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Combating disinformation through collaborative research

22 December 2022

Foreign actors are increasingly using disinformation (deliberately false or misleading information) as part of coordinated information campaigns.

Their aim is to manipulate public sentiment in their favour – ultimately in the pursuit of strategic ends that are incongruous with the type of region that Australia wants to live – one that is open, inclusive and where sovereignty and the rule of law is respected and upheld. DSTG is collaborating with industry and academia to combat this phenomenon through the Information Warfare (IW) STaR Shot and other Defence and national security programs.

The misuse of information in order to influence others is not new, and has been used as far back as the Roman Empire. But never before have the populations of the world – and their political leanings, desires and beliefs – been so ripe for disinformation than in the information age.

The evolution of the digital landscape and recent external global events have rapidly forced the shift of modern warfare into the new information and cyber domains. The current digital environment allows ease of access to online news publications and social media networks, broadcasting disinformation to targeted audiences on a mass scale.

The need to combat disinformation and take the lead in the information environment is now well known. In response, the Australian Government has allocated $15 billion over the next decade to strengthen Defence's Information and Cyber domain capabilities. In support of this, DSTG's Information Warfare STaR Shot is accelerating new concepts and techniques into game changing capabilities for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). This includes understanding theories, indicators, and systematic entry points of malign influence (including disinformation), and as such, places to intervene.

One example is a report on 'Understanding Mass Influence' which brought together over 60 experts, including DSTG and academic researchers to examine the role of state actors, non-state actors and digital platforms in deploying disinformation. These case studies identified new techniques and theories about disinformation and associated online behaviours that have been used to shape Defence thinking about how to respond to disinformation campaigns. Another example includes the development of new techniques, such as social network analysis, to identify online bots, as well as sources of 'fake news'. Finally, DSTG has also been helping identify targeted communities and work out how to improve resilience in vulnerable populations through techniques such as pre-bunking and the use of 'inoculation theories'. By identifying and working with targeted communities Defence and other government agencies are able to get ahead of the narrative rather than responding to disinformation after it has already taken hold and shaped perceptions.

Understanding the incredible reach of the information environment is crucial to safeguarding Australia and its interests. The IW STaR Shot is harnessing the significant capacity that exists within academia, industry and our regional partners to address these challenges at the speed and scale required by our deteriorating strategic situation. We may have centuries of history to draw from, but we have comparably only minutes to address the contemporary challenges we are facing right now.