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ICYMI: a shocking disinformation campaign, detoxing the internet, Measuring What Matters, and more

As Julian Assange makes global headlines, the column this week has a timely focus on the harmful exercise of United States power in spreading anti-vax disinformation, and the importance of truth telling and safe information environments.

It also brings the latest climate news, global and local, as well as news that the Albanese Government is progressing the Measuring What Matters framework. No doubt many Croakey readers will be relieved to hear this.

The quotable?

The spread of hatred and lies online is causing grave harm to our world.”


Pentagon weaponises disinformation

On 14 June, Reuters published an indepth investigation: Pentagon ran secret anti-vax campaign to undermine China during pandemic.

The clandestine operation has not been previously reported, said Reuters. It aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid that was being supplied by China.

Through phony internet accounts meant to impersonate Filipinos, the military’s propaganda efforts turned into an anti-vax campaign, which began in the spring of 2020 and expanded beyond Southeast Asia before it was terminated in mid-2021, Reuters determined.

The military program started under former President Donald Trump and continued months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Reuters found – even after alarmed social media executives warned the new administration that the Pentagon had been trafficking in COVID misinformation.

The Biden White House issued an edict in spring 2021 banning the anti-vax effort, which also had disparaged vaccines produced by other rivals, and the Pentagon initiated an internal review, reported Reuters.

I must confess to having missed the story until alerted to it this week by Professor Julie Leask from the University of Sydney.

Below are her comments:

“Our previous research of vaccine information spread on Twitter showed that bot accounts generated less exposure because bots didn’t attract so many followers and people rarely re-tweeted a bot’s message. So even as a military strategy it didn’t seem to be well researched.

“However, the impact is going to be more indirect. Just knowing a government uses vaccination for propaganda undermines confidence, it can hamper vaccine uptake, and cause outbreaks which itself is a threat to global health security.

“These tactics harm vaccination programs and the effects are long-lasting. In 2011, the CIA was alleged to have used a hepatitis B vaccination campaign to track down Osama Bin Laden. Vaccination workers have been killed and vaccines continue to be a point of division among some Muslim leaders, when previously they were not. Many are working hard to repair damaged confidence. These strategies undermine that work.

“The White House said in 2014 that the CIA would no longer use vaccination as a cover for spy operations. Now the Pentagon has. It chips away at trust, which is at the heart of vaccination programs.

“It is also bad for public health to deliberately foment fear about vaccines in the Philippines, a country where health officials have been struggling to regain trust in vaccines after recent safety scares. In weighing these strategic decisions, US military and intelligence agencies need to be better at consulting with their own health advisors and diplomats.

“When we wrote the World Health Organization guidance on communicating about COVID-19 vaccine safety concerns, we thought out different scenarios.

“We never imagined a deliberate strategy from the US military could be one of them. Now this has to be figured into the vaccine risk communications playbook.”


Global information integrity principles

Picking up on the issues above, it’s timely to see the United Nations is launching ‘Global Principles for Information Integrity’. Read more here: Algorithms should not control what people see.

The principles reportedly focus on building trust and resilience, ensuring an independent and pluralistic media, creating healthy incentives based on factual information, enhancing transparency and research, and empowering the public.

Key recommendations include urging governments, tech companies, advertisers, and media to avoid using or amplifying disinformation and hate speech. At the same time, governments should ensure timely access to information, support an independent media landscape, and protect journalists and civil society.

Tech companies should prioritise safety and privacy, apply consistent policies and support information integrity, especially around elections – while stakeholders involved in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) should ensure its safe, responsible and ethical deployment factoring in human rights.

Tech companies should explore business models that do not rely on programmatic advertising and which do not prioritise engagement above human rights. Instead, they should prioritise user privacy and safety.

Advertisers should demand transparency in digital advertising processes from the tech sector to help ensure they do not end up inadvertently funding disinformation or hateful messaging.

Tech companies and AI developers should also provide meaningful transparency, allow researcher access to data while respecting user privacy. Executives should also ensure independent audits and boost accountability.

Government, tech companies, AI developers and advertisers should take special measures to protect and empower children, with governments providing resources for parents, guardians and educators.


Global health

NASA climate legacy tool

https://x.com/fiona_bull/status/1806025139475370070

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights that 2.6 million deaths per year were attributable to alcohol consumption, accounting for 4.7% of all deaths, and 0.6 million deaths to psychoactive drug use. Notably, 2 million of alcohol and 0.4 million of drug-attributable deaths were among men.

WHO’s Global status report on alcohol and health and treatment of substance use disorders provides a comprehensive update based on 2019 data on the public health impact of alcohol and drug use and situation with alcohol consumption and treatment of substance use disorders worldwide. The report shows an estimated 400 million people lived with alcohol and drug use disorders globally. Of this, 209 million people lived with alcohol dependence.


#AusPol

The Measuring What Matters framework is being further developed. A joint statement by the Treasurer and Dr Andrew Leigh said the Australian Bureau of Statistics will deliver a newly renovated annual survey on the wellbeing of Australians, helping to inform a more comprehensive statement that the Government will publish every three years.

Every three years, the Government will release a comprehensive Measuring What Matters statement examining trends in wellbeing, how we are tracking over time, where we’re doing well and where we need to do better. These insights will be used to inform budgets and government decision‑making.

Reporting of annual progress against the framework will be transferred from Treasury to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, embedding the wellbeing framework alongside other critical indicators like GDP, employment and wages.

The Government is boosting funding too so that the ABS can deliver more frequent data and to assume responsibility for the Measuring What Matters dashboard as part of the next annual update, which is expected in August.

The Government is investing $14.8 million to expand and enhance the General Social Survey run by the ABS “to paint a bigger, more detailed and vibrant picture of Australians’ wellbeing”.

The survey will be conducted annually to deliver more timely data, the sample size will be increased to ensure that the survey provides insights into sub‑groups of the population and it will be expanded to include new questions across a range of topics, including:

  • Overall life satisfaction
  • Participation in volunteering
  • Experience of discrimination
  • The ability of a household to raise emergency funds in response to unexpected circumstances
  • Participation in formal study and informal learning
  • Attendance at cultural events and participation in cultural activities
  • Prevalence of serious psychological distress and chronic conditions
  • Trust in others and key institutions.


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