Australia’s government has announced a plan to create a taskforce to attempt to counter increasing cases of disinformation directed at the country. Authoritarian states have been using the digital tools at their disposal to try and sow confusion and division in liberal democratic societies. This “sharp power” is an attempt to use the features of liberal democracy — like freedom of speech and the freedom of the press — to turn such societies against themselves.
The catalyst for this action by Canberra is tension with Beijing, which has escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia was highly vocal — indeed seen as the driving force — on the need for an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the pandemic. Despite this being an entirely reasonable proposition, the kind of process that would be normal within liberal democracies, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sensitivities and its instinctive secrecy triggered a belligerent response.
Beijing began by targeting a series of Australian agricultural products. This is a standard tactic the CCP uses to try and coerce countries into a more submissive position. Agricultural products are an easy export to target as Beijing can use regulations around health, or claim the presence of pests, as cover for their actions. Also, many products can easily be sourced elsewhere. It is notable that materials that China needs from Australia for its growth — like coal, gas, and iron — are never threatened, and in fact exports in these commodities from Australia to China have surged.
Yet this time Beijing was not content with hurting a few Australian farmers; it was now seeking to discredit Australia’s international reputation. Writing in War On The Rocks, Ashley Townsend, the director of foreign policy and defense at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney, detailed the various ways the CCP has used its diplomatic, media, and online arms to try and create a picture of Australia as uniquely beholden to the United States, and as an international troublemaker needlessly “politicizing” the pandemic.
Part of this attempt at reputational damage has been a concerted effort by Beijing to take genuine, but isolated, issues and exaggerate and amplify them. This has come in the form of warning Chinese students and tourists that it is not safe to travel to Australia due to the threat of racist attacks. The design of these kinds of declarations by Beijing is not to protect the safety of its citizens in Australia, but to turn Australia on itself. It is using Chinese citizens in Australia as pawns in a larger game.
As has become apparent by the CCP’s assertive activities in relation to a number of other countries — as well as Hong Kong — Beijing is currently engaged in a full-court press. They see both the pandemic and the current lack of leadership in the United States as offering a window of opportunity to try to shift the international system in their favor.
On Tuesday evening, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne gave a speech at the Australian National University’s National Security College that recognized these tactics and declared that Australia was willing to push back against them. Payne stated that “Our global institutions, including WHO [World Health Organization] in this context, must serve as unimpeachable repositories of information that governments can rely upon to take decisions to protect their citizens.” She added that these institutions “must serve as bulwarks against disinformation. Let’s be clear, disinformation during a pandemic will cost lives.”
Payne’s speech laid out the background for why Australia has felt the need to create a special taskforce within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to try and combat disinformation aimed at Australia, but also more broadly at liberal democratic and liberal international norms. The speech also was designed to protect a confident and unfazed Australia posture, one that rejected an Australia that is “small in our thinking, timid in purpose, and risk averse.” Payne’s vision was of Australia as an active and creative middle power defending liberal norms; a role that may annoy Beijing further, but that Payne sees as both principled and prudent.
This new body will be aimed at trying to combat online material that is designed to manipulate public debate and sow internal confusion. It remains to be seen how effective it can be at countering online disinformation that may be guided by state actors, but is not publicly acknowledged as such. Not to mention, there’s the question of how it will work with global platforms that don’t come under Australian jurisdiction.
Australia’s primary tool to defend against such actions remains an educated public, one with the capabilities to be able to distinguish between good and bad quality sources of information — a public that has a strong understanding of Australia’s civic ideals, and remains confident that its institutions are functioning as designed.