Our hearts and minds are under attack. The battlefields are social media, news services and parliaments. Lies are its weapons. Democracy is its target. And we’re losing. Badly.
It used to be called propaganda.
It’s now called diplomacy. Or public relations. Or marketing. The objective is the same: influence political decisions and public opinions. The method is the same: well-timed, well-targeted deception.
It’s an insidious tactic used by corporations, activists and political parties alike.
But, at least when it comes to international diplomacy, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has had enough.
“It is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own more authoritarian models,” she said in a speech at the Australian National University this week.
“The disinformation we have seen contributed to a climate of fear and division when, at a time like this, what we need is co-operation and understanding.”
It’s not just about COVID-19. Or the 2016 US presidential election. Truth has been under constant and deliberate assault since the explosive rise of social media more than a decade ago.
It has been called a fire hose of misinformation. Truth decay. Infowars. An infodemic.
Local and federal politicians exploit it. Local, national and international corporations and lobby groups embrace it. Diplomatic corps deploy it.
And that’s where Australia has resolved to draw the line.
“As Prime Minister Morrison said in March this year … there are some who believe liberal democracies and free societies cannot cope with these sorts of challenges,” Payne said. “We will prove them wrong here in Australia.”
MINISTRY OF TRUTH
“In a democracy, the only line of defence are the voters themselves,” says US Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols.
Author of The Death of Expertise, Nichols told the Australian National University’s National Security Podcast: “There is no way to defend yourself against propaganda when a significant number of people in your country are gullible dupes that are willing to swallow the story … We were low hanging fruit out there in the world of conspiracy theories and disinformation and dank memes and all of that nonsense.”
It took a global pandemic for the problem to pierce the political bubble.
Beijing has come out all guns blazing to preserve the carefully manicured image of its Chairman-for-life, Xi Jinping, for its captive home audience.
Its public is safely secured behind a “Great Firewall” that locks the world outside. Every social media post is vetted for banned words and subjects. Platforms are restricted. Only diplomats can access Twitter, for example, without the threat of immediate arrest.
Meanwhile, Moscow has been busily rewiring its internet to give it the option to “switch off” the rest of the world while directing its “troll farms” to attack the very heart of democratic processes.
Both have moved beyond the realm of subtle influence into one of overt and divisive “big lies”.
“Saying we won’t put up with this – we will not tolerate this in our country – is absolutely vital in our response,” Payne said.
“I can assure you that Australia will resist and counter efforts at disinformation,” Payne added. “We will do so through facts and transparency underpinned by liberal democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad.”
At stake are our already shaky personal freedoms. The right to protest. The presumption of innocence. Freedom of speech. Government accountability.
“Democracies are imperfect,” Payne said. “But, with the airing of disagreements – even with the acknowledgments of mistakes from time-to-time – they can be stronger for it. Because self-governed people ultimately have trust in a common mission. That is a principle to which Australia must and will continue to adhere.”
“Many facts have proved that it is the Australian side that is suitable for the label of disinformation instead of China,” retorted Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. “Frankly speaking, Australia conducted such political manipulations of the epidemic in disregard of the facts and simply out of its own political interest.”
It’s classic schoolyard diplomacy: turn the accusation back on the accuser.
It doesn’t need evidence. It doesn’t even need to be credible. It just needs to plant the thought of a possibility of doubt.
And doubt divides.
“At times of political crisis, the Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness to deploy disinformation and influence operations to achieve its strategic goals,” writes Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) senior analyst Jake Wallis.
Last week, the European Union (EU) issued a report concluding Russia and China had led targeted disinformation campaigns designed to destabilise democratic processes and to paint their authoritarian leaders in a positive light. Shortly later, Twitter confirmed the finding by announcing it had deactivated 32,000 fake anonymous accounts that had been operated by state-controlled propaganda units.
Such behaviour is not even new. For much of the past decade, Russia has been accused of establishing state-run “troll farms” to manipulate online debates.
“It is increasingly clear that the breakneck pace of technological development in the 21st century poses new digital threats to all forms of democracy, yet government, industry, and civil society remain ill-equipped to grapple with these forces in real-time,” a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report states.
But Australia’s political class is catching on.
“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 enable the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to ferment violence, to divide communities’,” Payne said in her speech. “We committed in that statement to fighting the so-called infodemic.”
“The information age was meant to make truth more accessible and governments more accountable,” writes Lowy Institute research fellow Natasha Kassam.
“Instead, propaganda and misinformation spew from an endlessly expanding array of new sources, while governments and once-trusted institutions disassemble truth to serve their own political prerogatives.”
