A cyber security project aimed at detecting disinformation is the recipient of a $520,000 Department of Defence Australian Research Council grant.

Drawing from psychology, the social sciences and computer sciences, the Enhanced Disinformation Detection initiative will be led by Professor Monica Whitty, the Director of the UNSW Institute for Cyber Security (IFCYBER). Collaborators include UNSW Associate Professor Stephen Doherty (IFCYBER faculty lead) and University of Melbourne Professor Richard Sinnott.

The project aims to apply a novel interdisciplinary approach to learn more about how disinformation can be systematically identified and how to categorise the clusters of disinformation that are more likely to be believed and spread.

“Disinformation is deceptive content,” Professor Whitty said.

“However, we believe that a binary approach to disinformation (fake versus real) may be unhelpful and does not reflect the growing complexity, dimensionality, and multimodality of disinformation content. Deception can take many forms – think of the white lies people tell.

“Moreover, disinformation content doesn’t always contain outright lies – but can be a mix of the truth and a lie. This potentially makes the material seem more believable.”

Portrait of Professor Monica Whitty

Professor Whitty said some types of disinformation are of greater concern than others. This project will focus on the defining features of disinformation and how this differs from authentic information.

“Importantly, we are also interested in the defining features of more believable disinformation – given this is the type of disinformation that ought to be more of concern,” Professor Whitty said.

She said disinformation is a significant and growing problem because it is being used to undermine our nation’s security, threaten our democratic process, and threaten citizens’ quality of life.

What is referred to as ‘grey zone disinformation campaigns’ (termed because they are between peace and war) are being continually run to undermine political institutions.

“This project will use a novel and innovative approach to address the research gaps in a phenomenon of enormous significance to society and to work towards the identification and curtailing of potentially harmful and believable disinformation,” Professor Whitty said. 

“We are interested in helping to make a contribution to protecting the nation’s security.”

The project will draw from psychology, the social sciences and computer sciences to identify the features of disinformation relative to authentic information, identify the types of disinformation that are more believable and sharable, and inform future directions in methodologies and policy around detection of disinformation and countering methods and campaigns.

“The grant enables a partner of experts in cyber security to work together on this problem,” Professor Whitty said. 

“We will also employ and train post docs to assist in the project. This will give us the opportunity to train the next generation of researchers in the multidisciplinary field of cyber security.”

UNSW Defence Research Institute Director Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison (ret’d) said it was a great result for the University.

“The information and cyber domain has joined the sea, land, air and space domains as critical to the success of the Australian Defence Force in joint operations, from humanitarian response missions to high-end combat,” Vice-Admiral Maddison said.

“Understanding the role of influence activities in shaping strategic decisions from both an offensive and defensive perspective will enable commanders at the operational and tactical levels to distil ground truth from intended deceptions, and therefore be better prepared to lead their sailors, soldiers and aviators towards securing Australia’s national interests.

“The work of Professor Whitty and her UNSW IFCYBER team will undoubtedly contribute much to enabling the ADF’s future success.”