DFAT to set up disinformation taskforce

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday June 17, 2020

Maris Payne (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

A new taskforce to combat disinformation campaigns will be established within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

DFAT has begun a recruitment process for the new branch, which would target online disinformation and propaganda created by countries such as Russia and China, according to ABC News.

In an address to the National Security College on Tuesday, foreign minister Marise Payne said global institutions like the World Health Organisation must be “bulwarks against disinformation”, which has been spread widely during the global coronavirus crisis.

“Let’s be clear, disinformation during a pandemic will cost lives,” she said.

“For our part, it is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models.”

She noted a report released by the European Commission last week found foreign actors, particularly Russia and China, had implemented targeted disinformation campaigns “seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation”.

“A day later, Twitter disclosed over 32,000 accounts as state-linked information operations, which the company attributed to Russia, to China and to Turkey,” she added.

Read more: Fake department claims stack up as state authorities call out attempts to foster fears

Payne noted Australia has also recently been the victim of disinformation — with the Chinese government telling its people to avoid Australia because of racism.

Earlier this year, a disinformation campaign spread by bots on social media sought to spread the conspiracy that the bushfires which ravaged Australia were caused by arsonists.

The foreign minister said Australia would resist and fight the global “infodemic”.

“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,” she said.

“At the weekend, 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’.”

In a report released last week, the Canada-based Public Policy Forum argued addressing the social harm of science disinformation would require governments to have:

  1. Increased engagement with social media companies to press them on their public responsibilities,
  2. Greater understanding of why science scepticism seems to be aligning with the political right,
  3. A more sophisticated understanding of how science disinformation uses social media channels to its advantage,
  4. A commitment to a robust and permanent public education campaign so as to counter the social harms of science disinformation.

Read more: Humour over rumour: Taiwan is using memes to combat political disinformation and COVID-19

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