Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, has denounced Russia and China for carrying out targeted disinformation campaigns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minister was delivering a major speech at ANU’s National Security College last night (Tuesday 16 June) outlining Australia’s foreign policy challenges in a globally-connected, post-coronavirus world.
As well as denouncing Russia and China for spreading disinformation, she reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to international institutions such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations, saying they were vital for free and open sharing of information.
“They (global institutions) must serve as bulwarks against disinformation. Let’s be clear; disinformation during a pandemic will cost lives,” she said.
The Minister cited a recent European Commission report that concluded foreign actors and countries – in particular Russia and China – had carried out targeted disinformation campaigns that sought to undermine democratic debate, enhance social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context.
Ms Payne said Australia’s pragmatic approach to problem solving and reputation as a credible global player made it possible for the government to lead the charge for an independent review into the origins of the pandemic and its global response.
She said it was a true moment of global consensus when a record 145 countries co-sponsored the World Health Assembly resolution.
“There were those who said that by speaking out, by seeking a review, we made ourselves a target and brought upon ourselves an unnecessary cost for a cause that would have been championed anyway by others whose size and stature made them more suitable standard-bearers,” she said.
“There are times to pursue quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. But there are also times to voice our concerns and persuade others of the need for a course of action.
“We can believe in Australia’s role in the world and prioritise Australia’s sovereignty, and Australians’ long-term interests, by making the difficult decisions and choices.
“That’s what leading and governing must be about. To those who have said ‘well, this would have all happened anyway’, let me say that nothing just happens anyway.”
Twitter removes 170,00 accounts
Social media giant Twitter announced last Friday (12 June) that it was permanently removing a network of 170,000 accounts it had found to be linked to state-run coronavirus disinformation operations from the People’s Republic of China, Russia and Turkey.
Responsible Technology Australia executive director Chris Cooper supported Minister Payne’s denouncement and said disinformation campaigns were designed to disrupt democracy and erode public trust in governments.
“Australia is certainly not immune or unattractive to foreign interference,” Mr Cooper said.
“From targeted propaganda from social media accounts affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party criticising Australia’s involvement in the Five Eyes alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and USA), to special interest groups hijacking people’s fears about coronavirus to further foment division – bad actors use social media’s powerful tools to agitate Australians.”
Mr Cooper called on social media platforms to be more proactive in countering disinformation campaigns and said they should produce a comprehensive list of the most viral content to give the public better awareness of information circulating in the community.
“But when it comes to opposing these disinformation campaigns, we have our hands tied behind our back. Because we have no idea about the size and shape of this problem,” he said.
“Social media algorithms push us all into filter bubbles, which means we have no idea of what disinformation is being targeted at others.
“We need these platforms to lift the veil and allow Australians to get an idea of who is being targeted with what and why.
“Social media regulation should be treated as a necessary global public health measure,” Mr Cooper said.