Who's influencing your news feed?

An election in the age of misinformation.

Election interference is much more prevalent and sinister than most of us realise – even in what we might consider a ‘safe’ corner of the planet.

After a lifetime spent in intelligence, investigation and combatting technological crime, former FBI Special Agent Dr Dennis Desmond is now a lecturer at USC’s School of Science, Technology and Engineering.

It’s given him a front row seat to what is unfolding before Saturday’s Australian federal election.

“The breadth and depth election interference plunges to is immense,” says Dr Desmond.

“Australia’s enemies are willing to do whatever it takes, especially at a time of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, China’s influence over the South Pacific, and ongoing trade and commodity wars.

“In previous years there has been the perception that foreign enemies interfered in elections to install one party or leader in favour of another one.

“But the truth is that these forces try to manipulate all parties, make donations to opposing parties, and gather a level of intelligence about individuals that is frankly alarming.”

Dr Desmond says the main objective of malevolent forces is to create three things – fear, uncertainty and doubt.

It can be as simple as creating articles, websites or conflicting media that cause confusion about when to vote, how to vote, or where to vote.

However, it can also be about testing people’s reactions to hot topics; things a foreign enemy may be interested in.

“They will try and draw out responses from people on strategic issues, whether their target is politicians, influential figures or voters,” says Dr Desmond.

“They might confect or put the spotlight on certain situations to know exactly where somebody stands about control of the South China Sea, independence for Taiwan, or attitude towards having American forces stationed in Australia.

“Or it might be attempting to cause maximum division through polarising issues like mask mandates, vaccines, taxes, wealth, minimal wage, race et cetera. These are all potential wedges for foreign adversaries to cause distrust, confusion, disunity and instability in the general population.

“A lot of people see mainstream media as the cause of misinformation at the moment, but the really harmful stuff is coming from articles with unidentified sources, no sources, unchecked facts, or coming from personal mediums.

“For instance, people might be more inclined to trust something considered more intimate like Reddit, but right now there are forums established on that platform designed specifically to cause disruption and undermine the USA’s influence in Australia.”

Are some people more at risk from online manipulation than others?

Being unable to differentiate the motives or the sources of information providers means some people will trust (or distrust) all published media equally.

That means the same truth value is afforded to a hoax post or an extremist group as is afforded to an objective article sourced from multiple perspectives and independently fact-checked.

Online interference can also, quite worryingly, be aimed at specific demographics.

 “We all need to be careful of cyber attacks, unidentified emails and fraudulent text messages, but some people are targeted more than others,” Dr Desmond says.

“Chinese students, for example, are bombarded with coercive attacks, phishing scams and a mix of both criminal and state-sponsored assaults.

“The forces at play are very interested in who might be of Chinese descent, who might have family or acquaintances in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, who is involved in technology or defence – and what their attitudes are on certain things.

“Acquisition of identity data makes it easier to target people of economic and political influence.

“One of the interesting and telling factors about this type of identity data is that you don’t see it come up for sale on the dark web. That speaks to how valuable it is considered, and how little they want other people to have the same information.”

Dr Desmond admits to “having a few soapboxes” and one of the issues he is intensely passionate about is educating children pre-emptively about recognising misinformation, scams and manipulation.

He is also passionate about ensuring equitable access to technology across Australian regions.

In the same way that being unable to read or write held back children of past generations, created poverty cycles and discrimination, Dr Desmond perceives potential for Australia to be divided between those who can access technology and identify common trickery, and those who are more susceptible.

“One of the things I’ve discovered since becoming involved in academia is that there needs to be greater training at high school level and younger ages to encourage critical thinking,” Dr Desmond says.

“The amount of information a child is bombarded with now, compared to 50 years ago, is completely different.

“Processing and discerning everything that is thrown at them is a huge and constant task.

“We need to help children understand the information flow and the forces at play, we need to encourage taking everything with a grain of salt, and we need parental supervision and discussion, but without banning or restricting everything.

“Education is key to combating misinformation.”

With that in mind, here's four tips to help you stay safe online

Stay calm
If you receive an alarming email, text message or phone call from a government agency such as the tax office don't panic - terminate contact and verify it separately. You can contact the organisation independently to fact-check what you've been told.

Don't trust everything you see on social media - corroborate it with multiple other sources, including mainstream media agencies.

Ask questions
Who has something to gain from spreading this information or disinformation? Who wrote it? Who’s publishing it? Is it paid content? Was it written for a domestic audience or a foreign one? Critically analyse it, including whether your own biases are influencing your opinion.

Trust your gut
If information seems spurious, it probably is.