On 6 December, the Australian Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence will meet with their US counterparts, the Secretaries of State and Defense, in the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN). For almost four decades, AUSMIN has functioned as the principal security and diplomatic dialogue between the two nations, setting the agenda for bilateral collaboration. There are many difficult topics that deserve to be on the agenda this year, from AUKUS to export controls, from countering Chinese influence to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, from climate change to supply chain resilience. This will be the Biden administration’s second AUSMIN and the Albanese government’s first. What should not be overlooked at this year’s meeting between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Minister for Defence Richard Marles is the need to discuss how the two nations can work together to create a more resilient and secure digital landscape.
AUSMIN is an opportunity for the ministers to formulate a coherent response to disinformation and securing digital infrastructure, by outlining steps to build the capacity bilaterally and develop a firm basis for further regional engagement. The digital landscape affects every issue facing the United States and Australia Alliance – including critical technology, climate change and cybersecurity. Disinformation isn’t just about noise and narrative shaping. It’s strategic effects limits avenues for economic growth, creating significant channels for social harm and political instability, as well as presenting a military threat. Enhancing digital resilience and reducing disinformation are essential to achieving each government’s domestic, alliance and regional objectives in the Indo-Pacific.
The digital landscape we rely on for economic growth, political stability and social interaction has inadvertently created an ecosystem vulnerable to information influence and interference1 – at an individual and national level. The military use the term “information environment”–how people get information and understand their world–to include information itself, the systems we receive it through as well as the social context in which it is embedded.2 Whilst the military focus is making sense of ‘how human beings use information to influence the direction and outcome of competition and conflict,’ it also encourages comprehensive consideration of the content, infrastructure and human cognition3 critical to understading the issue more broadly. This provides a useful framework for how AUSMIN can address challenges in three prongs; from the perspective of (i) information or content, (ii) digital landscape or infrastructural platforms (iii) cognitive or human resilience.
Viewing the problem of disinformation and the digital landscape through the lens of an information environment is critical because many of the same systems are used for data exchange, finance, social media, news media, military, national security, advertising, industry and entertainment. Policy solutions must not be explored in isolation but need to be convened by experienced policy facilitators and grounded in evidence-based research that engages the diverse network of relevant actors: technology companies, regulators, national security practitioners, academia, civil society groups and broader industry.
As misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19 and democratic elections became mainstream news, the information environment rose to front and centre of public consciousness. Misinformation (unintentional) and disinformation (intentional) affects people’s daily lives. The information environment encompasses everything from human influence right through to information warfare, from peace time to acute, large-scale conflict. It is discussed not just by global leaders or defence chiefs, but by citizens around the world, from Sydney to Kyiv. This lived reality can be clearly seen in public opinion polling.
In September 2022, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) conducted a public opinion survey in the United States, Australia and Japan to understand the public sentiment in each nation on a variety of issues ahead of the recent US midterm elections. Misinformation was front of mind. Americans, and their allies to a lesser extent, are concerned about misinformation and US democracy. Two-thirds or more of American respondents were “very concerned” about misinformation (70 per cent) and the way their democracy is working (64 per cent). Australians echo these trends. Approximately half or more are very concerned about American democracy, misinformation, and political violence. This is also consistent with other research that suggests 75 per cent of Americans believe disinformation is a threat to democracy while 73 per cent say it undermines the election process.
The information environment encompasses everything from human influence right through to information warfare, from peace time to acute, large-scale conflict. It is discussed not just by global leaders or defence chiefs, but by citizens around the world, from Sydney to Kyiv. This lived reality can be clearly seen in public opinion polling.
Broader sentiment is important and regional concerns should also be addressed, not only of Australia and the United States, but also with a view of understanding other regional dynamics. In a speech last month, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cited research that over 80 per cent of New Zealanders are worried about the threat from mis- and disinformation and hacking. Furthermore, one in four people felt that mis- and disinformation was the greatest threat to them and their families. She went on to argue that the challenge of disinformation is exacerbating a number of national security issues and impacting liberal democracies worldwide, eroding trust in institutions, and our ability to respond to it as a society is being tested. There are key lessons for Australia and the United States to learn from other countries on dealing with disinformation, and to create new opportunities to share experiences and tackle shared interests.
Learning from other countries
A number of countries have direct experience with aggressive peacetime and wartime disinformation campaigns and information operations. We have seen how Russia has used disinformation and propaganda extensively in relation to MH17 and the annexation of Crimea. We have witnessed how Ukraine has fought back using information to seek global support and expose Russian atrocities throughout the 2022 invasion. Foreign interference in elections has been highly visible including Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US elections,4 and attempted Russian interference in US elections.5 We have also seen Chinese information efforts in the Pacific, promoting political propaganda in island states.
