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Countering Disinformation: Democracy Under Seige

08 May 2024
By Dr Geoff Heriot
ABC Central Victoria Cross Media Reporter Corey Hague. Source:  Larissa Romensky, ABC Open producer, Central Victoria /

The growing cyber, foreign interference, and disinformation threat from hostile state and non-state actors motivates a call for Australia to use all tools of statecraft to help shape the information space. An AP4D paper offers 14 pathway suggestions.

The latest “options paper” from the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D) anticipates that trends in the information firmament will become even more threatening to democratic society over the next five years. Disinformation is becoming embedded in political cultures within Australia and internationally, exacerbated by “ever more advanced generative artificial intelligence (AI) technology.” This at a time when the English language news industry experiences perpetual crisis.

“In Australia’s immediate region,” the paper observes, “information space harms have been proliferating […] coordinated disinformation campaigns are now a deeply established feature of domestic politics in Southeast Asia, as well as being used as a tool of strategic influence in the region.” As acknowledged in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, we need to “safeguard community cohesion and the resilience of our society.”

It calls for a whole-of-nation response. But, to date, Australian efforts to counter disinformation and related potential threats (misinformation, malinformation, information warfare) have been piecemeal and reactive. This perhaps arises from a false assumption that the problem is a social media issue, “rather than a structural crisis.”

What then would it look like for Australia to employ “all tools of statecraft” to the information space in a rambunctious democratic society? How do government, the private sector, academia, civil society and individuals, coalesce in the mission to protect and empower citizens, build trust, and protect democratic institutions? Fourteen strategic pathways have been identified that can strengthen the information ecosystem. These range from a resort to hard power regulation, standards setting and enforcement mechanisms, through to societal interventions such as support for diaspora communities, media literacy campaigns, public interest journalism, and engagement with media in Asia and the Pacific.

One of those suggested pathways is to establish a national body that “identifies and pre-empts emerging problems in the information environment and marshals resources and expertise to find solutions.” It would coordinate work being done in individual agencies of government and draw on the expertise of non-government actors such as industry, civil society, NGOs, and academics. Given that the effort to mitigate harms in the information environment is “at the top of the political and security agenda of Australia’s partners and allies,” this national body could also perform an international liaison function.

While the AP4D paper argues that this body requires a legislative basis, contributors differ as to whether government should keep its role as minimal as possible or whether such a low-key profile might be ineffective given the “constantly evolving threats in the information domain.” My preference would be the establishment of a statutory corporation with a charter and governance structure inclusive of government and non-government representation; one that is not confined in its thinking or unduly subject to partisan political manipulation. A particular challenge, as I have argued previously, is to help reconcile the espoused social values of democracy with the policy interests of the state.

The participating sectoral interests in the information environment are not always natural mixers: government agencies operate under direct ministerial control and are often risk-averse; statutory bodies such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) defend their independent charters and discrete public interest accountabilities, which may not align always with ministerial priorities; private sector enterprises pursue the interests and priorities of their proprietors, as do innumerable others from civil society, the professions and diaspora communities.

One obvious point of reference, though not necessarily a model for the Australian body, is the European Union’s EUvsDisinfo project, run by the East Stratcom Task Force. The task force self-describes as a team of experts mainly in communications, journalism, social sciences, and Russian studies and functions as part of the EU’s diplomatic service. EUvsDisinfo aims to build awareness and provide basic tools to help build community resilience; and to follow trends and topics of disinformation, especially regarding Russia but also other actors, including China.

When contemplating a national body for Australia, it is worthwhile also recalling examples of counter-propagandists from the Cold War era. The UK’s Information Research Department, for example, had a significant research function and, for decades, worked to undermine Moscow’s legitimacy by distributing factual information covertly via outlets such as diplomatic missions, political organisations, journalists, and media such as the BBC. The BBC itself employed a substantial staff to monitor, translate, and record Soviet broadcasts and the output of news agencies such as TASS. Similarly, the administration of President Ronald Reagan established an inter-agency US Active Measures Working Group (AMWG). Its purpose was to develop and coordinate the debunking of Soviet propaganda and disinformation, often drawing on the expertise of academics and scientists.

The challenge of shaping Australia’s information environment is more complex than at the time of East-West ideological rivalry; when key adversaries were geographically separate and had little economic interaction; also prior to the metamorphic applications of digital communications technology. In this globalised communications setting, governments compete with a much-expanded array of state and non-state actors, not least the technology behemoths, NGOs, and any number of technology-empowered communities of interest wishing to propagate their narratives.

Australia’s proposed national information body, therefore, needs to be possessed of a “big brain” for research and analysis, strategic acuity, and the operational nimbleness to pre-empt and respond to informational threats to Australia and its regional environs. As a statutory body inoculated from excessive political partisanship, it would promote Australia’s cross-sectoral objectives for shaping the information space: protecting and empowering citizens; improving trust; protecting the functioning of democratic institutions and democratic processes; and developing a proactive and strategic approach to the information space.

Dr Geoff Heriot contributed to the AP4D options paper about using all the tools of statecraft in the information space. He is a consultant on media and governance, a former corporate and editorial executive with the ABC, and author of: International Broadcasting and its Contested Role in Australian Statecraft: middle power, smart power (Anthem Press, London).

Heriot’s book review of Reputational Security: Refocusing Public Diplomacy for a Dangerous World, by Nicholas J. Cull, appeared on 4 April 2024.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.