Disinformation and misinformation can limit the independent decision making of governments and the private sector, affect economic prosperity, damage social cohesion, and undermine national security and sovereignty. We will continue to foster greater collaboration between governments, the technology industry, civil society and the research community to address and respond to these risks.
Australia distinguishes between disinformation and misinformation, and seeks to increase awareness of, and enhance our resilience to, their potential harm.
Australia defines foreign interference as activity conducted by or on behalf of a foreign actor, which is coercive, deceptive, clandestine or corrupting, and is contrary to Australia's sovereignty, values and national interests.
Australia defines disinformation as the intentional creation and dissemination of wholly or partly false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences and/or obscure the truth for the purposes of causing strategic, political, economic, social, or personal harm or financial/commercial gain.
Australia defines misinformation as the creation and dissemination of wholly or partly false information, spread unwittingly, by error or mistake. Such information has the potential to mislead or deceive but is neither created nor transmitted with the intention of doing so or causing harm.
The increasing ubiquity of cyberspace and social media platforms as a source of information and for personal engagement on a wide range of social and community issues has made them a key venue for the dissemination and amplification of disinformation and misinformation.
Disinformation may be used as a tool for foreign interference. Foreign actors continue to spread disinformation to serve their own strategic interests and to undermine public trust in democratic institutions and confidence in official messaging, disrupt the proper functioning of open media, or undermine social cohesion.
Recent electoral processes around the world have shown that digital disinformation campaigns have low barriers to entry, and that malicious actors have effectively hijacked public discourse to influence communities and broader public opinion on matters of significant importance. Unwittingly, platforms designed to promote openness have been misappropriated to promulgate and amplify disinformation and misinformation, sow division and mistrust, and ultimately pervert public discourse.
Malicious use of critical technologies is increasingly occurring to amplify these campaigns. This includes 'bots' that drown out legitimate online debate, data-driven technologies that enable malicious or harmful micro-targeting of susceptible and/or influential audiences, and machine learning-enabled 'deep fakes' that spread disinformation.
Disinformation should be differentiated from foreign influence. All governments can seek to influence discussions on issues of importance. When conducted in an open and transparent manner, foreign influence can contribute positively to public debate and form a legitimate part of international engagement.
In 2019, Oxford University estimated that 70 countries around the world were involved in organised social media manipulation campaigns. Stanford University has identified 570 deceptive 'news' websites receiving over 70 million monthly engagements on Facebook – a volume comparable to mainstream media outlets. MIT has concluded that false news stories are 70 per cent more likely to be shared on Twitter than true stories, and reach 1,500 people in a sixth of the time.
Building international partnerships
Australia will use our international engagement and public communications resources to promote facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal democratic values. We will continue to work with partners around the world to identify and mitigate these risks, and collaborate with partners in our region to enhance their awareness and strengthen their resilience.
Australia will continue to build awareness and capability in South-East Asia and the Southwest Pacific to manage information interference and misinformation. The Cyber and Critical Technology Cooperation Program will work to strengthen approaches to counter disinformation, including through the delivery of online training, advisory support and knowledge exchange to government officials and civil society.
Concerningly, we have seen disinformation pushed and promoted around the coronavirus pandemic and around some of the social pressures that have been exacerbated by the pandemic... The disinformation we have seen contributes to a climate of fear and division when, at a time like this, what we need is cooperation and understanding...[In June 2020] Australia co-signed with 131 other countries and observers, a Latvian-led statement in the UN warning that COVID-19 had, and I quote, 'created conditions that enabled the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to foment violence, to divide communities'. We committed in that statement to fighting the so-called 'infodemic'. I can assure you that Australia will resist and counter efforts of disinformation. We will do so through facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal, democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad...
Australia and the world in the time of COVID-19: Foreign Minister's Speech, National Security College, Australian National University, 16 June 2020
Australia recognises the active and indispensable role played by industry, and in particular social media companies, in identifying and countering digital disinformation and misinformation. We will continue to foster greater collaboration between governments, the technology industry, civil society and the research community to address and respond to these challenges. We will work with industry to promote the design, development and use of critical technologies that provide communities with safer, informed and transparent access to diverse information. Where cooperation is not forthcoming, other policy and regulatory responses will be considered.
Protecting freedom of expression is an underlying principle of Australia's foreign policy. We are alert to the risk that some states may seek to characterise legitimate debate and commentary that is objectionable to them as disinformation or misinformation. We will continue to advocate for the creation of rules and partnerships that encourage information transparency and enable the identification and mitigation of disinformation and misinformation, whilst respecting the right to freedom of expression.
AUSTRALIAN ELECTORAL COMMISSION'S STOP AND CONSIDER CAMPAIGN
The Australian Electoral Commission's (AEC) Stop and Consider campaign was launched in the lead up to the 2019 federal election. This social media campaign was the first of its kind run by the AEC and encouraged voters to check the source of electoral communication they saw, heard or read to avoid being misled by misinformation. The AEC recognised the significant interest in the effect of electoral misinformation and disinformation on the continued trust in the integrity of the federal election process and results.