Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The cost of conspiracy in muddling public health messages

A team of “door knockers” offer Covid-19 tests in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
A team of “door knockers” offer Covid-19 tests in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Published 6 Jul 2020 13:30   1 Comments

A spike in coronavirus cases across Melbourne has seen local hotspot suburbs largely locked down and some 3000 people in public housing towers prevented from leaving home at all. But the sharp reminder that “This is not over” which now flashes on freeway signs across Australia’s second largest city has been accompanied by evidence of another disturbing problem during the pandemic – the cost of conspiracy theories in muddling public health messages.

The Victorian government has been on a testing blitz in a bid to contain the virus, with almost 200,000 tests conducted in the past week. Yet some 10,000 people refused a test. Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said some had declined believing that coronavirus was a conspiracy, with the effects overstated, or simply with a misguided faith that it would not affect them.

Some misunderstanding should be expected. After all, this is still a new virus scientists are grappling to understand, and symptoms range from barely noticeable to deadly. That local medical systems have coped better than had been feared in the early stages of the pandemic might also foster some complacency.

An unlikely, awkward mix of fringe groups has seemingly become greater and more influential than the sum of its parts.

But misinformation and disinformation is proving a challenge, even for Australia, with a trusted public broadcaster and a robust democracy. None of this is helped by world leaders whose countries have endured the highest rates of infection and deaths have written off the virus as a minor illness or even a hoax. And news sources are varied. More Americans, for example, now get their news from social media than from print newspapers, and ongoing closures of newsrooms may drive individuals to online sources without similar editorial standards which allow for the greater sharing of unchecked messaging.

This challenge is linked to a change in Australia’s extremist threat environment, which has been dominated by Islamist violent extremism in recent years. ASIO’s annual threat assessment released in February outlined the threat of right-wing extremism as “real and growing”. A June update revealed that right-wing extremist investigations now make up a third of ASIO’s domestic caseload, with a warning that far-right groups are using Covid-19 as a cover to push ideologies and recruit. The potency of this mix of beliefs was manifested in rallies around Australia in May, with protesters calling Covid-19 a scam and protesting against vaccines, pharmaceutical companies, fluoride and 5G, which has been falsely claimed as a cause of Covid-19 with tenacity on social media.

This unlikely, awkward mix of fringe groups has seemingly become greater and more influential than the sum of its parts. Numbers remain small, but not inconsequential. Data demonstrates that the virus can only be controlled when 8 out of 10 people adhere to social distancing measures, yet a small, concentrated number of people who do not could have a significant effect on this virus’ R (reproduction) number. The lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne over the weekend was justified by health authorities on grounds that even a small number of infections unchecked poses an unacceptable risk.

Public housing towers in Melbourne: Nine such towers have been put into hard lockdown during a spike in Covid-19 cases (David Jackmanson/Flickr)

This indirect, seemingly non-deliberate threat to public health varies considerably from the traditional threats faced from extremist groups. However, disinformation as a threat to democracy remains a concern. There was one case of an attempt to use Covid-19 disinformation to influence this weekend’s federal by-election in Eden-Monaro, with the Australian Federal Police charging one Sydney man who orchestrated spam emails falsely linking Labor candidate Kirsty McBain to the coronavirus pandemic.

Activities to counter disinformation are taking place at the federal level. A new taskforce has been established within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to counter disinformation, with a focus on authoritarian states using disinformation to sow fear and division in democracies. This threat was reiterated in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which highlighted better preparation to respond to “grey zone” activities in the Indo-Pacific, including disinformation. The Australian government has been working with the tech sector to counter the prevalence of hate speech, extremist content and misinformation online.

But even with this public-private sector commitment solidified in the Christchurch Call, this strategy has been acknowledged as a game of whack-a-mole with more material ready to appear and influence as soon as it can be taken down. To further complicate matters, the Eden-Monaro case demonstrates the risk of misinformation being spread by local individuals instead of authoritarian states.

The debate as to where responsibility for online disinformation lies is an ongoing one. However, a new development may force the hands of social media companies, whose platforms allow for the greatest dissemination and amplification of conspiracy theories and disinformation in an increasingly social media-connected world. Stop Hate For Profit is an American private sector–led campaign to cancel advertising on Facebook in response to allegations of allowing incitement to violence amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Organisers’ demands include human rather than automated responses to hateful material, including creating an internal mechanism to automatically flag hateful content for human review and enabling individuals facing hate and harassment to connect with live employees. Facebook receives 98% of revenue – nearly $70 billion in 2019 – from advertising. If this campaign succeeds in forcing social media companies to better prevent disinformation on racial inequality, there may be potential to also counter disinformation on Covid-19, given this pandemic’s devastating social and economic impacts.

China toys with a new propaganda technique: Irony

Screen shot from the “Once upon a virus” video released by China’s state news agency Xinhua
Screen shot from the “Once upon a virus” video released by China’s state news agency Xinhua
Published 11 Jun 2020 05:00   0 Comments

As the world struggles with the Covid-19 crisis, the US and China have been locked in a heated propaganda warfare over the handling of the virus. Hitting back at President Donald Trump’s claim that “China let it spread”, Chinese official media angrily accused the US of “groundless accusation” and “nefarious plotting”. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s twitter post incited an equally unsubstantiated claim that the virus was a bioweapon of the US military.

Amid this public condemnation, conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns, an unconventional animation video released by the state news agency Xinhua stood out in China’s propaganda arsenal.

Featured in Lego figures taking part in a play act, the one-and-a-half-minute video suggestively entitled “Once upon a virus” presents a series of interactions over Covid-19 between China and the US, represented by a group of terracotta warriors and the Statue of Liberty. The video opens with a mask-wearing warrior informing World Health Organisation (WHO) of a “strange pneumonia case”. The ensuing conversation takes place between the warriors, all equipped adequately with masks and hazmat suits, and the “bare” Statue of Liberty.

“We discovered a new virus”, the warriors say. “So what? It’s only a flu”, the Statue of Liberty replies. “Wear a mask”, “don’t wear a mask”, “stay at home”, “it’s violating human rights”, “build temporary hospitals”, “it’s a concentration camp” are the back and forth lines along which the debate develops.

The Statue of Liberty constantly defies whatever the warriors say and hence is portrayed as undermining the efforts of fighting the virus, while China’s advice and “achievements” are underlined. As the Statue of Liberty is too busy engaging in this war of words, her condition worsens. The video ends with her eventually wearing a mask and being attached to an intravenous drip, still blaming China and insisting that “even when we contradict ourselves, we are always correct”, to which the warriors ironically retort “That’s what I love about you Americans, your consistency”.

Three aspects of this video are important to highlight: communication strategy, symbolism of content and targeted audience. China’s sarcastic and light-hearted effort of fixing its already-damaged reputation stands in sharp contrast to the party-state’s previous approaches in conducting foreign propaganda, defined generally by charm offensive on the one hand and “fire and fury” on the other. Solemnity, dignity and formality are hailed as the rule of thumb of conducting politics in Chinese culture and are in turn reflected in propaganda materials.

China’s willingness to engage with the criticisms received sits in stark contrast with traditional propaganda approaches of denial and reaffirmations.

The party-state tends to distance itself from such political satire, reflected in one of the Global Times editorials response to South Park’s innuendo of Xinjiang’s detention of Uighurs as “knowing too little about China”. This time, however, China seems to be at ease to use some stereotyped charges against it, such as “violation of human rights” and “concentration camp”, as an irony to vindicate itself. While China presents the charges the US put forward, it does so in a way that portrays them linked to the Covid-19 policy in the US, making it easier to highlight the flaws and contradictions within both.

China’s willingness to engage with the criticisms received sits in stark contrast with traditional propaganda approaches of denial and reaffirmations of its own positions which generally paid little attention to what the interlocutor had said. The Xinhua video instead of bluntly reiterating the official position or all of governments’ arduous efforts so far, sarcastically ridiculed the US for engaging in a “blaming for blaming’s sake” game.

Markedly, China did not use more internationally renowned images such as a panda or dragon to represent itself. The choice of terracotta warriors symbolises the eternal power of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China endorsing legalism as the official state doctrine. In his lifetime, he used his military might to brutally conquer neighbouring territories; in his afterlife, the 8,000-warrior terracotta army was meant to protect his emperorship into perpetuity. Adopting this symbol, China might imply that its draconian measures of effectively containing the virus are the manifestation of the disciplined Qin’s rule under legalism; parallels with President Xi Jinping’s rule, with lifted restrictions on his mandate and characterised by a harsh clampdown on critics and an aggressive foreign policy inevitably come to mind.

The Statue of Liberty is equally symbolic. Its “liberty enlightening the world” is mocked for its reverse effect in times of crisis, implying that human lives are traded for “liberty”, and as a consequence the freest country in the world is now the worst hit by the virus. Moreover, all characters are made from Lego parts which is ironic given the company’s controversial decision back in 2016 of not fulfilling Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s order due to concern that the bricks will be used to make a political statement; in line with its apolitical stance, the company denied any involvement in the production of this video.

The video, produced in English, was not disseminated by domestic media but targeted a foreign audience. Nonetheless, it was picked up by Chinese social media, recording over 11 million views since 2 May.

We can only suspect that the state is cautiously sounding out the public’s reactions on such undertakings. This would be in line with Xi’s administration interest in combining information technology with propaganda. In 2013, a video called “How Leaders Are Made”, similar to “Once upon a virus” in style, though far less sarcastic in tone, showcased how high-profiled politicians raise to power in China and the West. The production studio “Fuxing Road” (复兴路上) remained a mystery, though some lined it back to CCP’s International Department.

For now, it remains to be seen whether China is truly turning a new creative page in its propaganda manual.

India’s Covid-19 tracing app: Power in the right hands?

India’s Covid-19 tracing app Aarogya Setu was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
India’s Covid-19 tracing app Aarogya Setu was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 20 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Governments around the world are working hard to convince their populations to download the various Covid-19 infection tracing apps. As well as potentially helping to stymie the spread of the virus, the app download numbers serve another purpose: they could be read to indicate how much trust there is in government. With the apps containing potentially sensitive personal data about millions of people, it comes as little surprise that there is growing concern over privacy and how this data will be used, post-pandemic.

In Australia, the COVIDSafe app has been downloaded, according to the most recent figures, almost six million times. That number, while large, falls far short of the government’s desired 40% of the population. It’s an indication that, for all of the recent opinion polls showing high approval ratings for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, there still isn’t much public faith in the government to ring-fence the data.

Conversely, in India, the tracing app Aarogya Setu (“bridge to health”) has been downloaded more than 100 million times and was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (less than TikTok, but more than Netflix). Even in a country of 450 million smartphones, it is significant. Authorities are also releasing a version of the app that works on the next 100 million mobile phones that are internet-enabled. The figures underscore Modi’s ongoing popularity and the public trust in his governance.



Still, there has been significant disquiet over the app’s features, which critics say undermines Indians’ privacy. The great fear is that the Indian government is using the pandemic and the app as cover for scaling up its moves towards becoming a surveillance state. The government announced it was mandatory for all state employees to download it. It has been made compulsory in a number of other settings, including throughout Noida, a satellite city to New Delhi, and for rural migrant workers travelling by train. No other democracy has made it mandatory for citizens to download the app.

Aarogya Setu, like most contact tracing apps, relies on Bluetooth. But it also uses GPS tracking, meaning that that each user’s location is tracked multiple times each day. Critics say this is unnecessary and excessive, and they fear that the app could be used to create permanent government databases with sensitive personal information about Indian citizens.

One of the voices is French ethical hacker Robert Baptiste, going by the moniker Elliott Alderson, who points out that the internal database is easily accessible, meaning anyone can see who is sick anywhere in India. He has called on the government to make the source code public, so independent researchers can fully understand the technology. 

Separately, an analysis of the app conducted by French cybersecurity consultancy Defensive Lab Agency found that it has the probable capacity to access other features on the smartphone on which it is installed, such as the microphone, contacts and system settings.

And a comparative review published by MIT Technology Review gave the app two out of five stars, losing points for lacking transparency and not being voluntary. (COVIDSafe rated four out of five stars, with concerns around its lack of transparency.)

Staying connected during a time of isolation (Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images) 

To its credit, the Indian government appears to be listening, issuing a rare Twitter rebuttal of Alderson’s claims, yet on Sunday backtracking on the mandatory download conditions, instead strongly urging employees and employers to take it up. While its moves towards a surveillance state have been well-documented, it appears the government has realised that now is perhaps not the best moment to try to exploit the public mood, even though fearful populations are generally happy to cede ground on privacy and liberty in favour of safety.

There is genuine cause for concern, given that India’s moves towards building a surveillance infrastructure did not begin with Aarogya Setu.

While another chief complaint, that of India’s lack of data privacy legislation is also being addressed with a bill awaiting approval in parliament, there is genuine cause for concern, given that India’s moves towards building a surveillance infrastructure did not begin with Aarogya Setu.

Five years ago, the Aadhar number was introduced, a program which gave each citizen a unique 12-digit number that the government said would streamline bureaucracy and ultimately help poor people access welfare. But the Supreme Court in 2018 placed strict limits on the use of the program, in response to growing public concerns over privacy and whether the data was being used correctly. 

More recently, the Modi government has been finalising a database tracking “every aspect of the lives of each of India’s 1.2 billion residents”. According to a report in Huffington Post India in March, the so-called National Social Registry would track every time someone moved cities, changed jobs, bought property or even lost a family member. While authorities have claimed that the NSR would “ensure greater administrative convenience by converging resources and efforts”, deep concerns about privacy abound. Opponents say the data collated could be used to target specific communities, and even individuals. And yes, the database (or integrated set of databases) would be based on the Aadhar number, drawing a line between the two.

With this in mind, now is a good time for Indians to remain vigilant: after all, India’s legacy of using emergencies to invoke special powers does have a dark past.

Covid-19 chaos creates fertile ground for cyberattacks

A phishing email from someone posing as the head of the World Health Organisation asking recipients to donate money to a coronavirus fund, received in London (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
A phishing email from someone posing as the head of the World Health Organisation asking recipients to donate money to a coronavirus fund, received in London (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Published 19 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Coronavirus-related cyberattacks have proliferated since the first Covid-19 cases emerged in Wuhan, China. According to a recent Microsoft analysis, every country in the world has now experienced at least one such cyberattack, with the number of successful intrusions increasing daily. In a heightened state of confusion and stress, security gaps stemming from human vulnerabilities, such as email scams and unmonitored malware intrusions, have inevitably escalated.

A variety of tactics and techniques have been observed. Attacks have ranged from unsolicited bulk spam emails aiming to spread disinformation or instigate scams, malicious domain names resembling legitimate sources, mobile apps that can be used for eavesdropping, or phishing attempts to steal private information. Sometimes, these techniques are used in conjunction with malware embedded within interactive Covid-19 maps, or ransomware that encrypts and prevents the use of a system until a payment is received.

While most coronavirus-related cyberattacks amount to mere annoyances, others have had serious consequences.

Such cyberattacks are not unique to this pandemic ­– capitalising on human vulnerabilities, particularly during major events, is a fundamental aspect of cyber threats. Malicious actors commonly use social engineering techniques to manipulate individuals to do something against their best interests. For example, phishing attacks have sought to take advantage of job duties (“Please read attached COVID-19 guidelines”), or even financial needs (“Click this link to view our FREE financial support guide”). Such vulnerabilities can also be exacerbated by a lack of adequate guidance from employers, especially at a time when oversight may be reduced due to staff and operational reductions, or during a rapid transition to remote working.

While most coronavirus-related cyberattacks amount to mere annoyances, others have had serious consequences. Essential services, including the healthcare sector, have become prime targets. The Brno University Hospital, a Covid-19 testing laboratory in the Czech Republic, was a victim of ransomware cyberattacks. In the US, multiple cyberattacks on pharmaceutical and medical research organisations compromised corporate networks through their supply chains.

Hackers have also quickly followed the shift towards remote technology, with multiple security flaws being exploited within remote-work application Zoom, creating surveillance and data privacy concerns. Amid the growing economic fallout from coronavirus, social security services have also been successfully hacked, such as those in Italy, illustrating the ability of malicous actors to rapidly adapt to the changing landscape.


While the motiviation is often criminal, sometimes, it can reflect geopolitical intent. Various state-sponsored “Advanced Persistent Threat” (APT) groups have been observed in attempts to exploit the pandemic to disrupt operations, steal intellectual property, and gather intelligence. Multiple phishing and spam cyberattacks against organisations in Ukraine, South Korea, and Vietnam were shown to have traces of state-sponsored APT groups from Russia, North Korea, and China respectively. Some APT groups have also sought to specifically target government services. For example, Vicious Panda, an allegedly Chinese-affiliated cyberespionage campaign by the Calypso Group, sent documents containing the RoyalRoad malware to individuals in the Mongolian public sector, masquarading as the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs disseminating information about Covid-19. Such malware would have allowed them to take screen shots, execute new processes, and collect system information as part of a suspected broader intelligence operation against a variety of other governments and organisations.

Several implications can be drawn from patterns in such cyberattacks. State-sponsored APT groups have predominantly focused on targeting organisations and governments in their regional spheres of influence, despite some having an international portfolio of operations. Essential services should expect to continue to be a target of coronavirus-related cyberattacks. Along with the healthcare scctor, financial services and industries that provide manufacturing, logistics, and cloud integration platforms could face an intensification of attacks on related supply chains as they become increasingly vital in a pandemic environment. This is especially worrisome considering cyberthreat reports before the pandemic had already pointed to the likely escalation of cyberattacks on similar sectors.

Furthermore, irrespective of any ethical boundaries which might be expected during a pandemic, hackers have had no compunction in flouting international cyber regulations, subsequently overwhelming enforcement capabilities. This amounts to a further warning with elections forthcoming in the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere of the lengths to which state-sponsored APT groups might use cyberattacks during major political events to influence and/or infiltrate foreign societies and governments.

It can also be expected that disinformation campaigns will intensify amid the current coronavirus-related “infodemic”. A recent Fireeye report found that many Covid-19–related themes aimed at Russian or Ukrainian audiences were in fact part of “Sekondary Infection,” a Russia-based disinformation operation. In some cases, efforts in manipulating social narratives are supported by cyberattacks, to reinforce political positions domestically and abroad – while others could also simply result from questionable decision-making, elevating unconfirmed rumours and circulating inaccurate information. Concurrently, by fostering chaos in social discourse, malicious actors capitalise on the environment of confusion, indirectly enhancing the effectiveness of cyberattacks while damaging mitigation efforts.

Effectively countering cyberattacks that leverage off similar major events requires preparedness and adaptability from the targeted organisation. It is crucial to understand that the primary vulnerability is people themselves, as gatekeepers to the security of any systems. The imperative for key decision makers is therefore to integrate the human aspect of cybersecurity into risk management frameworks, for the time of Covid-19, and beyond.

Covid-19 and the acceleration of state surveillance

Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 14 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

If the 15th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today, he would surely have recognised the power of surveillance technologies that states such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and others have adopted in the fight against Covid-19. Patrol robots and drones, CCTV cameras and smartphone applications, all supporting facial recognition, location tracking, and big-data analytics for contact tracing and social control (including law enforcement). These things may be tools for protection, but they are also instruments of fear.

In the effort to persuade people to comply with counter-pandemic measures, fear of state punishment has perhaps played a greater role than fear of the loss of privacy and civil liberties. But people are also fearful of sacrificing privacy and civil liberties as a result of tech-enabled mass surveillance expanding state power.

Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.

The threat of inadequate data protection adds to these fears, even if experts claim that rapid implementation of these technologies is necessary against the smart virus that is the cause of Covid-19. In Australia and Singapore, for example, commentators have suggested that downloading national contact-tracing applications Covidsafe and TraceTogether should be made mandatory.

Civil-rights advocates contend that the use of surveillance technologies should be time-limited and cease when the pandemic is brought under control. There are also concerns that the use of surveillance technologies to fight Covid-19 resembles China’s authoritarianism and thus implicitly enhances its soft power.

Given, however, that these technologies are so new, and the virus and its socioeconomic impact are evolving and expected to linger for years, states have an opportunity to assess how to use these surveillance tools. Here are four strategic considerations:

  • Surveillance technologies are not a silver bullet. They can supplement manual contact tracing. These technologies are effective because manual contact tracing cannot keep up with how quickly the virus spreads through densely populated cities. Like many tools, these technologies are neutral. They can be used responsibly (i.e., for enhanced security) or they can be misused (for monitoring, repression, and control). Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.
  • Nothing is risk-free. Everything is about risk management. Beneath the fear of loss of privacy and civil liberties is a global decline of trust in state institutions and elites. The potential for the state to exploit its power for parochial political gains instead of protecting citizens’ interests looms in the minds of many. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated that people cannot trust the private sector to protect their data from manipulation. There is a need to rethink the notions of trust and risk, instead of perceiving them in binary, zero-sum terms.
  • Increased use of surveillance technologies might make states less democratic and more tolerant of China’s authoritarianism. This concern is more of a geopolitical construct. An overemphasis of the dangers of China's authoritarianism can overlook how other powerful states have disregarded human rights in the use of technology. Ultimately, the decision to adopt new surveillance technologies needs to a strike a difficult balance between legitimate privacy concerns and guarding public health and the economy.
  • Covid-19 highlights challenges that will likely render multilateralism less effective in addressing global crises. Even in the face of common threats to humanity, states are more inclined to put self-interest before the collective good. The war of words between China and the US over the virus’s origins fuels geopolitical distrust and uncertainty, impairing international cooperation and global leadership. More states will be poised to pursue self-reliance to avoid being caught flat-footed in the future.

Such considerations point to a future where tech-enabled state surveillance becomes an unstoppable global trend. Covid-19 may be a turning point that causes states to make tougher choices to better prepare for both man-made and biological threats. Public health unpreparedness has already resulted in severe harm to national interests. Keeping people safe and economies functioning is fundamental for a state’s political legitimacy.

Nonetheless, states must acknowledge that concerns over privacy and civil liberties will continue to characterise the post-pandemic zeitgeist. They therefore need to demonstrate how surveillance protects citizens, not only institutions and elites. They will also have to address the socioeconomic inequalities that Covid-19 has exposed.

There will always be those who question official motives. For this, our time-travelling Machiavelli also had some advice: It is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both.

Information warfare in the theatre of Covid-19

Graffiti in Birmingham, England, 31 March (Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty)
Graffiti in Birmingham, England, 31 March (Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty)
Published 29 Apr 2020 13:00   0 Comments

Chaos is a ladder, said Littlefinger in Game of Thrones. Crisis is an opportunity, Sun Tzu didn’t say in The Art of War. Either way, in the United States, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and “infodemic”, political chaos is a clear and present danger, and an opportunity, in the covert and overt information wars between America and China.

Media reports citing US intelligence sources and think tanks suggest that China has identified the schisms in American politics as openings they can and should exploit. Disinformation campaigns involving Chinese operatives amplified phony news stories, such as an apparently imminent threat that the US government was sending troops onto the streets to support a national shutdown.

The how and why of this is important: they offer lessons in the vulnerabilities of any society to these sorts of online disinformation campaigns, as well as revealing the motivations of who might be running them.

For Australia, the grim lesson is that the online communications environment shares many of same characteristics that make the US vulnerable. There is little prospect of that changing.

Awaiting further proof, it is important to consider these campaigns may be state-directed, or could be the products of a more loosely coordinated network of Chinese online actors, such as identified by ASPI’s Cyber Policy Centre, or something else. But enough is known about the nature of these campaigns to characterise how they work and why they are attempted.

Motivations first. Why might China engage in these types of information wars? For one, it fits with the model of the “three warfares”, which includes public opinion alongside legal and psychological warfare. Information wars were not invented recently, but China has learned the lesson from Russia’s efforts in 2016 in the US and elsewhere and seen how they work.

Information wars serve two purposes for the Chinese military, who, we must remember, firstly serve the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the Chinese nation.

The first purpose is to buttress the CCP from internal pressure. There are significant and legitimate questions being asked about the response of Chinese authorities to the coronavirus outbreak, hence the need to turn up the volume on the standard narratives that both undermine Western (specifically American) systems of politics and present the outside world as antagonistic to China’s rise, sometimes referred to as Chinese “negative soft power”. This is not new.

The second purpose is to support efforts to diminish US influence internationally and thereby reduce American capacity to curtail China’s activities on the global stage. This is accompanied by a more confrontational approach by Chinese diplomats on social media and signals a greater confidence in its position and, perhaps, its national brand.

That is the why. What about the how? Fortunately for disinformation warriors, much of the hard work has been done for them.

Disinformation campaigns work best where several criteria are met.

The first is a large, connected online community of interest, which provides a network effect, spreading disinformation far and fast. As in epidemics, so in viral media. Super spreaders can greatly enhance the virality of a message, so those with significant influence (through network position or cultural and political importance) can exacerbate matters.

The second is a population sufficiently distrustful of authority, especially politicians and mainstream media. American political discourse meets both criteria easily: President Trump and his cheerleaders act as super spreaders and promote distrust in political and media elites (while being elites themselves).

A protest at the governor’s residence in St Paul, Minnesota, in the US, calling for an end to lockdown restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, 17 April (Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

The third relates to what is known as “crisis infomatics”: situations of high anxiety and low certainty which are conducive to the spread of both disinformation (deliberative, by malicious actors) and misinformation (uncoordinated, by well-meaning actors unwittingly spreading false hope). The Covid-19 pandemic is distinct in that uncertainty has been high for much longer than typical of other emergencies, such as a terrorist attack, mass shooting, or large-scale disaster.

Lastly, disinformation content is more spreadable if it is more emotive. Righteous anger is effective. It also helps if it has some level of homespun “truthiness”, as opposed to institutional authority. American nativist populism feeds on anger and rates folksy axioms over science. Such circumstances lead to soaring reproductive rates for viral conspiracy theories.

These factors are well known and have been exploited by foreign actors seeking to disrupt American politics and society since at least 2016. All combined, they demonstrate that the online media environment in the US is ripe for disinformation campaigns and is a product of local conditions, not a creation of foreign actors.

Worse, the limited efforts by tech giants against coordinated inauthentic campaigns are increasingly ineffective, as malicious actors can either amplify community-based campaigns on social media, or they can use encrypted messaging and SMS services. Neither of these are easily tracked.

All this remains the case despite the recent efforts to limit the spread of misleading Covid-19 information. The tech giants remain deeply opposed to similar checks on online political falsehoods.

For Australia, the grim lesson is that the online communications environment shares many of same characteristics that make the US vulnerable. There is little prospect of that changing.

But a happier conclusion arises out of the relatively sensible and sober discussions that have so far characterised Australia’s response to Covid-19. By quarantining misleading rumours to the outer fringes of political discourse, and presenting policy led by medical and scientific expertise, there is less occasion for malicious actors to turn chaos into opportunity.

This hard lesson should be remembered and applied beyond the times of Covid-19.

Back to the future: Keeping Australian air lines of communication open

Departing Melbourne (Philip Mallis/Flickr)
Departing Melbourne (Philip Mallis/Flickr)
Published 29 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

One of the (many) astounding things that have come out of the Covid-19 crisis is just how fragile are Australia’s connections with the outside world. The government’s role in guaranteeing Australia’s communications, whether digitally or by sea or air, is one of the things that we will need to re-think once this crisis is over.

For almost a month much of Australia’s air links with the outside world have been largely cut off as airlines have halted flights for commercial reasons. The Australian government has had to work hard to keep air links open. Over the past few weeks, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has helped to arrange special charter flights to rescue thousands of stranded Australians from Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, South Africa, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, just to name a few countries. The government has also had to provide financial guarantees to Qantas and Virgin to maintain regular scheduled flights to selected international hubs in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London and Auckland. This is not just about repatriating stranded citizens, but also about keeping minimum air links open for essential travel and cargo transport. 

All this has been a good reminder that for all our reassuring talk in the good times of “market forces”, the government is the ultimate guarantor and, potentially, even provider, of our vital communications links.

The last time Australia’s air lines of communication to the outside world were so effectively cut was in February 1942 when the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces cut Australia’s only significant commercial air route to the outside world – the Empire Air Route from Sydney to London.

Promoting long haul, via a De Havilland 86 Express, circa 1930s (State Library of Queensland)

This effectively closed all of Australia’s air transport links with the world. Australia then operated no other air links across the Indian or Pacific Oceans – apart only from a tenuous link with our New Zealand friends across the Tasman Sea.

To be fair, in 1942 the government had long been aware of the fragility of Australia’s air links with the outside world. For several years before the war, Australia had been in difficult discussions with Washington and London over the establishment of a trans-Pacific air route to North America. The Americans wanted an effective monopoly for Pan American Airways while Australia also wanted the option of a British run service across the Pacific. The significance of these communications links for Australia became stronger as the war progressed. Negotiations over landing rights lasted until late 1941 when it was all too late.

The shock of this crisis should make us have a hard look at how fragile our links with the outside world can be and whether we can always rely on private companies, many of them foreign owned, to always deliver essential services.

So it was that when Singapore fell in February 1942, almost the only way out of Australia by air was by thumbing a lift on US army aircraft that flew irregularly out of Townsville or Sydney as part of a tenuous island-hopping link to Hawaii, skirting around Japanese-controlled islands in the mid Pacific. Even high-level Australian officials had great difficulty in gaining any places – it would be a bit too much to call them seats – on US military flights in either direction.

Even for the 1940s, the complete isolation of the Australian continent from air connections with the rest of the world was an extraordinary demonstration of Australia’s geographic isolation.

It was not until June 1943 – some 16 months after the fall of Singapore – that Australia was able to commence its own regular air service between Perth and what was then Ceylon. These used US-supplied Catalina flying boats, operated by Qantas, which would link with British-operated flights to London via Central Africa.

These flights of up to 33 hours at a stretch were extraordinary for their time, involving a single hop from Perth to Ceylon of some 4,800km. They became known as the “Double Sunrise” flights because they were timed to fly through Japanese-controlled airspace in darkness, meaning that they would see two sunrises during their journey.

A Qantas Catalina, 1949 (State Library of Queensland)

In order to make this extraordinary journey, the Catalinas were stripped of many of their fittings and fitted with large additional fuel tanks, still leaving them some 2.7 tonnes above normal take-off weight. A special take-off procedure had to be developed to get the Catalinas into the air.

Even when they managed to get airborne, the planes were so overloaded that they would crash into the sea if they lost power in any of their engines during the first 10 hours of the flight. Each flight could carry no more than three VIP passengers, some official dispatches and mail (in the form of microfilm, not paper).

The weekly non-stop flights between Perth and Ceylon were then the longest regularly scheduled flights in the world by distance and even today remain the longest ever regular commercial flights by duration. Between June 1942 and July 1945, some 271 of what was known as the “Double Sunrise” flights were made, without any losses.

The security of Australia’s air lines of communication across the Pacific and Indian Oceans became a significant feature in Australian strategic thinking about the region in later decades. The value of islands for staging of aircraft was, for example, a key reason why we took over island territories in the Indian Ocean in the 1950s.

Of course, the threat to Australia’s air lines of communication caused by Covid-19 crisis is very different from those wartime threats that isolated Australia. But threats can come in many different forms. The shock of this crisis should make us have a hard look at how fragile our links with the outside world can be and whether we can always rely on private companies, many of them foreign owned, to always deliver essential services.

This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.

Strength in numbers: The benefit from global efforts to halt the virus

Manual extraction of the coronavirus at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories (Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr)
Manual extraction of the coronavirus at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories (Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr)
Published 24 Apr 2020 11:00   0 Comments

It is likely that the isolationist trend in global politics will be strengthened after Covid-19. For many policymakers – and a large section of global public opinion – the vulnerability of international supply lines for medical equipment and pharmaceuticals seemingly points to only one inevitable conclusion: the need for countries to enhance their self-sufficiency.

Yet it is important that in the post-Covid-19 world we remember where globalisation succeeded as well as where it failed. The science behind the pandemic response suggests this crisis will be solved by strength in numbers, not countries going it alone.

Far away from the contested high politics of the World Health Organization (WHO) there exists a beehive of global technical activity. Specialists are networking with their counterparts across the world in a race against time.

On 31 December, a case of pneumonia with an unknown cause was reported to the WHO office in China. Ten days later the genetic sequence for the “2019 novel coronavirus” was deposited on GenBank, a publicly accessible genetic sequence database by a team of researchers from China and Australia. This novel coronavirus would later become known as Covid-19. Only two weeks after its sequence was made public, a lab in Berlin published details of a test and workflow so scientists could begin detecting the virus in patients.

The solution to the virus when it comes in the form of a breakthrough vaccine will be an astonishing feat of hard-headed, no-nonsense cross-border cooperation.

This is markedly different from past experience. For instance, it took almost six months to identify the virus responsible for the 2002­–2003 SARS outbreak.

Such breakthroughs in technical collaboration by government agencies, research institutes and scientists operating in different jurisdictions highlight the strengths of an interconnected world and defies the anti-globalist narrative.

Formal and informal research links will be critical to bringing the pandemic to an end. And none more so than in what should become an increasingly familiar field, that of bioinformatics, which has been at the core of the scientific community’s Covid-19 response.

Bioinformatics is the science of managing and analysing biological information stored in digital databases. It is one of the fastest growing fields in biology, with the adoption of automated laboratory equipment and digital analysis tools becoming more frequent since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003.

Briefings on efforts to contain Covid-19 in provinces of Brazil (Government of the State of Rio Grande do Sul/Flickr)

Bioinformatics is what allows labs to simultaneously collaborate on Covid-19 research no matter where they are located. In response to the virus, many bioinformatics institutes and companies have implemented dedicated platforms for Covid-19 information exchange. Crucially, the WHO has instituted a data sharing protocol through its online bulletin, which ensures that all research manuscripts relevant to the pandemic will be freely available.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory has also created a Covid-19 portal that collates reference data and specialist datasets from biological institutes across Europe on one public platform.

Even the private sector has gotten in on the act. Benchling, an American company that provides digital lab tools such as sequence and workflow design tools, is providing all its Covid-19 resources for free. This includes experimental protocols for the detection of the virus as published by the University of California, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mammoth Biosciences.

There are also grassroots initiatives within the scientific community, such as “Crowdfight COVID-19”, a platform that links volunteer scientists to tasks requested by Covid-19 researchers. Such tasks include requests for data input, data analysis or the procurement of specialised reagents for use in chemical analysis. Some 40,000 volunteers have signed up to the service since its inception in early March.

The same strength in numbers approach to scientific collaboration is being used elsewhere to secure the supply of life-saving ventilators and other medical equipment to treat coronavirus.

Despite the European Union’s initial and much publicised failings to recognise the scale of the Covid-19 threat and act jointly to mitigate it, the European Commission is now showing how collective action can help resource governments through the health crisis. The Commission has created a “Joint European Procurement Initiative”, which has been able to secure the supply of critical medical supplies for its 27 member states. The initiative was able procure equipment within two weeks of its creation despite a global shortage. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which was invited to join but declined to participate in the initiative, is facing critical delays in the supply of medical gear for front-line health workers.

The rapid progress to date of the scientific community and the initiatives taken in Europe showcase that this global health crisis has not reduced international solidarity to empty political rhetoric. To the contrary, the solution to the virus when it comes in the form of a breakthrough vaccine will be an astonishing feat of hard-headed, no-nonsense cross-border cooperation.

If this is war, that Zoom call is part of the battle

The military planners verdict? “Supportive interactions could create a powerful positive momentum toward victory as well” (Defence Department)
The military planners verdict? “Supportive interactions could create a powerful positive momentum toward victory as well” (Defence Department)
Published 21 Apr 2020 12:00   0 Comments

In recent weeks, several world leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have invoked combat-related terms to summarise efforts to contain and contest the novel coronavirus and its effects. As each day we track the progress of casualties, emergency actions, and strained supply lines, this analogy seems increasingly apt.

But what does a declaration of “war” on Covid-19 mean for our collective response and responsibilities as nations and citizens?

Continue the combat analogy – let’s define the mission we need to execute in order to win.

To answer this question, let’s consult the formal planning processes developed by allies such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Typically employed by generals and admirals confronting a traditional security threat, these doctrines (which are unclassified and readily accessible online) are hundreds of pages long and laden with military jargon. But perhaps even an abridged version could help us continue the combat analogy and define the mission we need to execute in order to win.

In the initial stages, planners formulate a Desired End State, which is what it will look like if we’ve successfully achieved our objectives. A few hours at the white board may result in something like, “The novel coronavirus and its effects are neutralised with minimal loss of life, health, and prosperity.” Purposely broad, the Desired End State is a north star meant to guide us through the rest of the process.

Next comes Mission Analysis, where we study the enemy’s capabilities and vulnerabilities, our own (“friendly”) capabilities and vulnerabilities, and then define the primary source of power for each side, called their Centres of Gravity. A team of military planners, armed with maps and intelligence reports, deliberates for days over the fundamental questions, “What gives them the strength to win?” and “What gives us the ability to counter them?”

Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash

We assume in our scenario that the novel coronavirus, as our enemy, is intent to inflict maximum harm against us, so let’s break down three Threat Vectors that it uses to do so. First, it transmits through a particular biological mechanism to inflict physical harm. Second, it damages our economy by reducing prosperity and increasing inequality. And third, it broadens its destructive reach by inflicting mental anguish through uncertainty, isolation, and fear.

We could, therefore, describe the Enemy Centre of Gravity (ECOG) as the ability to cause physical, economic, and mental damage. And our Friendly Centre of Gravity (FCOG) the ability to contain and combat those harms.

With our ECOG and FCOG now defined, we look ahead to assess the Decisive Point – the moment or condition that we envision can mark the turning point in which we gain the advantage over the enemy. Perhaps something like:

During the moment of peak infection, we will have sufficient resources to contain and combat the novel coronavirus itself and begin a return to normal levels of physical, mental, and economic stability.

Our intelligence officer is now briefing us that this Decisive Point is approaching. How prepared are we, and what can we do to reduce our exposure to each of the enemy’s threats?

First, physical harm, already the subject of our daily briefings in the press and online that tell us to restrict movement, practice hygiene, and fortify health care infrastructure. Check.

Second, economic damage has been the other core focus as governments and businesses around the world deploy their artillery of stimulus and other responsive policies. Check.

But, what about the enemy’s third vector of destruction: mental anguish? Although not altogether ignored, this may be where a lack of centralised defense leaves us most exposed.

Put in a call. Use your “weapons” (Wyoming National Guard/Flickr)

As military planners, we recognise the many grave threats to our nation and its citizens driven by even the spectre of this pandemic: loneliness from isolation, exacerbated anxiety, psychological effects of un- or underemployment, concern for loved ones, strain on relationships, general feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the adversary, to name only a few. And anytime these factors cause anyone to harm themselves or others, the devastation from the virus has expanded further.

So, along with continuing to toughen our fight against the enemy’s physical harm and economic damage, here’s our mission: do whatever we can with our available resources (time, mental energy, empathy) and “weapons” (text, phone, video chat, email) to check in with others. Be it to actively listen, or schedule another Zoom happy hour. Perhaps read to a child on Caribu, or research best practices disseminated by organisations such as Lifeline. Put in a call to a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while, or even just offer a smile, greeting, or wave to someone across the street.

We have been regularly informed that our actions can prevent the spread of Covid-19’s physical harm such that even preventing one or two physical interactions could significantly disrupt the enemy’s advance. Now our military planning tells us that even one or two socially (distanced, of course) supportive interactions could create a powerful positive momentum toward victory as well. Putting our jargon to work: Since the ECOG will strengthen as we move closer to the Decisive Point – we must congruently bolster our FCOG by increasing the frequency and effectiveness of our support for one another’s mental welfare, as we work toward our Desired Endstate.

So if we’re indeed at “war”, put on your battledress, think about how you can help yourself and others to resist (all of) the ways the “enemy” is advancing, and let’s move out.



Gear up (Defence Department)

What price privacy? Contact tracing apps to combat Covid

Berlin, in April (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Berlin, in April (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 16 Apr 2020 10:00   1 Comments

Few in the West would have imagined two months ago that their government would consider tracking their personal mobile phones. But as Covid-19 rapidly sweeps through cities and incapacitates health systems, manual tracing of potentially infected individuals can no longer keep up. Even epidemiologists are now recommending digital contact tracing for its increased speed and responsiveness. Privacy experts predict that in the next few weeks, many of us will likely install a contact tracing app to help stem the raging pandemic.

However, as governments around the world , including Australia, seek to tap into citizens’ location data, it is crucial to ask whether a balance between safety and privacy can still be struck, and if so, to hold our governments to such a standard. If we stop trying, temporary digital surveillance systems may outlive their initial purposes and become a permanent legacy of Covid-19.

Increasingly, smartphone technology seems to hold the greatest promises in outpacing the virus. Our location data and movement history can now be tracked to a useful extent through GPS and Bluetooth signals recorded in various smartphone apps and digital devices. The process of matching individuals’ movement history, if automated, can instantaneously identify people who have been in close contact with an infected person, allowing proactive testing and precautionary measures. On an aggregate level, movement history data can help predict the spread of the disease and gauge people’s overall observance of social-distancing rules.

Even a generally well-intentioned government can easily abuse or misuse this power.

But these promises cannot be realised without access to individuals’ location data. Whether we are ready or not, governments around the world have started gearing up for this access, with various invasive implications. The United States is working with Google and Facebook to analyse aggregate location data and model the spread of Covid-19. The UK government recently issued a notice granting the government unfettered access to confidential patient information for any “Covid-19 purpose”. And South Korea uses a combination of digital records, including pharmacy visits, CCTV videos, and card transactions to track down the locations of potentially infected people.

Effective digital contact tracing also requires the widespread uptake of an effective contact tracing app. So far, at least 29 countries in the world have developed Covid tracking apps. A few of these apps have already achieved a broad reach, some through government coercion, others through voluntary uptake.

In China, for example, an app called Alipay Health Code automatically assigns colour codes to people based on their “risk level” dictated by an opaque algorithm. If a contagion risk is detected, a person may be barred from leaving the building or taking public transport and hence, forced to self-quarantine. The populous Indian state of Karnataka requires all quarantined people to download a GPS-tracking app and upload a selfie to the authorities every hour of the day.

