Conflict Prevention in the Age of Disinformation
Conflict Prevention in the Age of Disinformation
Disinformation Visual
CRISIS GROUP / Claire Boccon-Gibod
Statement / Global 10 minutes

Conflict Prevention in the Age of Disinformation

Around the world, disinformation and related tactics are diminishing the space for independent voices and reasoned debates. Journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society organisations have been impacted and so have we. Here, we attempt to dispel common mischaracterisations of our work and staff.

As an independent non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, Crisis Group has a clear mandate and methodology. We speak to all sides in the 70-odd conflict areas we cover. Based on that research, we develop practical policy solutions and communicate our analysis through written reports and advocacy. Our track record of working on some of the world’s most pressing conflicts goes back more than a quarter-century. Our distinguished Board of Trustees includes leaders from countries around the world and from different political and policy perspectives. More information about us and how we work can be found here.

The circumstances in which we work are changing. Hacking, disinformation, and digital harassment aimed at silencing or threatening the work of researchers and civil society organisations are increasingly common. All this activity is intentionally misleading; some of it is state-sponsored. We have seen such attacks on our staff working on China, Ethiopia, the Sahel, the South Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa, and elsewhere. All have involved tendentious statements and outright inaccuracies. In some cases, our staff have even been wrongfully detained. 

Our work speaks for itself. A full record of our publications is available on this website, as are financial reports that in complete transparency break down our institutional, private-sector and government support. Out of respect for our audience, here we provide additional information and more specific responses to some recent allegations that mischaracterise our work and aim to malign our staff. 

FAQs

Q: Does Crisis Group lobby on behalf of any foreign government? Does the receipt of funding from governments suggest undue influence by those governments?

A: No. Crisis Group has only one constituency: people affected by deadly conflict, or are at risk of being so affected. Our mission is to prevent, mitigate and resolve deadly conflict. We disclose all our government and institutional funding on our website and through our publicly available financial statements. Funding agreements with governments are common among U.S.-registered think-tanks and research organisations. We have had such agreements with the U.S. Institute for Peace, an organisation created and funded by the U.S. Congress, as well as the European Union, the UK, France and Germany, among others. 

In all these funding agreements, we retain our independence. No entity or person outside of Crisis Group directs or controls our work. We share drafts of reports and other draft texts to test whether recommendations are practical, but we do not seek anyone’s approval to publish. We follow this practice with conflict actors as well, and not just those with whom we have an agreement. We similarly have full control over our public and advocacy-related communications.

Any potentially sensitive agreements are reviewed by both in-house and outside counsel to ensure that they are fully compliant with relevant law, including U.S. laws like the Foreign Agent Registration Act and sanctions laws. 

Q: Does Crisis Group sign Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with foreign governments?

A: Many think-tanks and research organisations have MOUs with foreign governments or government-affiliated entities that do not involve funding. Our MOUs are often intended to safeguard our staff in conflict zones or in countries that engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions, or to guarantee our ability to work in certain places. They can, for example, provide Crisis Group an official reason to be in a given country. The safety of our staff is of paramount importance, and MOUs help protect their physical security and ability to do their work independently and in a way that is intellectually honest. 

As with funding agreements with governments, referenced above, we always retain our independence, and no entity or person outside Crisis Group directs or controls our work due to an MOU or otherwise. Any potentially sensitive MOU is reviewed by both in-house and outside counsel for compliance with U.S. law. 

Q: Does Crisis Group act at the behest of the United States government or other western government or intelligence agencies? 

A: No. Perhaps due to our independence and willingness to both talk to and criticise all sides of an issue, state-aligned media and authorities in Iran, China, the Sahel, and elsewhere, have falsely accused Crisis Group staff of working for the United States and other western governments or intelligence agencies. We are an independent and charitable nongovernmental organisation that is organised under U.S. law with offices and staff in roughly 40 countries. We are not affiliated with any government.

Q: How have disinformation and misinformation been used against Crisis Group? 

