How can Australia respond to China’s disinformation campaign?

Author: Paul Sigar

Although there weren’t any foreign interference or malicious cyber-activities that affected the integrity of the 2019 Federal elections, this may change in the coming years. Australia can expect disinformation campaigns perpetuated by Chinese state actors, similar to those that target Chinese diaspora in North America, to reach its shores — only more sophisticated and covert.

This proposition is based on two observations. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the susceptibility of the culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia to misinformation and false narratives. With the rhetoric about China turning into a domestic political debate, the discourse is only becoming more politicised and polarised, and will likely dominate Australia’s policy debate in the upcoming elections. This environment creates fertile ground for foreign interference.

The rising tension between Australia and China increases Chinese incentive to interfere with Australia’s democratic processes. The disinformation experiments by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the Hong Kong protests and the COVID-19 pandemic provide a prequel of what to expect.

There are consistent themes throughout China’s information warfare — the weaponising of current affairs to project Chinese strength, with the primary target being Chinese diaspora communities. Such disinformation campaigns also tend to entail elements of Chinese nationalism while sowing distrust in public and scientific institutions of the West. Overt intentions by the CCP to weaponise the Chinese diaspora to advance its ambitions should concern Australia.

Disinformation is the deliberate dissemination of false information with the express purpose to cause harm. Such acts, that are usually perpetrated by entities with vested political interests, may constitute an offence under Australia’s latest foreign interference law if conducted in collaboration with a foreign principal. While the law can be a convenient tool to achieve a desired outcome, over-legislation isn’t always the answer. The law isn’t always swift and effective.

Sun Tzu once remarked, ‘speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike [them] where [they] have not taken precaution.’ In the Australian national security context, the same principles apply to information warfare. The national security framework must prioritise speed, preparedness, and precaution or heightened alert.

The fight against disinformation constituting foreign interference should go further than the realm of law enforcement to active engagement that prioritises swift actions. This includes implementing mechanisms for swift detection and response to harmful manipulated information. An independent national fact-checking system that employs a double-blind review can be established, which should be transparent on how the vetting of fake news is conducted and include mandatory disclosure of funding interests.

Take Taiwan for example. The ‘2-2-2’ strategy aims to counter disinformation by responding to any disinformation within 20 minutes with 200 words or less with 2 images that prioritise ‘humour over rumour’. This strategy is meant to communicate key information to the audience swiftly and succinctly.

But the real challenge for Australia is how to roll out counter-disinformation strategies without them being perceived as anti-China propaganda. Part of the solution is to continue supporting a robust media and a vibrant democracy. This means welcoming constructive debates, promoting a culture of transparency and accountability in government and in journalism, and most importantly, encouraging critical thinking in public discourse.

The discourse on fake news and misinformation should be embedded in critical self-reflections. It must focus on nuances of opinions, instead of merely presenting an alternative view or ‘debunking’ false information based on facts. Disproving fake news — even with the most accurate facts — rarely changes someone’s views, and usually only leads to further polarisation.

Any such efforts to counter disinformation must also include the diaspora communities in the conversation, having regard to the nature and context of the vulnerability of such groups. Australia has tailored multilingual messages for COVID-19 related information. But a recent study shows that strong agreement with misinformation is more an issue of digital illiteracy and mistrust in public institutions than language barriers. So strengthening social cohesion is crucial to facilitate a whole-of-society approach to combat disinformation. Government communiqués must consistently prioritise key messages in a comprehensible and easily accessible manner to build public confidence in the body of expertise and governmental institutions among these communities.

It should also be acknowledged that the rise of xenophobia and distrust against Chinese-Australians doesn’t help. The tone of the conversation around China-Australia relations needs to remain firmly objective, with criticisms clearly directed at the CCP and not the people of Chinese descent. Consistent with Australia’s national agenda of multiculturalism since 1978, civil societies and community leaders should initiate grassroot efforts to foster civic commitment and encourage political participation and social activism among culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

It’s high time Australia’s national security framework includes a visible emphasis on multiculturalism. And, beyond the Canberra bubble, the general Australian public needs to know that the array of lived experiences, knowledge, and language skills represented by Australia’s diverse communities is not only a rich source of intelligence, but also a lens to certain world views. A strong and diverse Australia is in Australia’s security interests.

Paul Sigar is a recent Bachelor of Laws graduate from the University of Adelaide and a delegate with the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit 2021.