How anonymous can you remain when a central authority always knows where you are? (SoulRider.222/Flickr)

These practices, besides setting back recent global progress in privacy laws, strengthen states’ surveillance power and in some cases, their authoritarian grip. Human rights groups and legal scholars have demanded that any surveillance measures adopted during the pandemic must be strictly time-bound. But governments from China to Israel, for example, are known to let temporary “emergency” surveillance outlive their original purposes.

Even one of the most sophisticated and transparent contact-tracing systems so far implemented – Singapore’s TraceTogether app – opens the door to potential mass surveillance. The app has so far attracted great interests from other governments, including those of Australia and India. Using mobile phone Bluetooth, the app exchanges a series of encrypted, temporary IDs with other apps when in close proximity with each other. These IDs can then be uploaded to a central authority that matches the data of an affected individuals with that of other individuals. This then allows swift identification and notification of anyone who has encountered the infected individuals within the last 14 days.

Due to the randomly generated, temporary IDs and their encryption, the app excels in protecting an individual’s identity against other individuals and hackers. However, a gaping privacy loophole remains: a central authority, usually the government, holds the key to decrypt the identity data of the infected individuals and of everyone whom they have encountered.

While a high-tech surveillance state such as in China is unlikely to emerge in Western democracies, it is still important to ask whether a democratic government can be trusted with this centralised power over individuals’ identity data. Unfortunately, even a generally well-intentioned government can easily abuse or misuse this power.

Central data servers are often subject to cyberattacks, system overload, and accidental data leaks. The Australian government, for example, has lost sensitive, re-identifiable medical records of 2.9 million Australians due to pure technical naïveté. Past instances of Australian police illegally accessing metadata on journalists also raise the question of what other purposes might be served by the government’s centralised access to otherwise encrypted identity data, and what might happen to the data down the track. Where will it be stored and by whom? What rules will govern access?

Data is valuable, especially bulk data of this sort, and citizens should not be asked to give it up without information, assurances, and appropriate rules.

Given these risks, a community of technical experts have developed de-centralised alternatives that replace the role of the government with an interactive web of Bluetooth-based apps. Google and Apple have also announced a partnership to roll out a de-centralised contact tracing app in May. While de-centralised systems could potentially protect individual privacy from all parties (including the government), their success relies heavily on individuals to voluntarily and accurately upload their data to the system when they test positive.

Indeed, achieving effective contact tracing without any centralised control is not an easy task, and time is what governments around the world do not have. But populations should not be forced to choose between safety and privacy – the solution will mostly likely lie somewhere in between. As long as privacy-preserving options exist, we must ensure that our authorities consider them and adhere to a transparent decision-making process with sufficient accountability protections. We must protect against overreach as much as the virus itself.

The danger meme: Countering visual disinformation in Asia’s politics

Bukit Ho Swee, Singapore (Philippe Put/Flickr)
Bukit Ho Swee, Singapore (Philippe Put/Flickr)
Published 3 Apr 2020 06:00   0 Comments

As some Asian countries gear up for elections in the later part of 2020, tackling the spread of malicious disinformation is a priority. Even as South Korea battles to control the coronavirus outbreak, elections for the legislative council look set to continue on 15 April, while question marks still hang over the timing of a legislative council ballot in Hong Kong and general elections in Singapore.

But regardless of when the elections are held, countering the type of information that is false and the person disseminating it is aware it is false will be essential. This challenge was already apparent long before Covid-19 came to dominate the headlines – if anything, the “infodemic” of misinformation surrounding the virus has made the need to counter disinformation even more acute, with some causing a public health hazard, others seeking to facilitate foreign interference.

And like propaganda of eras gone by, disinformation is far from just words. Visual forms of disinformation deserve particular attention, whatever the particular differences in Asian political systems.

Social media now comprises more non-textual content such as images, video, and emojis. Short-video sharing site TikTok is now the third most-downloaded social media app around the globe. Photo-sharing platform Instagram has become the sixth most popular social networking platform, while Facebook will soon allow 3D posts on its platform.

Visual content is now widely shared across platforms. In closed instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, which is becoming a primary way in which many people around the world receive news and by extension, misinformation, it is common to send GIFs, memes, or videos in place of texts.

Image search is now a popular way of finding online content. Some estimates at least 50% of searches will be through images or speech.

Bangkok, Thailand (Bryon Lippincott/Flickr)

The pervasiveness of visuals means that disinformation is increasingly produced in the form of images and videos rather than texts. The Oxford Internet Institute warned, for instance, that online disinformation campaigns are driven by viral videos, memes and photos. Much has also been made of the potentially disastrous impact of deepfakes, artificial intelligence-assisted video and audio editing for creating disinformation. From privacy breach to undermining public trust and even national security, the implications of deepfakes are limited only by the imaginations of certain actors.

Visuals have a unique emotive impact on the audience, an aspect that has been exploited by disinformation producers. Visual images reinforce popular antagonism and harness the virulent rage of political supporters online. It is easier to get away with subversive messaging using memes, photos and videos. Research noted that humans are inept at identifying manipulated photos. Current sentiment analysis software still finds it tricky to interpret the messages behind visual content too.

The proliferation of visuals on social media has certainly changed the way disinformation producers work. In Indonesia, the so-called “buzzers” (digital influencers that are hired to strategically amplify online messages) are increasingly hired to work on photo-sharing platform Instagram instead of Facebook and Twitter. In view of the increasing popularity of Instagram, that more “click farmers” are also hired to maximise the appearance of engagement with the platform.

Visuals have a unique emotive impact on the audience, an aspect that has been exploited by disinformation producers.

Rather than experimenting with complex new technological tools such as deepfakes, purveyors of disinformation may fall back on existing ones that are easier to deploy. Simpler forms of disinformation that rely on the strategic deployment of visuals are more pervasive, and at times cause more damage. For example, in Indonesia, former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) was convicted of blasphemy after a clipped video of him accusing his political opponents of using religion as a campaign tool was shared on Facebook in October 2016. In early March 2020, a video of former US vice-president Joe Biden had similarly been simply trimmed to remove key parts of what he said. The net effect, which was to make him sound like he was endorsing US President Donald Trump’s re-election, was still achieved. Technologically sophisticated tools such as deepfakes are thus peripheral in the larger goal of disinformation.

Despite the challenges, countering disinformation by focusing on visual, rather than textual, narratives are essential in preparing for elections. An agile crisis communication plan must be put in place to anticipate disinformation. The plan should itself include the usage of visuals such as memes, GIFs and videos for effective messaging.

Longer-term, efforts must be made in the areas of research and development as well as regulatory solutions to address the prevalence of visual-mediated disinformation. Legal or regulatory obligations could be placed on relevant technological and social media companies to deploy digital provenance solutions in devices such as laptops and smartphones. Given the reluctance of device makers to acquire digital authentication in the absence of certainty of its affordability, demand and performance, as well as the lack of interest of social media companies to lose market share as the result of preventing the uploading of unverified content, making measures enforceable under law could become necessary in future.

Research in the area of digital media forensics must be also intensified. This can be done through laboratories that are already actively involved in collaborations with both public agencies and private companies to provide effective solutions, for instance. Recruitment for international researchers knowledgeable in media forensics could also be conducted. Also, research in image analytics, particularly the incorporation of cultural perspectives such as art studies in technical detection, could be stepped up in relevant organisations.

Efforts must be made to cultivate a younger generation of researchers interested in the area of digital media forensics. Increasing the interest of potential students in the area through hackathons, for instance, will be a worthwhile endeavour in this respect.  

As legal and regulatory efforts are underway, a measure that tackles the problem of visual-mediated disinformation from the cognitive aspect needs to be implemented as well. Emphasising the visual and video literacy (the ability to understand and create visual and video messages) component in existing digital literacy efforts has become more pressing than ever.

Doom surfing and fact checkers prosper in Covid-19 infodemic

judy dean/Flickr
judy dean/Flickr
Published 30 Mar 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Several terms have taken on newfound meaning in the grip of coronavirus. “Doom surfing” is one, to describe those who seem unable to remove themselves from scrolling the internet, and “infodemic” another, a term adopted by World Health Organization for the misinformation that appears to spread online faster than the virus itself.

With no country and no people immune – and with the rapid spread of Covid-19 and online misinformation about this disease – it is clear that journalism’s role in combatting disinformation has never been more important.

This is particularly keenly felt in the region, where there is a sense of dread and helplessness made worse because people around the world once again appear to have discarded lessons learned years earlier in Asia, particularly from the SARS epidemic. It has provoked a torrent of resentment toward foreigners, especially those who refuse to a wear mask. Signs have popped up in Hong Kong saying “Hey Gweilo, can’t afford a mask?”. In Australia, health professionals of Asian appearance were shunned and abused by parents at a children’s hospital.

