Trump’s misleading information enables China to sow discord among allies, research finds

The Trump administration’s spreading of misinformation about the origins and treatment of Covid-19 has made it much harder for Australia and the US to counter disinformation campaigns being waged by China, a top researcher has warned.

A new report by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre calls on Australia and the US to strengthen their capacity to counter state-backed disinformation, ahead of a meeting of both countries’ defence and foreign ministers – but also calls on the allies to get their own houses in order.

One of the authors, Ashley Townshend, who heads the centre’s foreign policy and defence section, told Guardian Australia some of the Trump administration’s statements had played into China’s attempt to sow discord and division among the allies.

“The Trump administration’s own engagement in misinformation in alleging that Covid-19 originated from a Chinese biosecurity laboratory, including its use of a highly questionable intelligence dossier leaked to the press to make that point internationally, corrodes the information environment in which all narratives exist,” he said.

Townshend said when Donald Trump spread false or misleading information – whether it was on the use of bleach to treat Covid-19, the extent of the outbreak in the US, and the claims about its origins – that provided “fertile ground for China’s own disinformation to also to muddy the waters”.

“If we want to be strong in our approach to disinformation, that starts with being careful and evidence-based in our own approach to public discourse and public policy, and that hasn’t been the case with President Trump and some of his associates,” he said.

The report says China’s disinformation against Australia has attempted to discredit Canberra’s foreign policy independence and thereby weaken support for the alliance.

It argues that to withstand disinformation claims, “political leaders on both sides of the Pacific must talk about Australia and the alliance in ways which accurately capture Canberra’s autonomous actions”. The allies should ensure political discourse about prospective targets of disinformation – like Australia’s call for a global coronavirus inquiry – “is not tainted by self-perpetuated misinformation or hyperbole”.

Townshend pointed to comments by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, implying last month that the US could cut off communications channels with Australia if the state of Victoria proceeded with Belt and Road projects – remarks that were clarified within hours by the US embassy.

“These sorts of comments falsely imply, even without intending to, that Australia is somehow beholden to America … which is especially unhelpful when we are in the midst of a Chinese disinformation campaign that is trying to discredit Canberra by making that precise point,” Townshend said.

The aim of Beijing’s disinformation campaign, he said, was to sow discord about the independence of Australia’s China policy and create a political wedge between the US and Australia.

The US Studies Centre’s report calls on Australian and American ministers to use the forthcoming meeting, known as Ausmin, to establish channels for rapid coordinating against real-time disinformation activities. .

The proposal comes after Marise Payne, the Australian foreign minister, vowed last week to step up efforts to combat disinformation. Payne characterised China’s warnings to students about the risk of racist attacks in Australia as “disinformation”.

Payne also pointed to last week’s report issued by the European Commission that concluded Russia and China had carried out targeted disinformation campaigns “seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation”.

A Senate select committee on foreign interference through social media on Monday heard evidence from Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook and now adjunct professor at Stanford University’s Centre for International Security and Cooperation, about how the Covid-19 pandemic, and the geopolitical tensions it has exacerbated, has shifted the online environment for disinformation.

The Senate inquiry was established last year to investigate the risks posed to Australia’s democracy by foreign interference through social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WeChat. The hearing on Monday was focused on the impact of the pandemic.

Stamos, who runs the virality project at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said countries had “opportunistically” grabbed the Covid crisis as a vehicle to lionise their own responses to the pandemic and “tear down” the responses of rival governments as a new iteration of great power tensions.

He said China’s activities should be of significant concern to Australia because it was rapidly expanding its covert disinformation capabilities in English “to influence people around the world” – a shift that began with the Hong Kong protests and has intensified during the Covid-19 crisis.

Stamos said this activity was not necessarily targeted at the Five Eyes intelligence partners, but more likely at South East Asia and the developing world. He said Twitter had removed 23,000 accounts linked with this activity. He said China had laid the groundwork before the pandemic and then there was “a massive shift” from January 2020 “to push information around the pandemic”.

While Chinese activity should be of concern to Australia, Stamos said a lot of disinformation in America during Covid-19 had been domestic rather than foreign.

“A lot of it has been people around the anti-vaccination [movement] who believe that everything is a conspiracy – Bill Gates, despite having more money than God, he’s got some kind of plan to use vaccines to get more money,” Stamos said.

He said more false information had been circulated by “grifters” using the pandemic to sell things. “That has been effective, much more effective than any foreign campaign that we’ve seen.”


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