAR actors were affected in various ways over the course of 2017 and 2018:

  • The Vos Hestia of Save the Children was searched in October 2017 and equipment seized, leading to the suspension of its operation (Maritime Executive, 2017b). Save the Children had signed the code of conduct, showing how little protection it offered.

  • In the same month, the MSF vessel Vos Prudence ended its operation (MSF, 2017), partly due to the reduction in departures from Libya and partly due to the mounting restrictions on operations. (The Vos Prudence had replaced a previous MSF ship, the Bourbon Argos, in March 2017.)

  • The warehouses and medical stores of MSF in Catania were searched in January 2018, with various allegations of wrong-doing and threatened charges made against staff.

  • The vessel of Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms was seized on the request of the Catania prosecutor in March 2018 (although released by a court order a month later).

  • In November 2018, the Catania prosecutor announced an investigation into MSF for illicit waste disposal on SAR boats, including rescued people’s clothes that it claimed were highly infectious with diseases such as HIV. The Aquarius was ordered impounded and bank accounts were frozen (Tondo, 2018).

The situation was also worsening on the open seas. The solution long sought after by European governments was for the Libyan government to prevent departures at source – via a ‘cash-for-migration-control strategy’ (Reitano and Micallef, 2017). On land, this involved armed militias closing down the people smuggling business they had been deeply involved in, reportedly in exchange for cash payments. At sea, this involved financing the Libyan coastguard so it could ‘turn back’ boats they found at sea and forcibly return the people intercepted at sea to the detention centres. Relations between the NGO vessels and the Libyan coastguard rapidly deteriorated, including botched rescues, threats of legal action, shots fired (Sea-Watch, 2017). After July 2017, this policy resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of boat entries into Europe from Libya, and the consequent trapping of people in Libya (Reitano and Micallef, 2017).

Final Act: Salvini, Blockade and Closure

The final act in the story of the MV Aquarius occurred after the 31 May 2018 Italian election, which was dominated by the issue of migration. Despite his government’s actions to close the entry doors to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was heavily defeated. A new government was formed, led by the populist Five Star Movement and including the far-right Lega, whose leader Matteo Salvini was made interior minister, and the most prominent figure of the government.

Salvini moved quickly to close Italy’s ports to NGO search and rescue vessels. On 10 June, the MV Aquarius was returning to port with 630 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers when it was told that it would be barred entry. This sparked a diplomatic stand-off at sea, until the government of Spain agreed to welcome the ship at the port of Valencia, 1300 kilometres away. Himself a master of the use of social media, Salvini took to Facebook with the news: ‘VICTORY! 629 migrants on board of Aquarius ship, Spain-bound, our first goal has been reached!’ (Nadeau et al., 2018).

On 20 August, Aquarius’s registration under a Gibraltar flag was officially revoked, reportedly after diplomatic pressure from Italy on the UK government (Budge, 2018). The vessel briefly re-registered as a Panamanian vessel, but this registration too was withdrawn in September 2018 (Heffron, 2018) under direct pressure from the Italian government. After two months of vain attempts to reflag the ship, SOS Méditerranée and MSF declared defeat and ended its mission on 6 December 2018. MSF’s statement (2018) read:

This is the result of a sustained campaign, spearheaded by the Italian government and backed by other European states, to delegitimise, slander and obstruct aid organisations providing assistance to vulnerable people.

Postscript: The Return of the Rescuers

Of course, the end of the MV Aquarius’s operation didn’t end this story, nor did the closure of Italian ports to search and rescue vessels. In Italy, the coalition government between the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s Lega lasted only until August 2019 before collapsing (Horowitz, 2019). The subsequent election saw not the expected triumph of the far right, but a new coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party (De Maio, 2019). Salvini faces his own court cases now – prosecutors in Sicily have charged him with kidnapping over a particular incident involving a ship containing rescued migrants, asylum seekers and refugees being held in port, and the Senate has lifted his immunity from prosecution (Pullella, 2020). In August 2020, MSF returned to active search and rescue operations, joining forces with Sea-Watch and providing medical care aboard the vessel, the Sea-Watch 4 (MSF, 2020). In May 2021, MSF launched a new search-and-rescue operation with the vessel Geo Barents (MSF 2021).

Disinformation as a Phenomenon

This was certainly not the first time that humanitarian responders have been targeted by a disinformation campaign, nor was it the most serious time, and nor will it be the last time. Several key points are worth highlighting in this analysis.