It’s clear that high quality health information – plus journalism from trusted, professional and responsible sources that verify details before publication ¬– needs to be more easily accessed than poorly researched posts cobbled together in haste.

Covid-19 has also exacerbated a range of social and anti-social behaviours online while producing an info-torrent of material. There are the “doom surfers” looking for anything about the virus to share; the self-appointed online moral enforcers who shame others for sometimes innocuous and other times problematic actions; the internet trolls who appear to find joy in spreading fear or provoking racism; and the comedians who can bring a laugh with a clever meme, song, or video, but, in some cases, may inadvertently cause further harm.

Groaning under the weight of the torrent, the WHO label of “infodemic” is intended to convey that an excessive amount of information makes the solution more difficult to communicate clearly. To be clear, the Covid-19 “infodemic” does have real-world health impacts because it creates confusion and reduces the effectiveness of public health advice. Those who can read and understand Indonesian may find interest in work at the Kawal Covid-19 site by data scientists and other volunteers, who have been working on data-driven solutions to the problem of misinformation in recent Indonesian elections.

Health professionals want information shared online to be from a trusted source, such as a credible media outlets, recognised health and research institutions, government agencies, the WHO, or similar. But the reality is the doomsayers can’t help but share anything that comes across their feeds, quality or not. People are glued to their smart phones getting a strong dopamine fix, but also seeking practical news about how the crisis affects them, what to do, and how to help others.

Take, for example, a friend and scholar sitting in an isolated, well provisioned apartment in New York, bemused and alarmed by an urgent message from another friend in Singapore offering to arrange a car to her to flee the city immediately. Watching the craziness of the world unfold online, and panicked by fake images from New York of bodies piling up in the streets or riots of people armed with guns, the friend in Southeast Asia has been unable to determine the truth from fiction.

It’s clear that high quality health information – plus journalism from trusted, professional and responsible sources that verify details before publication ­– needs to be more easily accessed than poorly researched posts cobbled together in haste, and, in some cases, fear or malfeasance. But in an era where trust in public institutions, politicians, and news media is so low, many people appear to to have few qualms about listening to and sharing rumours and disinformation – often these are underpinned by conspiracy theories or racist sentiment – unaware that the very purpose of manipulative content is to exploit pre-existing divisions in society.

To be fair, the social media giants have been attempting to do their bit, although not always succeeding.

In the early days, Facebook initially bungled its takedown notice of all Covid-19 posts and cross-posts, removing posts linking to stories from trusted news sources, along with those from more dubious publishers. (I had personal experience of this, as shown.)

TikTok has been providing information at the bottom of every video that mentions corona, coronavirus or Covid-19. Snapchat has introduced lots of coronavirus-related stickers, such as “wash your hands” and has introduced a clever myth-slaying game. WHO even used WhatsApp to encourage users to explore its credible info line.

Unfortunately, these steps don’t always work in closed-message groups among friends, such as within WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Instagram. These platforms appear still to be awash with well-meaning individuals privately sharing information that isn’t quite right or even seriously wrong, making online and social media a breeding ground for fear and disquiet.

Professional journalists have long known that media content can heighten anxiety, and have worked hard on systems and warnings to ensure that their work does not make problems worse. Publishers and program producers understand the need for balance and relief, usually confining crisis-related content to defined areas and deliberately focusing other areas on alternate content, often things that will distract, relax, entertain or educate about other things going on in the world.

Largely thanks to social media, unverified Covid-19 stories and videos – particularly from China – have promulgated unfiltered graphic and disturbing descriptions and visual content, such as people dying on streets, survivors being welded into their apartments in Hubei, or later vision of the people who had died inside. These are the kinds of stories and images which traditional news media outlets seek to verify, mediate and contextualise, in order to educate and minimise needless panic.

Traditional news media outlets have long been aware of their role in not just in providing credible, tested information from appropriate authorities, but also in providing context and solutions, some of which work well online.

Right now, the paramount need is to provide the members of the public in every community around the globe with strategies for enhancing wellbeing and remaining resilient.

However, in an age of shrinking newsrooms, disappearing mastheads and a rising number of spurious alt-media popping up online, the public’s trust in traditional news media outlets needs to be restored – and quickly, lest Covid-19 sparks a media extinction event.

It is time for those citizens who have, over recent years, turned away from – or who never developed an interest in – traditional news sources to return to the fold, so they can put their trust in a reliable source of verified information that can form an important cornerstone as society moves through this global crisis.

Information-sharing needs to take on a more pro-social, responsible approach during these testing times – yet still provide invaluable outlets for humour, laughter and jokes; encourage physical exercise, yoga or meditation; remind the devout of the power of prayer and religious rituals; and ensure isolated individuals can communicate with their distanced family, friends, neighbours, peers and colleagues without fear and apprehension. The doom-saying will then fade into the past.

Disinformation and coronavirus

duncan c/Flickr
duncan c/Flickr
Published 25 Mar 2020 06:00   1 Comments

The best way to prevent the novel coronavirus? Eating garlic. Or actually, try traditional Chinese medicine. In case you hadn’t heard, a vaccine already exists but the United States won’t share it. Wait a second, the coronavirus doesn’t exist at all, it’s all a conspiracy.

How did I hear all of these theories, which to be clear, have no basis in reality? From my mum, circulated in her numerous WhatsApp groups. The same groups told her that the novel coronavirus came from Chinese people eating bat soup (spoiler alert: it didn’t). It was only weeks later that she asked me if the United States military had brought the virus to China (also untrue).

The global pandemic that has killed thousands and closed borders is awash with disinformation. The World Health Organization declared an “infodemic”, an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the Munich Security Conference in February: “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher.

Disinformation in a pandemic is not new. Operation Infektion was an information warfare campaign by the KGB to spread the rumour in the 1980s that HIV/AIDS was a misfired American biological weapon. Throughout history, scared people have latched onto information that made them feel safe – regardless of whether it was true or not.

But this pandemic is different to any other. None of us are bystanders in this crisis. And more people are at home, more people are online, and more people asking the same questions.

The dilution of information on the internet is currently posing a risk to global health and safety. Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher. During an outbreak, people need to be encouraged to do the right thing to control a disease or mitigate its impact. “It is not only information to make sure people are informed,” according to the WHO’s Sylvie Briand, “it is also making sure people are informed to act appropriately.” Much of the misinformation spread online has been unintentional.

Malign actors are taking advantage of the environment of fear and confusion. A US State Department official reportedly told Congress that Russia was taking the opportunity to sow discord and panic in Western countries and undermine officials in the public eye. “The entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play,” she said. An accompanying report found that nearly two million tweets over a three-week period had disseminated conspiracy theories about the coronavirus overseas.

In this crisis not only is there an absence of clear and credible information from authorities that people trust, but state actors are filling the void irresponsibly. Politicians, officials and state-owned media, and even heads of state, have been elevating disinformation. One of the China’s official spokespeople tweeted a fake video of Italians singing “Grazie, Cina!” as China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, played in the background. For what it’s worth, many similar videos have falsely shown quarantined Italians singing Katy Perry’s “Roar” or Madonna’s “I Rise” in solidarity.

Another Chinese government spokesperson has doubled down on the rumour that the virus was brought to China by America, which is now being reported in Chinese state media. Russian media have also suggested that Covid-19 was created in a US laboratory in Georgia. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has said the virus is a possible bioweapon targeting China.

Trains are disinfected for Covid-19 at Seoul Station, Seoul (Republic of Korea/Flickr)

Many elected leaders in the United States have been similarly irresponsible. President Donald Trump has consistently misrepresented the scale and response to the coronavirus in the United States. He has disputed the mortality rate. He has claimed the coronavirus is no worse than a flu. He has circulated inaccurate medical advice. Some media organisations had also spread misinformation of this nature, although most have since changed their tune as the number of infections in the United States skyrockets. American politicians have also pushed the conspiracy that the virus originated in a lab in China.

Technology companies appear to be taking the challenge seriously, with some success. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have each made commitments to cleanse their sites of disinformation using existing tools, while working with the WHO to direct users to credible advice. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg posted:

As our community standards make clear, it’s not okay to share something that puts people in danger. We’re removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations.

Wikipedia’s approach has been to apply more stringent rules, rather than existing standards, with better results.

Moderating public platforms is only a fraction of the challenge. All of my mum’s inaccurate information was circulated on WhatsApp, the world’s most-popular messaging app, with 1.6 billion active users. Others such as Facebook Messenger and China’s WeChat both have over a billion users. These are effectively a locked box for content moderators.