The information age has created the disinformation age.6 An October 2022 report highlighted one US perspective;
Technological advancements and the emergence of new media platforms have enhanced the speed, reach, volume, and precision of disinformation generated by foreign adversaries U.S. rivals increasingly resort to aggressive use of digitally enabled disinformation to target U.S. decision-making, America’s reputation abroad, and social cohesion at home. The scale, scope, and the snowballing effect of adversarial influence operations make disinformation a particularly acute concern for national security.7
Digital infrastructure needs globally are rising to the top of the security agenda. Submarine cables, data centres, 5G and technical standards, are critical to national economic and political prosperity. Technology is causing geopolitical shifts. As I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year, “Our collective reliance on data infrastructure and our participation in the digital economy are forming the backbone of new economic, political, and social power”. The power information platform ownership and management has over public debate, news access and managing disinformation is combined with low levels of transparency and governance over their business and content moderation decisions. We see this playing out now with Elon Musk’s acquisition and management of Twitter and, historically, with Facebook’s attempts to sell data on millions of young Australians and New Zealanders claiming to identify their emotional state, particularly vulnerability and insecurity. Often forgotten components of this are the data stores, data systems as well as the information and infrastructure platforms themselves. Large data stores held by infrastructural players, from local business to multinational corporations, are vulnerable to sale, hacking and exploitation by nation states and criminal actors.8 As I have previously argued, “identifying and protecting the uses of critical data should be a national security priority for government on par with safeguarding critical digital infrastructure.”
Strengthening our civil society and institutions as well as hardening our digital landscape is critical. The only way to improve our democratic resilience is by working together to build a more resilient digital future. Finland, Ukraine, Sweden and Estonia have each developed a strong sense of cognitive resilience and different but effective responses to counter perpetual information campaigns and hybrid threats.
The digital landscape creates space for an exchange of ideas, information and opportunity with an outstanding net benefit to society. A strength of the United States and Australia is that our democratic approach to technology has enabled an information and technology ecosystem where the basis of economic growth and innovation is open information environments of knowledge sharing. However, the digital landscape is now a critical component of civil society and military defence and its vulnerabilities and harms, like disinformation are more significant. The abuse of the information environment has to date primarily been a military and national security concern and it is time to turn AUSMIN attention to this problem.
What’s already been done and why that hasn’t worked
Significant attempts for reform have been made globally, but combating mis- and disinformation is a sensitive and controversial challenge. Despite some multilateral efforts, this is an incredibly complex problem and is an area ripe for renewed international collaboration. The Quad Foreign Ministerial meetings continue to pledge collaboration to leverage collective expertise to counter disinformation, but the outcome of these efforts are not immediately visible. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security established a Disinformation Governance Board in April 2022 only to rescind its charter in August, after being proclaimed by political opponents as an arbitrator of truth. Challenges with content moderation on social platforms as well as issues with fact checking and truth in political campaigning and news services are rampant globally.
In Australia, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) released a report proposing establishment of a Misinformation and Disinformation Action Group. Australia has a voluntary Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, developed by industry association Digital Industry Group Inc. (DIGI), which, whilst welcomed as a step in the right direction, has failed to prevent many disinformation harms. On 11 November the ACCC released its 2022 Digital Platform Services Inquiry Report. The ACCC has recommended a range of new measures to address harms from digital platforms. The previous federal government indicated they would introduce legislation to combat disinformation and misinformation online. However, little is known about the new government’s plan to address disinformation.
The Quad Foreign Ministerial meetings continue to pledge collaboration to leverage collective expertise to counter disinformation, but the outcome of these efforts are not immediately visible. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security established a Disinformation Governance Board in April 2022 only to rescind its charter in August, after being proclaimed by political opponents as an arbitrator of truth.
Both countries have the opportunity to reinvigorate their approach individually and bilaterally. Australia is seeking to replace the outgoing Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology, within DFAT. This position drives the International Cyber and Critical Technology Engagement Strategy, including international engagement in relation to digital disinformation and misinformation and their effects. In September 2022, Nathaniel C. Fick was sworn in as the inaugural US Ambassador at Large for Cyberspace and Digital Policy, with a military history. The two new ambassadors will need to find common ground across military and civil systems and ensure aspects of the cyber-capacity aid program are effectively reviewed, and sharpened, to build regional engagement and support.