Authoritarian states – which exist to keep their Supreme Leaders in power – have been quick to exploit this power. Democracies largely remain in denial. And this is despite the high-profile manipulation of information by once-respected diplomatic corps.
“Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople Lijian Zhao and Hua Chunying have broken with normal diplomatic constraints and, acting in their official capacity, used Twitter to promote disinformation from known fringe conspiracy theory websites,” Wallis says. “Zhao and Hua both tweeted video footage falsely claiming to depict Italians chanting support for China (in response to medical aid).”
ASPI listed examples of Beijing’s diplomatic deception, including a Facebook post made by a Swedish student living in China being “repurposed” to present Beijing’s COVID-19 response as more favourable to that of Europe.
Other examples include the sudden appearance of social media accounts praising Beijing’s COVID-19 aid to Serbia while denigrating that of the European Union, as well as artificial intelligence “bot” driven criticism of the EU within Italy.
These are just fragments of an international public influence campaign on an industrial scale.
And it’s not going away any time soon.
“This effort to influence global public opinion is ongoing and is unlikely to relent,” Wallis writes. “The Chinese party-state is invested in information management as a fundamental pillar of its global engagement. The CCP places enormous importance on Propaganda domestically and is projecting this approach in its global engagement in an attempt to secure strategic positioning on its own terms.”
“Propaganda and misinformation are deepening the disconnect between public and political elites during COVID-19. Both truth and trust are falling victim,” Kassam says.
Public faith has been falling in government and public institutions now for decades.
Traditional media is in retreat. And into the massive, instantaneous reach of unregulated social media has swarmed a multitude of new players.
At no point has this been more obvious than the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the crisis, social media has had its benefits — citizen journalists and outspoken doctors have been empowered,” Kassam writes. “But malign actors thrive in environments of distrust and confusion, and dangerous misinformation, disinformation and flawed amateur analysis abound. Make way for the armchair epidemiologists.”
It’s fertile ground for influence campaigns.
As a result, she says, “truth, and one of its emissaries – science – has been politicised”.
In the absence of national or international regulation, pressure has been mounting on the likes of Facebook and Twitter to clean up their act.
But these unregulated multinationals have long argued this isn’t their responsibility. They assert they are not media companies. They insist they are not publishers. Instead, they say, they are mere carriage services – no more responsible than a telephone company for what is said over its wires.
Despite these assertions, they’ve repeatedly been willing to apply editorial power over news images, depictions of art and even breastfeeding. And posts criticals of their CEOs.
“Technology companies have become gatekeepers,” Kassam says. “Twitter deletes posts by Venezuela’s President Maduro or Brazil’s President Bolsonaro that promote untested COVID-19 treatments, but turns a blind eye when the same message is shared by President Trump. Even for the free-speech extremists of Silicon Valley, information is political.”
“Somebody asked me the other day, how can you decide what to believe at the moment? What do you do? Who do you listen to?” Payne said. “Relying on clear and authoritative sources is one very important approach.”
But experts are under sustained attack.
Climate science. Energy science. Vaccine science. All are political battlefields in a clash between evidence and dogma.
And who are the real experts anyway?
“The combination of low trust and high volume of information coming from people who are not experts — but purport to be experts — creates the perfect storm for the average person,” says Jennifer Kavanagh, author of the RAND Corporation’s recent Truth Decay.
“There are people who are trying to do their jobs by providing what they think is right and just messing up. But there are other actors intentionally contributing to the problem. We also have foreign actors who are actively spreading false information about the source of the virus — for example, saying it is a bioweapon developed by the US military.”
And identifying sources of reliable infraction has itself become a partisan conflict.
But viruses don’t belong to political parties. Maths doesn’t adhere to political dogma. And evidence – often decisive – usually suggests conclusions which are beyond reasonable doubt.
Which is where misinformation campaigns kick in.
These attempt to distort the facts people have at hand to redirect perceptions of “reasonable”.
And this works so well because people are eager to hear anything that supports their pre-existing point of view.
“People’s partisan beliefs are actually stronger than the experience of seeing things with their own eyes,” Nichols says. And people are very ‘lax’ about from where they get their information.
“I think it is the result of a very high standard of living, peace, prosperity and the availability of a lot of bad information. The metaphor I always use is fast food. Americans have never had access to more calories and more food choices. But that’s why we’re also obese and unhealthy.”
Which is why we need to add more fibre to our information diets.
“Individuals have to realise that facts and data matter, that there are experts who have information and that those experts should be looked to as sources of information,” Kavanagh says. “There has to be the change at the policy level as well as the community level. Evidence and facts should drive all of our decisions every day.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel