A new research centre at Flinders University will investigate foreign interference in democratic elections, the proliferation of fake news and threats to national security through the weaponisation of social media.
The Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance will be the first in Australia to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to social science by bringing together the three key areas of technology, security and governance.
It will undertake research in areas of mutual concern to Australia and the USA to improve the capacity of governments and industry to respond to cyber challenges and threats, including digital media manipulation in fostering divisions in civil society, challenging national security and contesting democratic governance. This is particularly important in defence, where the rapid evolution of digital technologies is changing how nations need to defend themselves.
The centre’s launch coincides with the release of the latest Lowy Institute annual poll ranking cybersecurity as the most significant threat to Australia’s vital interests after climate change.
The centre is named in honour of Jeff Bleich, Special Counsel to President Barack Obama and a diplomat who served as Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013. He has a long-term association with the university, which has also named him a Flinders Professorial Fellow.
Flinders University Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling says the centre will create opportunities for industry, particularly government, defence and NGOs, to work with the university to address current and emerging issues in cybersecurity.
“It will consolidate Flinders University’s research expertise and strengths in digital technologies, security and governance, and build upon Flinders existing strengths in US policy studies and the university’s strong US alliance,” he says.
“The centre aligns with the South Australian and Federal Governments’ cybersecurity plans and will further strengthen South Australia’s position as Australia’s Defence State.
“The Jeff Bleich Centre will undertake research to identify reforms, including regulatory models, that preserve the gains of the digital revolution, but enhance the protection of democratic freedoms, and restore trust in the institutions of democratic societies.”
While the digital revolution offers incalculable benefits, there have also been high costs. The disruptive costs on democracy have been high, largely unanticipated and only recently addressed, and some have escalated into crises.
Bleich says these have included deliberate efforts to impair individual, corporate and government decision-making through corrupt, distorted or false information campaigns.
“We know that the advent of digital technology has fundamentally changed the way we each work, eat, shop, and live. But it has also changed our societies and how we defend ourselves,” he says. “Our nations — both separately and together—must operate in new ways to preserve our values and protect our people and allies in new battle spaces.
“This is the mission of the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance. Flinders is the ideal home for the centre with its long-term track record in American studies, its focus on disruptive technologies, and its successful bi-national programs.”
The centre has been established with additional funding from private sector donors and will be seeking to grow through philanthropic support, additional external fundraising and research contracts. A five-member advisory board will be appointed to provide strategic guidance.