The Morrison Government’s recent announcement of a $270bn dollar investment in long range ballistic missiles was accompanied by a pitch about the fractious relationship between China and the United States, and the unstable geo-political global environment we find ourselves in.

While our traditional concept of threat and national defence is framed in terms of military hardware and capability, what has been unarguably been more destabilising to democracy and East-West relations over the last decade has been the rise and weaponising of digital technology. A little publicised but highly effective digital war.

Russia – upset with the West over its refusal to wind up NATO following the break-up of the Soviet Union – has engaged in a decade long campaign to undermine western military, political, and economic alliances such as NATO and the EU, and to foment instability within western democracies.

A cursory look across the European and American political map would seem to indicate that campaign has been a low-cost but successful enterprise. Extreme political organisations in the west have been funded and supported by Russia to engage in destabilising digital and social campaigns that are polarising western democracies.

In spite of the mountains of misinformation pumped out through social media, the good news is that despite the spreading of polarising propaganda or misinformation campaigns by legions of bots is, we know that people still see a central role for the traditional media.

This has become particularly evident during the COVID-19 crisis as people search for trusted sources of media. In Australia, the top 10 news sites surged by 54% during March 2020, with the ABC almost doubling its audience from 5.1 to 9.8 million in the four weeks from February 23.

But at the same time as Australians have flocked to traditional media as a trusted source of information, the pillars of traditional media in Australia are crumbling. AAP, Nine, the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Daily, News Corp regionals and non-dailies going digital, cuts to ABC funding are just some of the media impacted. People can only flock to trusted media sources if they are financially viable and continue to exist.

The survival and health of the traditional media is an issue not only of variety, but of public trust. 

The traditional media landscape is balkanising and fracturing just as malicious digital agents are dumping enormous amounts of propaganda and dangerous ideas into the news cycle, from COVID doesn’t exist, to anti-Vax messages, 5G conspiracies, race hate, and of course the ruminations of Donald Trump who often dredges up his ideas from this swamp and regurgitates and popularises them through the mainstream. By the time the dwindling traditional media has sorted through this pile of garbage, another truck is backing up with a fresh load to dump onto the pile. 

It’s a growing garbage heap that can never be sorted with the resources our current media has, but it’s time to look at the dump trucks. At the vehicles through which this garbage is delivered; social media platforms.

It’s time regulation catches up with digital innovation and government begins making social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter financially and legally liable for the content it hosts. 

We’ve seen recently Jack Dorsey from Twitter step up in a small way to tag some of Donald Trump’s posts as requiring a fact check. Mark Zuckerberg has a significant distance to go. And now the lack of action on that front is starting to have material impacts, with Coca-Cola and Unilever pulling out of Facebook due to a lack of responsibility and oversight.

Whether it likes it or not, Facebook is a news delivery platform. Facebook seems to have no problem shutting down images of women breastfeeding or other instances of non-pornographic nudity, yet somehow highly repellent, inflammatory, hate-inciting, and dangerous content is allowed to stay there unchecked.

If anyone doubted the importance of a healthy media to democracy, it should be abundantly clear now. The government needs to work with the media now to find a model to financially support trusted news sources who are liable for the content they produce, and to make the social platforms that aren’t answerable for their content. The greatest threat to Australia’s security right now lies within the media space and the future health of our democracy depends upon the government acting to support it.

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