Mobilisation from Fringes into Mainstream

In this instance, social media, in particular Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, played a central role in conveying the various false claims and conspiracy theories from their originators, to social media influencers, and then into mainstream media and influential figures in politics and the law, and finally into official policy in Italy.

Social media platforms are designed for sharing of information through self-selected networks, and do so extremely efficiently. Social media has proven to be more effective at spreading lies than truth, diffusing them ‘significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly’, according to Vosoughi et al. (2018), who found that it took the truth six times longer to reach 1500 people than a lie, and that political lies spread more quickly than all other categories of information. Part of what powers this spread is a concept of novelty, in that novel information is both more surprising and more valuable to the one who possesses it. A further explanation for the more rapid spread of falsehoods is connected to the emotions it evokes: not only greater surprise but also greater disgust, while truth more evokes stronger emotions of sadness, anticipation, joy and trust. As a result, even ideas which might once have been considered ‘fringe’ or ‘extreme’ can benefit mightily in the current information environment – it significantly increases the amount of ‘oxygen’ in which such ideas can catch fire and spread (Phillips, 2018).

A particularly important role in the spread of the conspiracy theory against SAR vessels was played by a complex of websites and influencers, mostly connected to the European and North American far-right movements: Gefira and Luca Donadel, in the first instance, but also widely shared conspiracist websites such as Infowars and personalities such as Lauren Southern.8 At several points, videos, tweets and stories from these influencers were seen and shared millions of times. This matches other work, such as the analysis done by Starbird et al. (2018) of the campaign against the Syrian humanitarian group, the ‘White Helmets’, which highlighted the importance of tight networks of ‘alternative media’, most often on the political far right but also on the left. These sources have grown considerably in reach and influence due to record-low levels of trust in mainstream media and due to the disruption of mainstream media outlets’ production and distribution models. YouTube has proven an especially effective mechanism for these influencers, as it allows them to both demonstrate relatability and authenticity while connecting with this ‘counter-cultural’ rejection of mainstream media.

Finally, once spreading widely in social media, conspiracy theories can cross over and find fertile ground in the mainstream media as well. This can be via partisan media figures who are supporters of the conspiracy theory in question – such as Hopkins in this case, or Fox News’ Sean Hannity in the case of the campaign against George Soros and the Open Society Foundation (Wemple, 2019). It can also be via the coverage of more impartial and objective media outlets, which find themselves caught in a trap of whether ‘to report or not to report’ on the claims made by conspiracists and therefore often end up amplifying them (Phillips, 2018). MSF communications specialists on board the MV Aquarius attest to being constantly asked by journalists from major networks and outlets about the various accusations of anti-immigration activists, questions the journalists justified as ‘being impartial’ and ‘presenting the other side of the story’. It mattered less what the truth was.

Overturning Truth and Falsehood

Disinformation campaigns often have only loose connections to objective fact, and frequently rely on outrageous lies. And yet in the modern age they manage to build substantial followings nevertheless, as they tap into a set of deeper beliefs and concepts of identity which trump ‘truth’.

Both the facts and the politics of migration and asylum seeking across the Mediterranean are worthy of public discussion and debate. As mentioned, various researchers (e.g. Arsenijevic et al., 2017) have sought to study whether search and rescue efforts ‘pull’ people towards them or not, and hence might be endangering them. Political contestation is unavoidable when publics across Europe are as divided as they are about the relative value of securing the continent’s borders from newcomers or saving those in need from suffering in Libya or death on the high seas.

But what we have seen in this case bends any concept of ‘public discussion and debate’ beyond breaking point. In making accusations of collusion between people smugglers and rescuers, political actors advanced a set of false claims, the factual basis of which was limited to a small handful of ambiguous incidents which were then read in a tendentious and biased way, without any consideration for other explanations. These were then connected to a set of xenophobic prejudices against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, amalgamated with terrorism fears, widespread and growing in Europe, and linked to beliefs that such people pose a civilisational threat – and so the conspiracy theory proved popular even despite its falsehood.

