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Where radicalisation starts and how fake news spreads

Australian politicians stood together last December to offer condolences to the families of two police officers and a civilian killed by three individuals committing an act of terrorism inspired by a fundamentalist reading of Christian texts.

Home affairs minister Clare O’Neil told Parliament during the condolence motion that there would be a deep dive into the problems caused by radicalisation, disinformation and misinformation.

At the time of the shootings, these three factors were looming large as key issues needing further exploration. O’Neil flagged they would be investigated at a national level.

“Radicalisation is not new, but it is absolutely clear from events here and around the world that conspiracy theories, disinformation and misinformation — problems as old as time — are being turbocharged by technology into terrible acts of violence,” O’Neil said.

Misinformation is defined as information that is wrong but might be sent unintentionally. Disinformation is the deliberate creation and dissemination of material known to be inaccurate with a specific objective in mind such as making a political adversary look inadequate or lacking in credibility.

Bad actors are constantly seeking faster communication channels and broader distribution opportunities to twist online narratives using misinformation and disinformation for their own political purposes.

This was certainly true during the pandemic when domestic fringe groups were seeking to grow the number of protesters keen to rise up against government health measures in Australia and elsewhere.

Frequent protests were organised in capital cities and online messaging forums flourished with anti-government, anti-vaccine and anti-health mandate grievances. These are key themes for those seeking to grow numbers for a cause.

Extreme ideological narratives

Terrorism and law enforcement experts Kristy Campion, Jamie Ferrill and Kristy Milligan wrote a paper on misinformation used by fringe groups during the pandemic in Australia. It found evidence of situations where government information and media reportage was perceived as unreliable.

The authors wrote this situation created “yet another space for extreme ideological narratives to emerge and exploit”.

“Beyond this, it could degrade the trust citizens hold in governments in the midst of a pandemic, and may lead to confusion about what information is trustworthy,” the paper said.

“This could lead citizens to turn elsewhere for answers, and potentially interact with narratives overtly or covertly disseminated by extremist actors.”

The appeal of the anti-government and anti-mandate narratives, which sometimes embedded a call to action (such as violence against politicians), has declined with the gradual removal of restrictions related to COVID-19 by the federal, state and territory governments.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) recently told Senate estimates there was less anger surrounding public health measures.

“In response to those people who were agitated by COVID measures and the introduction of more volatility into the mix and people who might be driven by their own grievances — and I stress that I’m focusing on the small number of those that might think violence is the answer; for everyone else, they’re entitled to be agitated about these things,” ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said.

“The volatility has reduced somewhat, particularly around the COVID, so there’s less angst these days; we’re not subject to mandates.”

Some of the extreme sentiment still exists, the ASIO chief observed, but there are fewer people who think that violence is the answer to fix issues about which they are airing grievances.

Burgess also noted there was little evidence of people concerned about COVID-19 and coronavirus issues linked with neo-Nazism, racist violent extremism or nationalism.

ASIO did see evidence of leaders of groups that hold extremist views using the cover of COVID-19 and public health mandates as a way of trying to recruit new members to their causes. Did they succeed?

“They do manage to recruit some people. Would I say it was a bumper campaign for them? Probably not,” Burgess said. “But they continue to focus on how they will attract people to their cause.”

State-based actors

Using narratives designed to cast aspersions on government action or inaction and the fast spread of that narrative are not the only confronting experts trying to analyse the endlessly morphing landscape of online disinformation and misinformation.

State-based actors and their proxies use forums such as social media platforms to either deliver overt messages about their political rivals or amplify divisions within a country that has clear divisions growing within it.

Rand Corporation research examined how Russia and China sought to discredit the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. It published a report, “Superspreaders of Malign and Subversive Information on COVID-19”, which offers examples of the kinds of material China and Russia circulated.

Russian sources spread various conspiracy theories that included various takes on the origins of the coronavirus, the spread and danger of the virus, and also the availability or otherwise of treatments that would help manage the virus.

“Focusing on messages about treatments and countermeasures, Russia-linked sources peddled conspiracy theories that claimed the suppression of evidence for effective and easily accessible treatments ranging from hydroxychloroquine to vitamins and herbal tinctures,” the report says.

“Some of these theories proposed that the reason for this alleged suppression were that profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies prioritised expensive developments of new medical treatments and vaccinations and that ‘elites’ were seeking world domination through control of medicines or through their use.”

It found China disseminated similar kinds of disinformation, with a key focus on the origin of the virus. One theory had COVID-19 originating in the United States before sweeping to China and other countries.

The Rand team also looked into ways governments could counter these tactics.

It suggests governments will need to embark on messaging campaigns to address the themes and capabilities of China and Russia, but that this will require further research. Both Russia and China will often amplify each other’s messaging.

Rand says more research is needed to understand what American audiences are vulnerable to messaging from Russia and China. Results from demographic research of that kind would help counter-messaging.

Creating profiles of Chinese or Russian agencies known to be disseminators of untruths, the Rand team said, would help understand the adversary and aid campaigns against the disinformation being spread.

A final observation made by the Rand researchers was that any public health messaging campaigns on the coronavirus should “account for the potential impacts of Russian and Chinese messaging on vaccination”.

Source: Tom Ravlic for The Mandarin

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