Disinformation and misinformation: Threats to national security and democracy

Dr Stacey Henderson | Professor Melissa de Zwart | Emma Lush


Disinformation and misinformation threaten national security by distorting a country’s information environment. Their existence can also compromise diplomatic relations, and hence pose serious threats to international security.

Simon Walker, chief of the Rule of Law and Democracy section at UN Human Rights has stated that “Democracy, human rights and the rule of law are interdependent and mutually reinforce each other. Weakening one endangers the others.” Rights groups have warned that Artificial Intelligence (AI)-generated disinformation, including ‘deepfakes’, might have serious impacts on democratic processes, such as elections. With 2024 being tipped to be the biggest election year in history, the risks posed to democracy by disinformation and misinformation has never been greater.

The consequences of disinformation and misinformation

In recent years, the consequences of disinformation and misinformation have been felt on several fronts in Australia.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 being a hoax to control the world’s population, resulted in widespread rejection of vital health measures such as mask-wearing and vaccinations. Refusal to follow evidence-based health measures created risks to public health, and exposed vulnerable members of the community to real danger.

Disinformation and misinformation were also responsible for inciting violence in the Australian community. In December 2022, the shooting of two police officers in Wieambilla, Queensland -by far-right extremists who had been radicalised online – illustrate the tangible and violent consequences that disinformation and misinformation can have across borders.

Operation ‘Shadow-play’, as it has been called by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has a strategic goal of shifting the views of those in English speaking countries about the roles of China and the US in ‘international politics, the global economy and strategic technology competition.’ To do so, the campaign uses AI to create voice-overs on videos, which promote portrayals of China’s efforts to win the ‘US-China technology war’ and pushes a pro-Huawei, anti-Apple narrative. The campaign has amassed a large global audience, with their agenda spanning across 30 YouTube channels, with 4,500 videos accumulating over 120 million views and 730,000 subscribers. According to ASPI:

“The campaign focuses on promoting six narratives. Two of the most dominant narratives are that China is ‘winning’ in crucial areas of global competition: first, in the ‘US–China tech war’ and, second, in the competition for rare earths and critical minerals. Other key narratives express that the US is headed for collapse and that its alliance partnerships are fracturing, that China and Russia are responsible, capable players in geopolitics, that the US dollar and the US economy are weak, and that China is highly capable and trusted to deliver massive infrastructure projects.”

Whilst the operator of the influence campaign has not been verified, analysis suggests that it is likely to be a commercial actor.

Why is this a concern?

These examples highlight a number of causes for concern. First, social media platforms such as YouTube, further manipulated by the use of AI, have a potential to influence public opinion on topics of global significance by using disinformation and misinformation. Second they also demonstrate how inauthentic actors may overshadow content from genuine actors, making it difficult for users to discern the credibility of claims made online.

Ultimately, such operations can serve to undermine the truth and upend elections through the use and amplification of disinformation and misinformation. In other words, inauthentic actors are able to manipulate real-world events by shaping narratives and opinions, radicalising individuals, and destabilising society by undermining democratic processes. This creates serious threats to the national security landscape.

What laws apply to disinformation and misinformation?

Disinformation and misinformation are key strategies of information warfare. Information warfare is an umbrella term for strategic conduct that is aimed at manipulating an adversary’s information environment, creating both confusion and discontent. In the contemporary digital era, information warfare is typically conducted through cyber-attacks and social misinformation and disinformation presented via social media platforms.

As the above examples demonstrate, disinformation and misinformation both complicate and threaten a country’s information domain. In a democratic society, may turn to existing, relevant laws on armed conflict, privacy, data, espionage, foreign interference, elections, political campaigning, and disinformation.

For instance, reviewing the Australian context, a new publicly available report examines the domestic and international laws that directly and indirectly capture conduct that falls under the umbrella of information warfare or operations. This report contributes to a greater understanding of the complexity and dynamicity of the information domain, and the compelling need for multistate responses to the problems that it creates. Hopefully, by responding to some of the issues raised in this report, Australia and other democratic states can better protect against the risks posed by disinformation and misinformation.

Dr Stacey Henderson is a Senior Research Fellow in Law at Flinders University.

She researches areas including the protective capacity of law, the responsibility to protect, international peace and security, arms control and disarmament, and governance and law for outer space and space technology.

Professor Melissa de Zwart is the Deputy Director and Chief Investigator of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants 4 Space and Professorial Member of the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources at the University of Adelaide.

She is a prominent legal researcher, working in the areas of commercial and military uses of outer space, encompassing both domestic and international space law.

Emma Lush is a PhD scholar at the University of Adelaide.

Her research examines the promises and limits of international humanitarian law.

Posted in
Digital Security Policy Perspectives Space

Leave a Reply