At a glance.
- Foreign attempts to manipulate Australian elections.
- The importance of language skills in monitoring disinformation.
- From platform manipulation to state-run media.
- State Department designates media outlets "foreign missions."
Election manipulation in Australia staged from Southeastern Europe.
Gizmodo reports that an Australian Senate inquiry into election influence operations heard testimony that fake social media accounts, for the most part on Facebook and Twitter, were being used to serve misinformation to Australian voters. The accounts were for the most part based in Southeastern Europe, in Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia. Some of this activity, perhaps much of it, seems to have been directed toward pushing users toward content farms that generated advertising revenue from page visits. Testimony from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (archived here) contended that much of the disinformation is financially motivated, and enabled by the prevailing business model in social media, a business model that's quite different, they say, from that of traditional journalism.
"Social media companies are not exchanging quality content for audience and rely instead on user generated content to attract audiences for advertising. This has resulted in changed incentives for ‘news’ and content producers. Online, financial incentives are linked to audience size—views, eyeballs, or clicks—and sensationalist and provocative content gathers more engagement, so content producers are de facto encouraged to produce sensationalist content, not necessarily high-quality journalism or even journalism of any sort."
Their testimony, and that of some others who appeared before the inquiry, called for various independent mechanisms for controlling content in social media. Some of those proposals warned against the risks, ZDNet writes, of outsourcing decisions about what's "true or false in an Australian context" to American tech companies like Facebook.
It's perhaps worth noting that the traditional journalistic model may have had a relatively brief career, with its heyday in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century. The yellow and jingo press of the late Nineteenth Century might, if transported to 2020, quickly come to feel at home in social media.
The smaller Balkan countries have been attractive places from which to content-farm for some time. In March of 2019 Facebook removed 2,632 pages, groups, and accounts from Facebook and Instagram which it claims were "engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior." The company took action on the behavior the accounts exhibited rather than on the basis of the content they posted. The operations were localized to Iran, Russia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. The sets of activities didn't appear to be linked, although they used similar tactics, and the "people responsible are determined and well-funded."
In November of last year the New York Times noted the financial motivation that seemed on display in Southeastern Europe. State-style information operations can find their way into click-bait commercial marketing, as a Nisos inquiry into a US news start-up and its employment of writers based in Macedonia suggested. Far left or far right, as long as concocted, inflammatory news stories drive traffic, it seems to be a win, the Times reported. ZDNet has an update on how the Balkan troll farms are currently operating.
The inflammatory content the Australian Strategic Policy Institute cited in their testimony tended to be anti-Islamic, and they pointed out that such content can have tragic influence beyond simply fogging electoral judgment. They point to the Christchurch mosque shooter as an example of malign influence and its effects.
The Australian inquiry is not a short-term project. It's expected to be complete in May of 2022, Exit News reports.
The importance of language skills in monitoring disinformation.
WeChat, popular among Chinese-speaking Australians, appears to have the potential to become a main conduit for Beijing's information operations. The Canberra Times sensibly suggests that it would be a good idea to recruit more Chinese speakers into the agencies that monitor social media and foreign propaganda.
Australia has been much concerned of late over Chinese hacking incidents. There's also concern over Chinese disinformation, as News.com reports, especially during the current pandemic emergency. Foreign Minister Marise Payne warned of the danger in a speech at the Australian National University: “It is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own more authoritarian models. The disinformation we have seen contributed to a climate of fear and division when, at a time like this, what we need is co-operation and understanding.”
Influence operations shift from "platform manipulation" to "overt state assets."
In a House Intelligence Committee virtual hearing yesterday, the Hill says that testimony from both Twitter and Facebook reported that state-run disinformation efforts haven't abated, but have instead exhibited a change in tactics. Because the platforms have become more vigilant for, and effective against, coordinated inauthenticity, intelligence services are making greater use of "overt state assets," that is, media outlets controlled by, and generally understood to be controlled by, their governments.
US designates four Chinese media outlets as "foreign missions."
Some of those "overt state assets" are controlled by China. US Secretary of State Pompeo accused China of using its influence to drive a wedge in the transatlantic alliance. The Washington Post quotes him as saying, late last week in Copenhagen, that the Chinese Communist Party “wants you to throw away the progress we in the free world have made, through NATO and other institutions — formal and informal — and adopt a new set of rules and norms that accommodate Beijing.”
The US State Department has designated China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times as "foreign missions," that is, Chinese government propaganda outlets. The Wall Street Journal quotes David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific to the effect that “These aren’t journalists. These are members of the propaganda apparatus.” Beijing says it’s a lot of arbitrary Yankee hooey, that the news outlets are firmly grounded in “objectivity, impartiality, truthfulness and accuracy,” which is the PRC’s story and they’re sticking to it. The Chinese government went on, “This is totally unjustified and unacceptable, and once again exposes its double standards and hypocrisy of the so-called freedom of press.” The State Department’s designation won’t shut down the four services’ operations in the US, but it will prove to be at the very least an irritant. Designation under the Foreign Missions Act will require the news operations to report all their personnel to the State Department, and to register any property they hold, whether they own it or lease it.