A: Regrettably, disinformation and misinformation have contributed to diminishing the space for independent voices and reasoned debate. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House and others have documented an increasingly difficult environment for journalists around the world. UN peacekeeping operations, human rights defenders, and international organisations working to prevent, resolve or mitigate the impact of conflicts have been targeted by similar campaigns.

Our experiences are similar. In the Sahel, the South Caucasus, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, we have been accused of taking one side or another, largely due to the mere fact that we talk to all sides and have independent views. Indeed, in some cases, both sides of a conflict have accused us of favouring the other. Such accusations appear on social media, as well as in traditional media, state-aligned or otherwise, and speeches by government actors. Members of our staff have been harassed, detained and expelled by authoritarian or otherwise repressive regimes due to such attacks. 

The latest mischaracterisation of Crisis Group’s work comes in recent reporting maligning two of our staff specialists on Iran, Drs. Dina Esfandiary and Ali Vaez. On the basis of assertions by Iranian officials, the reporting claims that Esfandiary and Vaez advocated on Iran’s behalf through an alleged Iranian-directed influence operation called the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). We completely reject these allegations (for fuller responses, see Crisis Group’s statement here and a thread by our CEO here). 

What these stories omit is that, due to our independence, the Iranian government itself has consistently criticised us – often publicly.   

  • In September 2014, a senior Iranian official wrote to Vaez: "Your treatment of sanctions is factually wrong and your solutions on sanctions have all been consistently worse than the offers by the U.S. This is just to respond to your inquiry about the reason for my criticism".
  • In January 2018, a hardline media outlet in Iran alleged that Vaez is a CIA agent who helped sell a lopsided nuclear deal to Iran in 2015.  
  • In April 2021, media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps aired a documentary accusing Crisis Group of dictating the 2015 nuclear deal to the Iranian nuclear negotiating team on behalf of Israel. 
  • In August 2023, state-backed media accused Vaez of orchestrating a coup similar to 2020’s failed attempt in Venezuela. 
  • On 17 September 2023, Iran Daily, another regime-linked media outlet, accused Crisis Group of “foment[ing] a crisis” in Iran, stating, “Contrary to its stated purpose of managing crises and providing solutions, this organisation’s actual activities and reports seem to aim at destabilisation as one of its main goals. It exploits crisis indicators to further its agenda and has actively tried to spread these crises across the country, especially during critical moments”. 

As credible observers have noted (see here, here and here) it is easy to rebut accusations that Crisis Group staff have worked on behalf of the Iranian government, whether through the IEI or otherwise. Our staff has highlighted the cherry picking, inaccuracies and falsehoods in these stories, which are part of a pattern aimed at undercutting necessary diplomacy with adversaries. King’s College London researcher Andreas Krieg made similar observations:

I have long hesitated to comment on what is a disinformation and weaponized narratives-driven, smear campaign against esteemed colleagues, so as not to give the campaign more attention or credibility than it deserves. 
 

Unfortunately, the information environment has deteriorated into a space where debates are no longer led by facts-based arguments, but vicious ad hominem attacks in both the courts of public opinion and law, and where differences of opinion are settled in vindictive duels fuelled by information warriors with deep pockets, trying to intimidate, harass or deter journalists, analysts and academics in the hope to stop them from participating in the public space and in so doing subverting important, policy-relevant discourse.


Q: Has Crisis Group staff worked at the behest of the United States government in plotting a coup to overthrow the regime in Iran?

A: Contrary to reporting from the Tehran Times and other hardline outlets, our reporting and advocacy on Iran is independent. Our work on Iran, as documented in dozens of reports, briefings, commentaries and articles over the past two decades, is aimed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, to deescalate the conflict risks between the United States and Iran, and to deescalate security risks in the region. We also track internal developments within Iran, which over the past several years have included sharply heightened domestic repression by the regime, including repeated and violent crackdowns by the state and its security forces

Q: Did Crisis Group staff work at the behest of Iranian officials through the Iran Experts Initiative or otherwise?