There is a deep connection between conspiracy theories and populist movements, such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, which also explains part of their enduring appeal. Conspiracy theories revolve around three sets of actors: the conspirators, powerful people who have managed to hide their role; the people, who have been duped by the conspirators; and the enlightened ones who see through the duping to the truth (Gyárfášová et al., 2013). An analysis of conspiratorial beliefs in three European countries, conducted before the 2015 refugee crisis (Gyárfášová et al., 2013: 14), found that ‘[t]hose who think that democracy doesn’t work well, that politicians don’t care about people like them and who trust neither the left nor the right to run the country are far more likely to agree with conspiracist statements than others’. This overlaps strongly with the basis of populist political movements, which similarly posit a corrupt, lying and powerful ‘establishment’ opposed to the ‘people’ and then a force who will save them, the populists themselves.9

Finally, there is a deep connection between conspiracy theories, populist movements and the targeting of minorities. Such movements cohere and mobilise supporters on the basis of identifying an enemy who threatens them: ‘Such conspiracy theories name the enemy and legitimise radical measures taken against them, as well as helping to maintain the collective self-esteem of the group and satisfying the narcissistic needs of the group (‘we are sufficiently important that everyone is against us’)’ (Krekó, 2011). In present-day Europe, this is highly visible in conspiracy theories connected to migrants and refugees, but also in the revival of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma prejudices in countries such as Hungary. Writing about the utility of conspiracy theories in the twentieth century, Serge Moscovici wrote:

Now, in order to accomplish all these persecutions it is not enough merely to control the police or the judiciary. What is most necessary is a certain mode of collective thought, which, on the one hand, prepares these persecutions, and, on the other hand, justifies them. It is essential to reach the masses and make them take part in manhunt, as well as in soulhunt. Assuredly, the principle of conspiracy forms the substance of this thought. (1987: 153)

While the deliberate use of disinformation is mostly associated with authoritarian regimes, its use is also growing in ostensible democracies. Bradshaw and Howard (2019) found signs of ‘computational propaganda’ and the manipulation of public opinion and social media in over 70 countries in 2019, mostly prominent in China, especially in its state response to the Hong Kong democracy movement, but also in a wide range of both autocracies and democracies.

Criminalising the Norms of Humanity and Those Who Enact Them

Disinformation campaigns have been waged not only against minorities or vulnerable groups, but also against any who help them. In doing so, they have sought to undermine core humanitarian values, such as the idea that all people’s deaths are grievable and all people’s lives are worthy of being saved (Butler, 2020).

Humanitarians make a claim that their values are universal ones that bind all people, in particular the value and dignity attached to all human life (the principle of humanity) and the ethical duty to help all people without discrimination, based on need alone (the principle of impartiality). Further, humanitarians have worked to enshrine these universal values into international laws, which impose duties on states and other actors to value and preserve human life.

This disinformation campaign against search and rescuers, as well as others like it elsewhere, can be seen as a rejection by some of that claim – rather, they implicitly argue, humanitarian values are not universal. In this case, opponents rejected the Law of the Sea, which require vessels to rescue any person at sea whose ship is in danger, and the Refugee Convention, which mandates that no person can be sent back to a country where their lives are in danger – and underneath that, they rejected the idea that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers’ lives are worth saving. Instead, they argued that these lives and these laws were less important than their ideal, of a Europe whose borders are protected from ‘invaders’ from the South. ‘Show me the bodies… I still don’t care’ (Hopkins, quoted in McCarthy, 2015).

Further, these disinformation campaigns turn the tables on the humanitarians, so that the act of saving lives itself becomes criminalised. This was clear in this case, where accusations of collusion with people smugglers provided the basis for the seizure of SAR vessels and the arrest and prosecution of captains and crews for conducting rescues at sea.

Conclusions: Prepare Now for New Risks

The rise of this new type of disinformation campaign must be treated as a critical risk, for people in need and for humanitarian responders. In the Mediterranean, this specific disinformation campaign occurred in a specific political context marked by European governments which were already seeking to restrict asylum seeker entry and to turn public opinion against search and rescue operations, as well as growing political polarisation and the rise of populist, authoritarian and racist movements of all kinds – this context meant disinformation could become a highly effective strategy for some political actors. The false accusations made against search and rescue providers contributed significantly to a reduction in the humanitarian space for their operations, by helping justify the closure of ports, the seizure of vessels and the levelling of criminal charges against rescuers.

In other cases also – in the United States (Achenbach, 2018), Myanmar (Mozur, 2018), Syria (Di Giovanni, 2018), among others – disinformation campaigns helped justify the closure of borders to refugees, deliberate violence against minorities and the lethal targeting of civilians and those assisting them, among other things. It is not difficult to imagine future scenarios elsewhere.

