Democracies face ‘truth decay’ as AI blurs fact and fiction, warns head of Australia’s military

Australia’s top military leader has warned that democracies will be vulnerable to “truth decay” as artificial intelligence tools eventually leave citizens struggling to sift fact from fiction.

Gen Angus Campbell, the chief of the Australian defence force, accused Russia of wielding disinformation as “a weapon of statecraft” in the United States and the United Kingdom. Such campaigns could increasingly be used to fracture “the trust that binds us”.

Campbell also warned of increasing disruption sparked by the climate crisis, saying if the world failed to take stronger collective action “we may all be humbled by a planet made angry by our collective neglect”.

Addressing an Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference on Thursday evening, Campbell said rapid advances in technology were occurring at the same time as increasing great power competition.

“Today, we are more connected and have access to more information than any other time in history – and also more disinformation,” Campbell told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“We rightly pride ourselves on being an open, diverse and liberal society – in other words, exposed.

“Healthy and functioning societies such as ours depend upon a well-informed and engaged citizenry. Unfortunately, it is often said, we are increasingly living in a post-truth world where perceptions and emotions often trump facts.”

Campbell said the Soviet Union regularly engaged in campaigns to discredit or damage the United States and its allies during the cold war.

“Building on this inheritance, the Russian Federation wielded disinformation as a weapon of statecraft in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit referendum,” he said.

“While the overarching intent of the Soviet and Russian disinformation campaigns were the same, what sets them apart is the Russian Federation’s use of novel technologies to enhance the scale, speed and spread of their efforts.

“By feeding and amplifying untruths and fake news on social media via the use of bots, troll farms, and fake online personas, the Russians attacked American and British democracy, highlighting distrust, sowing discord and undermining faith in key institutions.”

Taken to their extremes, Campbell said, such operations had “the potential to fracture and fragment entire societies so that they no longer possess the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions”.

He said the emergence of AI-enabled deepfakes were further complicating people’s ability to perceive reality, would become increasingly sophisticated, and had obvious risks to national security when they impersonated leading public officials.

Campbell warned that as generative AI systems matured, there may “come a time when it is impossible for the average person to distinguish fact from fiction”.

“This tech future may accelerate truth decay, greatly challenging the quality of what we call public ‘common sense’, seriously damaging public confidence in elected officials, and undermining the trust that binds us.”

Campbell said citizens would be surrounded by vast amounts of information of varying quality, so it would be important to encourage “critical thinking”.

He did not give any current Australian examples of disinformation campaigns. But discussing broader implications for the ADF, he said uncertainty was “the bedfellow of timidity, the perfect foundation from which others may win without fighting”.

China’s military had highly developed strategies to achieve its goals without firing a shot, he said, although the aspiration of winning without fighting was “common to many nations”.

“There is no denying that the most developed doctrinal approaches that seek to ‘win without fighting’ observed in non-western institutions, particularly the People’s Liberation Army and their Three Warfares strategy; encompassing psychological operations, media operations and legal operations.”

Campbell reiterated his view that “conflict in our region would be catastrophic for all”. He said Australia had only a modest-sized military so a credible deterrence strategy would be a “team effort” alongside allies and other partners.

Campbell insisted that Australia would maintain sovereign decision-making under the Aukus deal, when asked about White House official Kurt Campbell’s comments that “when submarines are provided from the United States to Australia, it’s not like they’re lost”.

Campbell said the militaries would “build seamless interoperability so that – subject to a sovereign decision – we can work together in a way that presents the expression of our collective multinational intent”.

Amid increasing calls from crossbench MPs for the Australian government to release more information about its secret climate risk assessment, Campbell spoke broadly of regional impacts.

“A hotter environment with larger, more intense climate events more often will be the norm,” he said.

“It has immediate disaster mitigation and response challenges, along with food and water security implications, and longer term human migration impacts.

“This disruption is happening faster, and less predictably than we all hoped. Without the global momentum needed, we may all be humbled by a planet made angry by our collective neglect.”

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