Australia to partner Asia-Pacific neighbours to fight falsehood

SYDNEY – Australia plans to combat the spread of disinformation by countries such as China and Russia across the Asia-Pacific region, pledging to expose and debunk fake news and disinformation campaigns and to shame perpetrators.

The government has revealed plans to try to damage the global reputation of states involved in promoting disinformation and is also seeking stronger, more transparent action by social media platforms.

Canberra’s efforts to curb misinformation reportedly include the creation of a Countering Foreign Interference unit, which will operate out of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. According to a report in The Australian, the unit will work with like-minded countries to counter disinformation campaigns by countries such as China and to launch fact-based responses that expose and undermine false claims promoted by state actors.

The Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, said yesterday that the region’s emerging threats include disinformation and foreign interference which have been “enabled and accelerated” by new and emerging technologies.

His comments followed a recent speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Marise Payne, in which she condemned the growing scourge of disinformation and warned that countries were “using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models”.

Citing a recent European Union report, Ms Payne singled out China and Russia for spreading disinformation to undermine democratic debate and improve their global image following the outbreak of the Covid-19 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,” she said in an address at the Australian National University.

“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.”

She said Australia would cooperate on countering disinformation with countries in the region which “are responsible and don’t engage in disinformation and who call it out”. “Those partnerships are also really important because… saying we won’t put up with this, we will not tolerate this in our country, is absolutely vital,” she said.

The government recently accused China of spreading falsehoods about the threat of racism in Australia. Responding to calls last month by Beijing for Chinese tourists and students to reconsider travel to Australia, Mr Morrison said the claim that Australia was unsafe for visitors was “ridiculous”.

Australia’s communication regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, is also seeking to counter disinformation. It is working with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as search engines such as Google, to develop an industry-wide code of practice to combat disinformation.

A paper released by the authority last month called on online platforms to develop a consistent approach to countering disinformation and enabling users to easily identify credible sources of information. The paper cited recent examples of dangerous disinformation, such as conspiracy theories spread during Australia’s recent deadly bushfires and the proliferation of falsehoods about the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has begun working with countries in South-east Asia and the South-west Pacific to combat foreign interference, including raising awareness of disinformation spread on social media. The department said in a recent submission to a parliamentary inquiry that its first initiative was a workshop on countering disinformation held in March in Singapore, conducted in collaboration with Britain and hosted by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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