Sydney researchers win grant to counter online foreign interference

29 April 2020
Propaganda and misinformation to be exposed by new research
Researchers from the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS) have been awarded $100,000 by the Department of Defence to strengthen Australia’s ability to identify and intercept information warfare.

The threat of online foreign interference has grown significantly in recent years. From Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, to fringe conspiracy theories entering the mainstream via social media, the potential for misinformation to influence and alter the world around us has never been more pronounced. And Australia is not immune.

Recognising this threat, CISS members Dr Aim Sinpeng and Professor Justin Hastings have designed a research project that will strengthen Australia’s capacity to fight foreign interference and propaganda. Partnering with Dr Nitin Argawal from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, they have won $100,000 in funding from the Department of Defence. Their research will be at the forefront of Australia’s efforts to counter misinformation and online attacks which seek to undermine security in Australia and the Pacific region.

Key to the project is the award-winning YouTubeTracker, a tool designed by Dr Argawal and his team at the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS). Already used by NATO and DARPA, YouTubeTracker allows users to perform a “cyber forensic analysis” of online content – exposing suspicious behaviours, key players, and otherwise hidden relationships between content across social media platforms.

“YouTube is key to tracking misinformation,” said Dr Sinpeng. “Because of its less restrictive content monitoring, misinformation often originates there before moving on to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp.”

Our preliminary research has already found that Australia is being targeted by the same disinformation campaigns that have plagued NATO and US Defense.
Dr Aim Sinpeng

In addition to monitoring and exposing malicious content online, Sinpeng and Hastings will also work to upskill Defence personnel who specialise in countering information warfare.

“The Department of Defence knows that improving Australia’s cybersecurity capabilities is an urgent priority,” said Dr Sinpeng. “We are living in a time of unprecedented security challenges – rapid technological advancements, new types of conflict and warfare, and the weakening of the rules-based international order.”

“Our preliminary research has already found that Australia is being targeted by the same disinformation campaigns that have plagued NATO and US Defense. Our project will equip Defence staff with the skills to combat these attacks and to respond to the changing security environment in which we find ourselves.”

Over the next year, the research team will train Defence staff to use YouTubeTracker and will host a one-day symposium on foreign interference and misinformation. The event will bring together academics, industry, start-ups, and representatives from Defence and other government agencies to share knowledge and insights, as well as brainstorm solutions to the challenges posed by information warfare. A comprehensive policy report will capture the findings and recommendations of the project.

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