These platforms were already struggling with the daily deluge of fake news. Now they also need to figure out how to respond to senior government figures using their platforms to spread lies. The Covid-19 crisis is a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and an information crisis.

Don’t succumb to complacency again: Beating Covid-19 will take a team

Training New York Army National Guard Soldiers to register people on iPads at a drive-through Covid-19 mobile testing centre (New York National Guard/Flickr)
Training New York Army National Guard Soldiers to register people on iPads at a drive-through Covid-19 mobile testing centre (New York National Guard/Flickr)
Published 19 Mar 2020 13:00   0 Comments

The past few days have been very alarming for many of us, but a tide has turned around the world in our fight against Covid-19. Major Western countries have now all come to their senses, discarding dangerously complacent strategies. No one is complacent anymore.

This new attitude will be more important than any specific measure. It’s the attitude that we all need to internalise and keep with us for the next 18 months. 

Australia has implemented an aggressive approach that will slow the virus. But it goes beyond government. Every single Australian has a role to play. Every institution, every business, union, church, council, every sports club. Every person.

The plan to beat the virus is clear. 

1. Slow it: hygiene, distance, and borders.

These are things that slow the virus. Everyone needs to do this. We need to help each other, especially kids. 

2. Find it: contact tracing, monitoring for symptoms, and testing.

Doctors and scientists are working on this all around the world. It’s hard and takes time. That’s why we need to slow the virus. Singapore and Taiwan are lighting the path we need to follow. 

3. Isolate it: strict isolation protocols are required, and people must obey them.

The lesson from Wuhan is that failure on this point can put your own family at risk. It will take discipline and support.

4. Control it: This is the hard part. We have 18 months of vigilance to prevent re-emergence.

No matter how much we slow it, it will still be there. It will come back. When it does, we have to react immediately to prevent one case becoming 1,000 again. But while we do that, we have to keep our lives, mental health, and the economy going. It will take solidarity like we haven’t seen in our lifetime. Our lives are literally in each others’ hands, now. 

5. Beat it: vaccines.

It will take at least 18 months to test, produce, and distribute vaccines. It needs to go out on a wide enough scale that when we reduce our vigilance, we don’t get mass outbreaks again. Scientists all around the world are working on this. We have to buy them the time it takes to do it right. There can be no shortcuts when it comes to vaccines. 

A 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 – also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 – virus particle (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/Flickr)


Critically, we must keep our frontline defenders safe. They need the maximum protection: doctors, nurses, pathologists and other medical staff are the first priority. But also police, supermarket workers, anyone who is doing an essential service that demands high contact with many people needs to be kept safe.

The rest of us will stay safe by living in a safe community. When Covid-19 hits, it overwhelms, so we have to stop it entirely. The real threat is not to individuals, but to societies. We get through this together or not at all. 

The goal is to slow the virus so we can control it enough to go about our lives, not to shut everything down.

There’s one other part to this plan. For it to work, it has to be global. Australia’s risk is still there; other countries will have their own challenges that could be even greater, particularly among our neighbours. They’re going to need our help, and we’re going to need to help them in whatever way we can. If we don’t, we’ll be surrounded by contagion. Or just as likely, when it’s our turn to need help, none will be forthcoming.

We cannot divide ourselves over biosecurity like we did over terrorism. This is a battle we have to fight together. The People’s Republic of China and United States in particular both need to step up. Our two biggest assets are currently sidelined because they’re bickering over trivia. They need to stop it. We need them in the game.

Anyone who’s been in a team endurance event knows that every member of the team needs help at one point or other. Crisis moments come in waves, and they affect each of us at different times. We’re going to have to rely on each other a lot over coming months.

Remember, the goal is to slow the virus so we can control it enough to go about our lives, not to shut everything down. The level of personal sacrifice required will vary throughout this process and it won’t be equally distributed at every point in time, but we can get through it if as a world we pull together.

Fighting Covid-19: Everyone needs to be their own Sherlock Holmes

Border controls buy time (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Border controls buy time (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2020 11:30   0 Comments

Over the past four months as Covid-19 has spread to cities and countries across the world, we’ve been inundated with strange terms and exponentially growing numbers. Names that once merely described locations are now examples to fear ­– Wuhan, South Korea, Iran, Italy – and ancient traditions that have never been diverted have been discarded like yesterday’s biohazard trash. The streets of Paris, empty. The Haj, cancelled. Tokyo2020 = Tokyo2021 please. Borders locked down, demands for self-isolation, all to stop the spread of Covid-19. 

The terrible power of this disease is not how deadly it is to individuals, but how crippling it can be health systems. Societies that blink can find themselves overwhelmed. Cases can jump from 200 to 2000 in a week. People needing intensive care and respiration can outnumber the beds and equipment available. The worst is when it takes a health worker, because then you add to the victims while subtracting from our defenders.

Covid-19 can be stopped. Complete control over this disease is the only acceptable strategy. And it is being done. Even when the outbreak seemed out of control, like in South Korea, the containment lines have been re-established. Best of all, complete control is the cheapest strategy, whereas planning for “herd immunity” – effectively allowing people to be infected in the hope of limiting the spread of the virus ­– carries a high cost in deaths.

Fighting Covid-19 is like surveillance of an enemy spy. You have to find it. Know everywhere it is. Everywhere it’s been. Everyone it met. Every. Single. Case.

By now, we’re all familiar with social distancing. Social distancing is like imposing border controls: it buys you time. It carries a cost, but it slows down the spread. Social distancing is Plan C. Social distancing is what you do when you don’t have control over the disease. 

Contact tracing was Plan A. We lost track of Covid-19 because of politics – suspicions about the transparency of reporting (China, Iran) or an initial failure to take threat seriously (the United States) – but control can be regained. Testing is Plan B. That’s how South Korea and China reasserted control. Right now, testing is difficult, with supply limited, which is why Australia is on Plan C, social distancing.

Europe is moving rapidly to Plan D, which is extreme social isolation. That is immensely costly.

What do I mean by control? I’m borrowing the phrase from Tom Marcus, the former MI5 officer who wrote about his experience in counterespionage. In his books, MI5 describe having direct visual surveillance of an enemy spy as “having control”. If they know what the spy is up to, they can intervene and foil the plot. Fighting Covid-19 is the same. You have to find it. Know everywhere it is. Everywhere it’s been. Everyone it met. Every. Single. Case.

This is the lesson from Wuhan. Doctors there talk about an army of Sherlock Holmeses, hunting for clues about where the virus has been. Only when we know everywhere this virus has been can the disease be controlled.

Testing and tracing is key. Right now, Australian protocols only permit testing if a patient can prove an epidemiological link to a known case, or if they’re sick enough from pneumonia to be admitted to intensive care and doctors can’t find any other explanation for the symptoms. Yet if only 18% of cases are likely to be admitted to an ICU, that means for every case of the virus we find hiding in the community, there were probably at least six more a week ago, which in that time undetected can produce 60 more cases. Then each of those needs to be found, but with no clues to start with.

So instead we need to test every suspect case. At present, it appears there’s a global shortage of the reagents needed to do the tests. Labs around the world are working on it. That’s why social distancing is needed to buy them the time they need.

Every person in Australia ­– and across the world – who has flu-like symptoms needs to immediately self-isolate. Call health authorities (in Australia, the hotline for Covid-19 triage is 1800 020 080) and let them know you’re a possible case. Then start doing your own contact tracing.

Write down everywhere you’ve been for the two weeks before the onset of symptoms. Everyone you met. As much of what you remember you touched. This is not easy. Call everyone you met and tell them you have symptoms. Find out if they do. You may need to tell them the symptoms – often they’re mild. Sore throat. Persistent dry cough. Aches. Fever. Short breath. Find out how the virus got you. You’re a virus hunter now.

When you find where it came from, now that person can isolate, too. Two cases off the streets. Time to find out how it got them. Help each other. Jog each others’ memory. Write it down. Tell your health authorities. If you find a cluster, you just saved your city. Aggressive, persistent contact tracing is the cheapest way to stop this disease.

Then comes the hard part: we have to keep control for at least 18 months until our scientists can produce, test, and then distribute a vaccine. No one is immune – that’s the problem. And the virus won’t be eradicated. We still don’t know the original source. Vaccines can’t be faster – safety protocols cannot be compromised. A mistake and the public may never trust vaccines for any disease ever again. Months of vigilance is what it will take. 

Getting through this will demand a level of solidarity that is hard to imagine in a world as divided as it has ever been. Yet we now have a common enemy to unite against. It can be done.