While the risks of disinformation are not new, they have been greatly accelerated and augmented by new technologies and the social and political changes they have wrought. The rapid growth of internet connectivity, mobile phone usage and social media has made information much more accessible and available than ever before. This has made social media a critically important terrain of political contestation and conflict – and has provided new opportunities for authoritarian and populist states and movements (among others) to use these new technologies to target their opponents, including humanitarian providers and the people they seek to assist and protect.

It is very likely that humanitarians will be the target of further campaigns. MSF’s experience in the field of Mediterranean search and rescue operations, as outlined here, raises three key lessons for the future.

Firstly, humanitarians need to better understand the nature of the threat itself, and learn to recognise it when it appears. Just as humanitarians need to understand who is acting and how in the physical spaces they work in, so too will they need to understand the actors in the information space. In particular, this will require greater understanding of social media and efforts to build audience and engagement, which is presently only a fraction of that of, say, online anti-immigrant movements. And perhaps also a break with the respectable but staid ‘institutional voice’ with which humanitarians speak with the public.

Secondly, humanitarians will need to prepare themselves practically to confront this threat, by building, updating and improving systems, especially in communications. Boosting preparedness is one key area, perhaps based on the key tools that humanitarians already use for security management, such as risk analyses, mitigation and contingency planning and pre-designated crisis cells.10 Further, humanitarians could consider following the lead of human rights organisations and media outlets, which have begun building their capacities in digital verification, using open sources to confirm or contradict accounts of events including atrocities. In search and rescue, some of the most engaging work has been done by outfits such as Forensic Oceanography, which used open source information-gathering techniques to reconstruct incidents at sea.

Thirdly, humanitarians need to reflect upon the implications of disinformation campaigns for the interpretation of our principles and the sources of our legitimacy. Humanitarians are still widely seen as legitimate actors for multiple reasons, including alliances with communities, roots in civil society, recognition by peers, qualities and characters of members, principles, ethics and commitments and so on (Calain, 2012). But at its core, humanitarian legitimacy comes from acting in a humanitarian way – by doing good, by acting our values. Providing care to people in danger will not prevent us from being attacked by authoritarian states or populist movements. In fact, the opposite, as this case shows. But it still seems to be the best way to both defend ourselves and to confront those set on dehumanising their targets: we make enemies by doing so, but we also help victims become survivors, help actors become allies and help bystanders become supporters.



Médecins Sans Frontières includes five autonomous Operational Centres. The authors both work for the Operational Centre Amsterdam, which managed MSF’s involvement in the MV Aquarius operation. Search and rescue operations were also run by two other MSF Operational Centres in Brussels and Barcelona. The authors are writing in their personal capacities and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of their organisation.


‘A conspiracy theory is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role’ (Sunstein and Vermeule, 2008).


Researchers have long challenged the dichotomy between ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors driving migration as simplistic, and yet it still dominates the policy discussion (Cusumano and Villa, 2019).


Indeed, even further back, similar accusations had been made in 2004, after the German ship the Cap Anamur run by the organisation Human Rights Without Borders, rescued 37 people lost at sea. The ship’s captain and the organisation’s director were charged with criminal offences by Italian authorities, but were acquitted five years later (Sarobmed, undated).


Operation Triton was an EU operation on the Mediterranean, coordinated by Frontex, which replaced Mare Nostrum in November 2014. It was frequently criticised by human rights groups and activists for being designed more to block migrant boats from crossing than rescuing those vessels which foundered (Tazzioli, 2016).


The video has since been taken down, for unknown reasons, but was at


For a full list of legal actions against NGO search and rescue vessels as of mid 2019, see FRA (2019).


As of June 2020, Infowars received 989,000 daily page views and Southern had 694,000 YouTube subscribers.


Hahl et al. (2018: 4) explicitly links populist movements, that is, an aggrieved constituency who come to see the establishment as not representing them and instead serving an ulterior set of motives, to the appeal of demagoguery and lying. Specifically, during crises of legitimacy, the ‘lying demagogue will seem more authentic in her claims to be champion of this constituency if she is willing to burn her bridge to acceptability in the political establishment’.


The US humanitarian coalition InterAction has produced a useful guidebook on disinformation which includes advice on approach and several tools (Oh and Adkins, 2018).

Works Cited

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