Australia is not prepared for an infodemic

Author: Abigail Masters, RMIT

The lack of attention given to media literacy and misinformation by government stakeholders may grow to be one of the biggest national security failures of the 21st Century. Australia is currently playing catch up to address strategic cyber-threats but has failed to meaningfully mitigate the danger of misinformation in Australian digital spaces.

Over the last 20 years, Australia has witnessed a rapid development in communications technology. From the introduction of Web 2.0, the creation of social media giants such as Facebook, to the increasing likelihood of quantum computer systems, the evolution of the digital space is something to behold. Thanks to these technologies, the average Australian has more access to knowledge than at any other point in history. Yet despite these developments over the last twenty years, it is only recently that cyber security has taken a strong foothold in national security strategy. 

The 2020 Cyber Security Strategy announced an investment of $1.67 billion AUD over the next decade into ‘creating a more secure online world for Australians, their businesses and the essential services upon which we all depend’. What was glaringly absent was any mention of information manipulation as a threat in the cyberscape. Its lack of inclusion can be attributed to Australia’s perception of cybersecurity being narrowly applied to ‘measures used to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of systems and data.’

This view is simply not enough in today’s digital landscape. Cyberwarfare and threats go much further than ransomware, phishing and malware attacks and are now moving into targeted conspiracy and misinformation campaigns. 

While information campaigns may not have the same immediately explicit effects as they do on infrastructure, the consequences remain equally insidious. In times of great global crisis, people need support, validation and control. Conspiracy theories exploit these needs, prey on the fears of individuals and exploit the human desire to protect.

The psychology behind mass belief in conspiracy theories is currently lacking, but current research suggests several motivations. A key finding is that people are motivated to turn to conspiracy theories when they feel anxious and powerless. These theories can also make people feel like they are protecting themselves from a threat that is cheating them. Such responses have been acutely visible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Every Australian is now familiar with the mass lockdowns implemented to quash the consequences of major COVID-19 outbreaks. A by-product of this is the way ordinary people’s lives have been uprooted, often with financial and psychological implications. An alternative would be to ‘let the virus rip’ — the consequences of which would not only lead to thousands of deaths from the virus itself but also thousands more from a collapsed health system.

The underlying issue with a threat like the current pandemic, in terms of public perception, is that you can’t see an illness. You can’t see a virus passed from one person to another. There is no sound of artillery fire. No bomber’s flying overhead. The double-edged sword to managing the spread to the point where most healthy people aren’t immediately impacted is that for many, it seems like a threat that doesn’t exist. Their lives have been fundamentally altered all for something they can’t even physically see They only have the government to listen to and trust. 

Meanwhile, COVID-19 conspiracy theories have run rampant online in Australian digital spaces and globally. These range from anti-vaccination misinformation, beliefs that COVID-19 was caused by 5G to views that Australian lockdowns are an effort by the government to control and subjugate populations. Concerningly, these have moved beyond online spaces and into the streets, manifesting into ‘freedom’ protests across the country. The world is beginning to witness the physical danger of conspiracy theories, visible in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building as well as white theories of genocide perpetuating the Christchurch Mosque shooting in 2019. 

Aside from the freedom protests that have occurred sporadically across the country during lockdown periods, Australia is yet to have a major national security incident fuelled by conspiracy theories. But this does not mean that it will not occur. As a result of COVID-19, Australians are spending more time than ever before online, and efforts by social media platforms have not been enough to minimise the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Australian digital literacy programs have also come too late for many populations interacting online. The Australian E-Safety Commission has a primary focus on protecting Children and the Elderly while the vast demographics in between are left out. Additionally, the E-Safety commission tends to focus heavily on scams and exploitation. These are important issues, but a new focus on the dangers of misinformation and prevention of radicalisation needs to be seriously considered in future communication to the public.

The digital revolution and ease of access to information has fundamentally re-shaped the way we live. But we cannot continue only to adapt to potential threats — we must be proactive and focus on their prevention.

Abigail Masters is a final year Bachelor of International Studies student at RMIT University.