As the political discussion surrounding information warfare expands and develops, so too does the recognition that defensive capabilities must extend beyond military operations. In this respect, Australian strategic defences are fundamentally underdeveloped.
Though the 2016 Defence White Paper outlined an increased investment of $400 million for the implementation of the government’s information warfare unit, increasing military competencies only addresses a limited portion of information warfare’s threats. Russia’s recent cyber campaigns demonstrate how disinformation, one of the capacities within information warfare, does not target opposing martial objectives but instead aims to exploit divisions within national populations.
Australian Government efforts to insulate the population from foreign interference campaigns should look beyond one-dimensional military operations. Instead, Canberra should consider programs that enable the individual citizen to decipher disinformation campaigns themselves.
Look at Finland, not Facebook
As opposed to other governments that addressed disinformation by scrutinising digital platforms, Finland’s solution was education.
In 2014, the Finnish government began an anti-fake news initiative in an effort to enable residents, students, journalists and politicians the ability to recognise fake news. Courses provided by media experts, provided advice on how to identify bots, half-truths and the increasingly popular ‘deepfake’ technology. In combination with a restructuring of the education system to emphasize critical thinking, Finland’s initiative has been lauded as a success and has been instrumental in the nation achieving the highest media literacy in Europe.
Finland is a unique case. The country shares an 833-mile border with Russia and has had extensive experience with Soviet propaganda and, more recently, Russian disinformation. Moreover, Finland’s renowned ability to top charts in social indicators like education, transparency, press freedom as well as countless other metrics undoubtedly contributes to its citizen’s resilience to information warfare campaigns.
However, whilst transferring the success of the Finnish experience may not be straightforward, the underlying principle of apportioning accountability to citizens is an undoubtedly pragmatic and forward-thinking strategy. Contemporary citizens’ vulnerability to disinformation is in no small part a consequence of the surfeit of information and a collective and mistaken presumption that access to information is synonymous with the ability to process and decipher it. Finland directly challenges this, arguing that every Finn has a responsibility to fight against fake news and provides them with educational tools to do so.
By comparison, the present scrutiny by western governments on the internet companies that served as the platform for disinformation, though justified, is insufficient. Despite companies like Facebook restructuring their respective policies to prioritise connections over news, disinformation preservers exactly because of the inevitable vulnerability of some readers, sharing potency and eventual virality.
Moreover, governments’ intensive focus on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is only effective to the extent that Facebook remains at the forefront of social media. Facebook’s saturation within the western hemisphere is particularly prevalent with declining growth in recent years and an ominous consensus by the younger generation that Facebook is ‘for old people,’ with the large majority instead consuming news through alternatives like Twitter and Reddit which have faced comparatively less investigation.
Australia: a cyber smart nation?
Australia’s efforts to increase its ‘internet literacy’ have so far been suggestive rather than affirmatory.
The Home Affairs Department Cyber-Security strategy includes a focus on building a ‘Cyber Smart Nation.’ However, as opposed to a national internet literacy education program, it aims to increase the workforce of cyber professionals and raise awareness of cyber security-safe practices. Whilst addressing these vulnerabilities are important, the department’s scope is still one-dimensional, singularly focused on industry and ignoring the larger benefits of a population that is literate and resilient to foreign interference disinformation campaigns.
Acknowledgement of Australian’s poor digital literacy does, at a bare minimum, illustrate that it is not ignorant of its shortcomings. In its assessment on Digital Platforms, the ACCC’s preliminary report found that Australians’ news literacy was poor in comparison to other countries, with 68 per cent having low or very low news literacy, with literacy particularly low amongst young consumers and those who sourced their news from social media. However, though the ACCC’s acknowledgement for a need to increase news literacy is the most significant of any Australian government body, it does so within the context of supporting the media industry rather than as a defensive strategy to counter foreign interference.
Regardless, acknowledgement is insufficient if it is not supported by pertinent action by the appropriate bodies. Though not as tangible as a new military information warfare unit, even a basic cyber program within the education curriculum would assuredly provide a foundation of disinformation resilience.
Irrespective of whether the initiative is delivered by the Department of Home Affairs, Education and Training, Defence or any combination of the three, Australian policy experts must recognise the potentially catastrophic, divisive and long-term strategic consequences that its absence has on a population.
If Australia fancies itself a ‘Cyber Smart Nation,’ Canberra must teach the population to be intelligent amongst the torrent of online information that threatens to sow internal divisions.
Michael Nguyen is the Cyber Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.