Digital literacy is a national security asset

Not long ago, coordinated disinformation and its trail of social and political chaos was something that happened to other countries. No longer. Authoritarian states have expanded their information operations in Australia, and local actors are learning and imitating. Government efforts to deal with the problem haven’t yet responded to its sheer scale.

Australia urgently needs to put into place well-funded public disinformation literacy campaigns, augmented by digital media literacy education in schools, a report published by the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D) argues. The government also needs to grow and support fact-checking bodies in media organisations, universities and the non-government sector.

As the problem of disinformation grows, it’s clear that the softer options of industry self-regulation and voluntary codes of conduct aren’t enough. The news-media bargaining agreement with Meta, for example, is unravelling. It was supposed to put more money into news journalism to balance the mass of disinformation online, but Meta has moderation fatigue and is moving away from news altogether.

The government is still working through draft disinformation legislation that would give more regulatory bite, compelling social media companies to take more responsibility for the disinformation that their platforms so effectively enable.

Some of Australia’s foremost media and information experts, consulted in the AP4D report, say a huge piece of the policy puzzle is missing: people need help to protect themselves from online harms, including disinformation and other forms of manipulation, so they can really understand the powerful cognitive effects of disinformation coupled with the powerful delivery systems of social media.

So far, efforts to counter malicious information operations, disinformation and other threats in the information domain have been piecemeal and reactive, rather than comprehensive and strategic.

With almost half of the adult population not confident in their ability to identify misinformation online, combatting disinformation should be a national priority. Truth-based information is a fundamental national and global public good, needed for basic governance in any political system. In liberal democracies, truth-based information is needed to secure rights of citizens, conduct fair elections, administer the rule of law and make market economics work. It is also essential as a deterrent to corruption and the foreign interference that corrupt political and economic systems attract.

A low level of public literacy on disinformation and related threats is a key vulnerability for Australia.

A well-funded and ongoing public literacy campaign to reach Australia’s diverse national audiences is now a national necessity if we are to help citizens to reject disinformation and avoid such harms as fraud and identity theft, intrusive surveillance, harassment and data exploitation.

The efforts of non-government groups such as the Australian Media Literacy Alliance, a consortium of key public institutions and networked organisations, focus on supporting lifelong learning, especially for those who may be vulnerable to disinformation or digital exclusion. Through consultation, research and advocacy, the consortium’s primary goal is to develop and promote a government-endorsed national media literacy strategy for Australia. Its model should be supported.

In addition to broad-based public awareness campaigns, digital media literary needs to be included in education curriculums from early childhood onwards, to help children and young adults build resilience.

This includes, for example, teaching students to not just engage with information by scrolling down the page or by considering its superficial validity but also by learning about its source—by leaving the webpage, opening another tab and searching elsewhere. The concept is called ‘lateral reading’.

Radicalisation prevention and support strategies should be built into that framework. A successful education campaign would include teaching how to recognise disinformation and propaganda aimed at radicalisation and attempts at exploiting individual vulnerabilities for recruitment. Children and young adults need to be aware of the harmful and violent nature of radical groups and their financial and political aims. They also would benefit from presentation of the real world consequences of online violence. People who have already been radicalised need easily accessible off-ramps when they want to escape.

While cultivating more critical thinking, we also need immediate pushback against disinformation as it arises. This is where factchecking organisations operating at arm’s length from government become important. Their work would reinforce transparency and accuracy in the public sphere.

Key to implementation is raising the level of government communication with citizens. This can be challenging, especially in a risk-adverse public service, but where the government does not speak there is a vacuum that can be filled with disinformation.

With two thirds of Australians polled in a 2021 survey considering the ability to recognise and prevent the flow of misinformation as either extremely important or very important, there is an unarguable mandate for action.