Any new efforts to strengthen the information environment need to focus on improving democratic resilience and capacity for technology enabled diplomacy rather than trying to police specific voices. New responses need to explore this issue as an ecosystem rather than singular issues or platforms. Understanding the information environment as an ecosystem offers comprehensive view of the timeliness, specificity and targeted nature of information activities, ‘hybrid’ warfare or grey zone activities. Whilst it is instructive to understand influence generally, what is a serious threat is when activity is state sponsored and intended to achieve a specific outcome, inimical to another state’s national interest. In short, when it is an alternative to war or use of force. As many have argued, influence is not interference. However, the creation of an ecosystem of influence enables interference. Influence, especially opaque influence is often a precursor to interference.
The US National Strategy 2022 makes the case for modernising statecraft by aiming to 'sharpen the tools of modern statecraft' with a strong technology focus. Acknowledging the vital role of emerging technologies, it argues the need to 'shape the rules of the road'. Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia Richard Marles said recently that in order to defend Australian interests, the ability to project power to shape outcomes and deter threats ‘must marshal and integrate all arms of national power to achieve Australia’s strategic objectives.’ Essentially, both see the nature of the threat as not just security and economic but also informational and infrastructural, paving the way for future bilateral efforts.
The susceptibility of the digital landscape to disinformation and interference needs to be on the AUSMIN agenda and the two nations need to work together to demonstrate global leadership in strengthening resilience to information environment and interference. AUSMIN should establish a bilateral 1.5 track task force to collaborate on the thorny challenges both countries face in securing the information environment and hardening it to influence and interference. The task force should have three working groups; informational, infrastructural and cognitive resilience with a focus on the ecosystem of the information environment to ensure interoperability, standards, integration and oversight of solutions. Australian and US approaches are different: whereas Australia tends towards regulation, the US government leans towards markets. Nevertheless, the threat landscape is common across both countries and harmonising approaches among allies is critical. A 1.5 track approach is the best way to bridge different philosophies in the private sector, government and civil society.
The information working group should consult with the American and Australian people to better understand their perspectives and expectations about strategic communication, democracy, and the digital landscape. It should work towards bilateral consensus on content moderation guidelines for platforms, to increase transparency in content moderation decisions, with a view to building future international consensus. It should also commit funding and support for public broadcasters to improve Australian, US and allied understanding of the Indo-Pacific region and increase regional coverage in our countries. The two countries should commit funding and support for more diverse and local broadcasting (including exchanges between Australian, and US public broadcasters and Indo-Pacific countries), and establish incentives for public broadcasters to fund local and regional news services, which are shown to have more bipartisan trust and support.
The infrastructure working group should identify key information ecosystems and platforms, such as those with a large share of the information environment, like social media, online information platforms and search engines, as a type of critical technology or critical infrastructure, requiring specific regulation on acquisition, control and management. It should designate data sets which include a significant proportion of the Australian and/or American population (i.e. more than 25 per cent) as critical and requiring additional protections by companies that collect and hold this data. It should establish funding and support for expanding regional secure infrastructure, such as US and Japan backing Australia’s purchase of Digicel with $150million of credit guarantees.
The information working group should consult with the American and Australian people to better understand their perspectives and expectations about strategic communication, democracy, and the digital landscape. It should work towards bilateral consensus on content moderation guidelines for platforms, to increase transparency in content moderation decisions, with a view to building future international consensus.
The cognitive resilience working group should leverage successful building of strong democratic narratives in the face of adversaries. For example, the working group should commission research into what Australia and the United States can learn from experiences of Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Ukraine, about democratic resilience and responding to information operations. Additionally, it could explore regional approaches–and challenges in countries including Indonesia and the Philippines–with the opportunity to bring regional expertise together, in a model similar to the NATO Centre of Excellence in Strategic Communication in Riga, or the Hybrid Centre of Excellence in Helsinki. Finally, it should explore new and radical ways to strengthen civil society and institutions and harden cognitive resilience to adversary attacks.
Additionally, the incoming Australian Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology should embrace and reenergise the International Cyber and Critical Technology Engagement Strategy, specifically its goal to increase international resilience to disinformation and misinformation and their effects. It should align this activity with the work of the Department of Home Affairs. This should be done in conjunction with the new US Ambassador at Large for Cyberspace and Digital Policy.
AUSMIN offers the opportunity to develop a comprehensive bilateral response to the increasing harms of disinformation and the need to secure digital infrastructure domestically, bilaterally and in the Indo Pacific region. Establishing a 1.5 track task force, with working groups to address the three distinct challenges of the information environment; information, infrastructure and human resilience to interference will give both the United States and Australia the opportunity to provide new and much needed democratic leadership on a truly global challenge.