Josh Gacutan | Cyber & Technology Fellow
As the Federal Government counters the recent cyber attacks with updates to the nation’s cyber security strategies, educating Australian youth about online influence operations must be on the agenda. These updates further build on the 2017 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy (ICES), which aims to consolidate Australia’s cyber affairs interests from digital trade, cybercrime to human rights and democracy online.
The ICES is premised on cooperation and partnerships between government, private sector, academia, and civil society to advance Australia’s democratic vision of the Internet. This coordinated approach to cyber affairs is necessary. But what’s missing are actions to engage Australia’s youth in the cyber affairs agenda. The ICES does not envisage how any of the stakeholders can cooperate in educating youth about malicious actors in the cyberspace.
Since the ICES release, what has become clear is that the reach of social media has helped create fertile ground for online influence operations aimed to undermine social cohesion, promote false narratives and interfere with domestic politics.
During the 2019 federal election, for example, actors from Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia used xenophobic and Islamophobic content such as memes to exacerbate social divisions amongst Australian Facebook users. The four Balkan-administrated pages which were titled “Australians against Sharia”, “Aussie Infidels”, “Stop the Mosque in Melbourne”, and “Stop all Mosque in Narre Warren” amassed a combined audience of 130,000 Facebook users. Despite the niche focus of these pages, some of the posts were shared over 20,000 times.
The ability to access and critically interact with social media is more important than ever for Australians to make informed political decisions.
In 2019, the Australian Electoral Commission ran the “stop and consider” campaign to educate Australian voters on how to check the source of electoral communications on social media. While this campaign is a good starting point to raise public awareness about foreign interference online, future programs must be segmented for different user groups such as Australia’s youth.
An increasing number of Australia’s youth are using social media platforms to access news and engage in politics. A report from the University of Canberra found that almost half of Generation Z (47 per cent) use Facebook for news, one third (36 per cent) use YouTube and nearly one quarter (23 per cent) use Snapchat.
Despite widespread concern about ‘fake news’ and a growing body of evidence about the reach and impact of online influence operations, Australia’s youth are not getting formal education about news media at school.
To effectively educate youth about online influence operations, Australia should learn from the policy responses of other countries.
Since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Ukraine has been subject to Russian influence operations aimed to delegitimise the government. In response, Ukraine implemented a “Learn to Discern” program in its high schools. A study of Year 8 and 9 students who had participated in the program found that they were twice as likely to detect hate speech, and 18 per cent better at identifying misinformation than students that did not participate in the program. The program has been adopted in other countries such as the United States, Jordan, and Indonesia.
While there are joint initiatives between the private and public sectors to improve STEM education and careers, especially for women, there are no programs to educate Australia’s youth about how malicious actors behave, their tactics, and the political motives behind their influence operations.
Australia’s youth must be equipped with digital and media literacy skills to critically assess the provenance of information on social media and the expertise of the person or groups communicating it.
Until these actions are included in the updates to the nation’s cyber security strategies, Australia’s democratic vision of the Internet remains under threat.
Josh Gacutan is the Cyber & Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.