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China’s disinfodemic reaches Australia

Australia has demanded an apology from a Chinese official, who posted a “repugnant” fake image, depicting an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

The image appears to refer to a report which has found “credible information” that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was vocal in his condemnation of the post, requesting its removal and calling the picture “disinformation”, “truly repugnant”, “deeply offensive”, and “utterly outrageous”.

The post comes following increasingly tense diplomatic relations between the two nations; Australian calls for an investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic; the ongoing discussion about Beijing’s alleged interference in Australian affairs; and the imposition of tariffs and trade stoppages on Australian goods, has resulted in a rapid escalation of political tensions.

The regression of bilateral relations between the two was exacerbated earlier this month when China’s embassy in Australia released a list outlining 14 policy areas in which it said Australia had acted in a way that aggravated relations, including, “incessant wanton interference in China’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs”.

The move is the latest example of the use of state-sponsored disinformation by the Chinese government, with the CCP intensifying its efforts to influence media and information space in other countries throughout the past decade.

Many political figures and rights advocates have voiced concerns over the possible impact of Chinese disinformation on human rights and democratic procedure globally.

In June 2020, Marise Payne, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, accused China of “using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy” by spreading disinformation to manipulate social media debate, going on to state that:

“Where we see disinformation, whether it’s here, whether it’s in the Pacific, whether it’s in Southeast Asia, where it affects our region’s interests and our values, then we will be shining a light on it”

The depth of the problem is exemplified by Twitter’s removal of more than 170,000 accounts connected to state-run propaganda operations based in China, Russia, and Turkey earlier this year.

A report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has found that the Chinese propaganda operation has:

“pivoted to try to weaponise the US Government’s response to current domestic protests and create the perception of a moral equivalence with the suppression of protests in Hong Kong”

According to Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, the CCP’s use of:

“coordinated and covert attempts to manipulate information – particularly regarding Covid-19 – have been detected in countries including the US, Argentina, Italy, Serbia and Taiwan”

The use of disinformation is becoming a universal issue; the steady rise of social media combined with the expansion of authoritarian states’ ambition has made the rights and freedoms of the global population increasingly vulnerable.

Watch IOHR’s webinar: Combatting disinformation – Exploring the options

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