‘Infodemic’ undermines democracy: Payne

China and Russia are using the heightened anxiety around the coronavirus crisis to undermine western democracies by spreading disinformation online, the Australian government has warned.

The emphatic statement was delivered by Foreign Minister Marise Payne in a speech at the Australian National University’s National Security College in Canberra on Tuesday night.

“It is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models,” the minister said.

“The disinformation we have seen contributes to a climate of fear and division when, at a time like this, what we need is cooperation and understanding.”

A European Commission report last week concluded Russia and China were the main culprits in carrying out targeted online disinformation campaigns “seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context”.

Social media platform Twitter last week revealed it had removed more than 32,000 “political propaganda” accounts linked to the Chinese, Russian and Turkish governments for violations of its platform.

Senator Payne described it as an “infodemic”.

The federal government plans to set up a special unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to counter online campaigns spreading false information in Australia’s region of influence, the ABC reported on Wednesday.

The government has not confirmed this but Senator Payne said Australia would respond to coordinated disinformation campaigns.

On the weekend, Australia co-signed with 131 other countries and observers a Latvian-led statement warning the COVID-19 pandemic had “created conditions that enable the spread of disinformation, fake news and doctored videos to foment violence and divide communities”.

“I can assure you that Australia will resist and counter efforts at disinformation,” Senator Payne said.

“We will do so through facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad.”

Senator Payne also rejected as “disinformation” Chinese government warnings that its tourists and students should reconsider coming to Australia because of the risk of racism.

“I can say emphatically that Australia will welcome students and visitors from all over the world, regardless of race, gender or nationality,” she said.

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