Home affairs flags steps to help Australians identify fake news by foreign powers | Australia news- Tempemail

The home affairs department has warned foreign interference activity against Australian interests is occurring at an “unprecedented scale” and says measures to help people to identify fake news could be one of the potential responses to defending sovereignty.

The stark warning is contained in a submission to the Senate select committee on foreign interference through social media. The inquiry was established last year to investigate the risks posed to Australia’s democracy by foreign interference through social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WeChat.

The home affairs department says “the manipulation by foreign states of social media during Australia’s electoral processes is a realistic prospect for federal, state and territory elections” based on recent experience overseas – although it notes interference operations doesn’t require an election season, it can happen at any time “in response to geopolitical developments”.

It says improved regulation of the social media sector is one response to the threat, but “assisting individuals to identify fake news, better understand the provenance of information and the expertise of the person communicating it, is likely to be important in increasing resilience more generally – both to foreign interference and other types of disinformation”.

As well as flagging measures to improve digital literacy, the home affairs department says special interventions could be required with some platforms. “The growing presence and use of social media platforms in Australia that are extensions of social platforms in authoritarian states may require additional responses, as censorship and reduced privacy protections become additional concerns”.

In an interview with Guardian Australia when the select inquiry was launched, the Labor senator Jenny McAllister, who is chairing the probe, said foreign interference through social media platforms represented a threat to democracy.

She said interference was happening “all around the world, and Australia would be pretty naive to think that we weren’t a target of that sort of intervention”. McAllister said the inquiry was about starting a national conversation about the threat.

Home affairs has told the inquiry it had observed cases of apparent disinformation on social media platforms “that were similar to activities that have been linked by third-parties to foreign state actors”.

“In 2017, following a terrorist attack in Brighton, Melbourne, the department identified tweets associated with accounts that have since been publicly attributed by Twitter to a foreign government entity,” the submission says.

“In another Australian example from 2017, accounts linked to the same foreign government entity were involved in discussions related to a plot to bomb an Etihad airlines flight departing Sydney International Airport. One account used the disrupted plot to promote and amplify the hashtags #MuslimBan and #StopImportingIslam. In this instance, hostile foreign state actors used social media to interfere in Australia’s public discourse and attempt to undermine social cohesion.”

Home affairs says social media is only “one vector through which foreign interference can occur, social media platforms are unique in their ability to reach billions of people and the reliance on social media as a source of information continues to grow”.

“On that basis, we should anticipate that some foreign state actors will continue to undertake disinformation and foreign interference activities through social media channels,” it says.

A separate submission from the China Policy Centre, a new independent, non-profit research organisation headed by analysts Adam Ni and Yun Jiang, says the Australian government’s counter-interference strategy “needs to prioritise China because it is among the fastest-growing sources of threats and challenges”.

It says at the moment, China’s state-led activities on English-language social media are limited in both scale and scope. “Compared to Russia’s social media manipulation, China’s efforts do not demonstrate the same kind of malign intentions and sophistication”.

“But this is changing fast. China poses a serious threat to open societies through information manipulation. Its persistent and well-resourced campaign against Taiwan on social media highlights this. The campaign aims to influence public opinion and undermine the legitimacy of its government and democratic institutions.”

The submission urges the government to increase outreach to Chinese-Australian communities as a key component of any strategy addressing China’s foreign interference efforts through social media. It says the government should see Chinese-Australian communities not predominately as a vector of China’s foreign interference operations, but “rather, they are the targets”.

It also echoes the digital literacy arguments in the home affairs submission. “The ability to access and critically interact with media, including traditional, internet and social media, is more important than ever for citizens to make informed decisions. Over the long term, raising media literacy is the most reliable and cost-effective counter to the effects of propaganda and disinformation campaigns”.

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