Disinformation is at the top of national and global agendas. Cities are also increasingly paying attention to this, and are well-positioned to respond. GMF’s Paul Costello and Ika Trijsburg outline the key roles that cities play and recommend three ways cities can better detect, counter, and mitigate disinformation, building long-term resilience and ultimately strengthening democracy.

Around two billion people in more than 60 countries will vote in elections this year. As new AI-powered audio and visual technologies increase the reach and sophistication of disinformation, concerns about potential effects have risen to the top of the global agenda. The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2024 lists misinformation and disinformation as the top short-term risks worldwide. The topic is a focus of discussion not only at the national and supranational level, but also at the level of cities.

The majority of the world’s population lives in cities. Cities are responsible for policy decisions and for delivering services that shape the daily experience of countless millions. This has also put cities at the center of targeted campaigns, forcing them to deal with climate disinformation, gendered disinformation, and public health disinformation, to name but a few. Such information manipulation impacts cities’ ability to govern and deliver necessary services for their constituents, and can lead to dangerous tensions and public safety concerns. There is little data, but by all anecdotal accounts, the impact of disinformation in cities is increasing. City leaders have few—if any—tools, protocols, or good practices at their disposal for a response.

To address this gap, GMF recently convened a workshop with key cross-sector stakeholders and various city representatives in Dortmund, Germany, and is working with the Melbourne Centre for Cities and other academic partners to develop a Disinformation in the City Response Playbook. The playbook will be co-designed with city practitioners and experts from around the world, and will provide a set of practices and policies that draws on the knowledge and experience of multiple sectors and countries.

Yet, at the initial workshop in Dortmund, it became clear that cities also need to be more intentional and proactive in their communication and collaboration. They must communicate better both horizontally, across city departments and with other cities nationally and internationally, and vertically, across levels of government. They must share ideas, experiences, and possible solutions as they continue to respond to complex and multi-faceted challenges posed by disinformation. Although cross-departmental, cross-sector, and international city engagement is increasingly embedded in the structures of many cities, and some cities have started to establish such relationships, there is more progress to be made. The Dortmund city administration, for example, has set up an informal working group on disinformation that brings together department heads and is proactively engaging with state and national authorities.

Cities must also collaborate more because the power and influence of disinformation actors can be vast and hyperspecialized compared to the capacities and skillsets of a single city. Collaboration with other cities, other sectors, and other levels of government can go some way toward shifting this balance. The kind of access and influence that an individual city can hope to achieve is dwarfed by the collective efficacy of many, working in unison, to achieve their aims. The city of Amsterdam, for example, leads local cross-sector collaboration with their new “Academic Atelier”, bringing together academics, policymakers, civil society, and businesses to tackle specific and new challenges related to disinformation and social media.

Collaboration is also a critical component of innovation. And cities need to feel safe enough to innovate, fail fast, and try something else. Working collectively with others provides a heatshield of sorts, so that cities do not carry the full risk. By drawing on the collective, cities are less likely to fail, and can be better supported to manage and mitigate failure if it happens. And collaborative work acts as an incubator, creating a positive learning environment.

Communication, collaboration, and innovation should occur throughout the disinformation ‘lifecycle’, as the examples below illustrate.

Preempt. The city of Malmö, Sweden, together with Nordic Safe CitiesCommon Consultancy, and Analysis & Numbers, developed “Safe and Secure Digital City” to track hate across online platforms. It maps where the hate is, who is behind it, and who its targets are. This type of analysis is key to understanding and exposing patterns and behaviors. The information generated was vital for preempting socially divisive information manipulation. Malmö used it to build a cross-sector and interfaith pact to fight online hate, create a digital intervention team, and train municipal staff and social workers in digital de-escalation and other necessary skills.

Pre-bunk. Good things are also happening in the areas of media literacy bridging societal divisions at the local level. To combat negative public perceptions of Muslim communities, which can be weaponized by disinformation actors, the city of Turin, Italy launched the Open Mosque initiative, based on the Anti-Rumors Framework of the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities program. The initiative involves opening mosques to the public and organizing public Iftar dinners on the street during Ramadan. These events helped educate groups who otherwise would not have engaged with the mosque or the Muslim community, and led to a significant decrease in the number of complaints related to the mosque.


Debunk. Responding quickly and effectively is key, and local actors are well placed to detect harmful narratives going viral in a city. Correctiv’s FaktenCheck initiative works with local institutions to fact-check false narratives, for example about the treatment of refugees by city governments or vaccinations. Similarly, the BENEDMO project, which is part of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), aims to prevent and counteract disinformation spread online, including in partnership with cities such as Amsterdam to teach sessions on disinformation to various audiences, from university students to social workers to the police force.

Disinformation in cities, as at all other levels, is likely to increase with all the elections taking place in 2024 as well as the growing use of AI and other digital tools. Dynamic, innovative, and responsible cities are well-positioned to respond, but they need new resources, tools, and skills. For those seeking to strengthen the resilience of democracy, it is important to enlist cities as key actors and to support the ones already addressing this growing challenge.