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Media disinformation and Australian public policy

The role of disinformation in shaping Australian policy.

The role of disinformation in shaping Australian policy.

Disinformation in the news and social media, together with the growing willingness of people to place themselves in echo chambers, is a direct threat to Australia’s robust history of evidence-centred policy making.

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Gill Savage, deputy director of ASPI’s professional development program, examined this ever-growing threat to Australian democracy and national security in ASPI’s The Strategist last week.

Information-centric decision making, Savage contests, by nature mitigates the risk posed by blatant ideological decision making. Decisions should always be based on data, metrics and all available information, rather than a preconceived opinion or gut feeling held by the key decision maker.

While this seems like an obvious assertion, in a world where key decision makers are able to willingly filter out unpalatable information, Australia is moving to an inflection point where policy is becoming ever-more susceptible to influence from disinformation. Savage contends that ‘filter bubbles’ (where people are able to limit what news they see) and echo chambers online and in the media ensure that people are only exposed to information that they have internally deemed as palatable.

One need look no further than COVID-19, and the spectrum of ‘expert’ advice that is published online and in the news. As the lines between pandemic risk management and ideology blur, the public has been able and willing to minimise their exposure to information, which may impact their world view.

“Two-thirds of respondents to an Australian online survey about access to COVID-19 information say social media is the main source of misinformation. However, fewer than a quarter of those surveyed said that they’d encountered ‘a lot of misinformation’ about COVID-19,” Savage said.

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“On the positive side, younger news consumers in Australia are more sceptical of online information. So, while the advice of the real experts is increasingly being challenged by the armchair variety, in Australia at least, it may be having less impact than we fear.”

What implications does Savage’s theory have on national security?

Information warfare is being increasingly employed by Australia’s adversaries to sew social discontent, not only in Australia, but among our allies. As such, our security and intelligence apparatus must ensure that it is ready to combat and monitor this growing element of online warfare.

Savage notes that the government should address misinformation with counter communications campaigns, ensure that all evidence is precise and rebuild confidence in the public sector. Let’s hope that this is enough to protect the core of our nation’s democracy.

[Related: Shifting focus: Is Australia’s next threat physical or informational?]

Media disinformation and Australian public policy
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