A: Crisis Group was not involved in the IEI. We further reject the key allegations made against Dina Esfandiary and Ali Vaez, which are largely based on hacked or leaked emails exchanged among Iranian officials. We have no control of how Iranian officials may characterise their own actions, but we are quite familiar with their long history of exaggerating and otherwise misrepresenting their own influence to convince more extreme voices within the Iranian government that engagement with Western experts is in their interest or that they themselves have not been overly influenced by Crisis Group and like-minded institutions.

The IEI was a loose network of analysts from European and U.S. institutions who coordinated among themselves to consolidate meeting requests to officials from all parties, including Iran, negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal. Crisis Group covered travel and lodging costs for Ali Vaez. Dina Esfandiary’s employer covered her costs (she joined our staff some years later). Neither Esfandiary nor Vaez has ever had a financial arrangement with the Iranian government. Nor has Crisis Group. Other experts’ costs were covered by their employers or European institutions, including a European government that is a close U.S. ally.  The extent of the Iranian government’s involvement was to make its officials available for the meetings.

Uncritically adopting assertions by Iranian officials only undercuts serious deliberation about how to address the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Others have made similar observations. Journalist Max Fisher wrote, “[i]t’s truly difficult to think of another recent episode in which mainstream news outlets so blatantly lied and misled readers”.

Ali Vaez has also been attacked for a cherry-picked line from a 2014 email that he sent to Iran’s foreign minister, in which he wrote: “I considered it my national and patriotic duty to offer His Excellency help to publicly oppose the breakout time concept”. Based on this line, media outlets have alleged that Vaez was working on behalf of Iran.

Yet read in full, the email is a robust defence of Crisis Group’s independence in the face of Iran’s criticism of our work. Dr. Vaez’s email explains that while Crisis Group is committed to reflecting Iran’s views along with those of the other parties, our recommendations will not fully satisfy any party to conflict. Regarding the one line, cultural formalities differ, and norms of expression in Persian can perhaps be more flowery than in Western languages. (Indeed, even in English, phrases like “Sincerely your servant” or “Most humble and obedient servant” were once common ways to address dignitaries.) In this context, that language reflects nothing more than diplomatic decorum and Persian politeness.

Q: How does Crisis Group ensure that its reporting is not influenced by the parties to a conflict?

A: Every Crisis Group output is subject to rigorous internal review, always involving the organisation’s senior management. Every Crisis Group report or briefing plainly and transparently indicates the research involved. We are open about our interactions with all foreign officials and foreign actors in our public work and with our funders and supporters. 

Our teams often test proposals with key parties, particularly those that we hope will adopt our recommendations. But we always decide what to say and what policy ideas to put forward. Our balanced approach and willingness to both talk to and criticise all sides, while making our independence clear, is core to our identity. We are transparent about this methodology, which is reflected in the extensive footnotes of our analytical reports, our grant reports and our publications. (See examples here and here). 

Q: Is there a conflict of interest in reporting on actions that may involve a Trustee? Do Trustees have undue influence over your work?

A: Crisis Group benefits greatly from our distinguished Board of Trustees, who hold a wide array of perspectives drawn from their experience at the highest levels of government, business and philanthropic institutions. They are, however, an advisory board. While our Trustees have the opportunity to review our reports and briefings to lend their considered views, Trustees are not responsible for our content nor do they control it. Crisis Group's staff has full editorial discretion in producing our work. If a Trustee is a subject or source for our reporting, we disclose that person’s affiliation in the report.

Q: Does Crisis Group organise private events for foreign governments?

A: We do not organise private events for any government. We do sometimes co-host events when it fully supports our conflict prevention mission and we retain full control of our message. For example, we presented our 2023 10 Conflicts to Watch report at the French Mission to the UN and have recently co-hosted a roundtable with the Canadian government in Yaoundé on water and conflict in the Far North of Cameroon.

Like a number of other U.S. and European think-tanks, we have also invited a bipartisan set of former U.S. officials from every recent presidential administration, as well as journalists and experts, to meetings with foreign officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York and other international forums. This practice is common among research institutions: it allows us to better understand foreign officials’ views on important topics that need resolution. 

Other resources responding to stories about our Iran work

Crisis Group’s October 4 statement

NY Times Letter to the Editor

Twitter threads

Recent questions from media outlets and our full response:

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