ASPI – The Gov’t-Funded Conspiracist Think Tank Now Controlling Your Social Media Feed

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by Alan Macleod, MintPress News:

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – Social media giant Twitter raised many eyebrows recently when it announced that it had partnered with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in its fight against disinformation and fake news. ASPI, Twitter revealed in a blog post, had helped identify thousands of accounts that “amplified Chinese Communist Party narratives” around China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. These accounts have now been permanently deleted.

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This is of concern because the ultra-hawkish Australian think tank is actually the source for many of the most incendiary claims about China and its foreign policy, and, as Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger told MintPress, has been a driving force in the ramping up of tensions between China and the West, something he explored in his 2016 documentary, “The Coming War on China.” Pilger stated that,

ASPI has played a leading role – some would say, the leading role – in driving Australia’s mendacious and self-destructive and often absurd China-bashing campaign. The current Coalition government, perhaps the most right-wing and incompetent in Australia’s recent history, has relied upon the ASPI to disseminate Washington’s desperate strategic policies, into which much of the Australian political class, along with its intelligence and military structures, has been integrated.”

Importantly, neither ASPI nor Twitter claimed that the deleted accounts were fake or operated by the Chinese state, strongly implying that merely agreeing with Beijing or questioning bellicose Western narratives was reason enough to be banned.

This is not the first time that Twitter has joined forces with ASPI. In 2020, it announced that, on the think tank’s recommendations, it had shut down more than 170,000 accounts that praised China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, generally “antagoniz[ed]” the U.S., or amplified “deceptive narratives” about the Hong Kong protests (i.e., ones that did not agree with the State Department or the 44% of Hong Kongers who supported the movement). In the same cull, Twitter also deleted thousands of Russian and Turkish accounts.

That a global social media platform is now in open partnership with ASPI should trouble anyone who is concerned with free speech or peace, as the think tank is funded by the U.S. government and the world’s largest weapons manufacturers, and has consistently agitated for global conflict.

 

Faux independence

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan think tank” whose mission is to “nourish public debate and understanding” and “better inform” the public, as well as to “produce expert and timely advice for Australian and global leaders.” It insists that it is not identified with any particular ideology and that it is committed to “publishing a range of views on contentious topics.”

Despite claiming to be independent, it also notes that it was established in 2001 by the Australian government, the sole owner of the organization. This represents a PR problem for the think tank, which warns that “the perception as well as the reality of that independence…need to be carefully maintained.” Its annual financial reports reveal that most of its funding comes straight from Canberra, although it also receives hefty donations from other governments including the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands.

While the lion’s share of its funding comes from various sources within the Australian government, the vast majority of its overseas funding comes from Washington and, more specifically, the Department of Defense (over $700,000 in fiscal year 2020-21) and the State Department (around $430,000 over the same period). In addition, ASPI takes money from American tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Oracle and Facebook.

For many, including veteran Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh, this foreign cash has fundamentally sullied the organization. Haigh told MintPress:

ASPI is the propaganda arm of the CIA and the U.S. government. It is a mouthpiece for the Americans. It is funded by the American government and American arms manufacturers. Why it is allowed to sit at the center of the Australian government when it has so much foreign funding, I don’t know. If it were funded by anybody else, it would not be where it is at.”

As Haigh noted, ASPI is also funded by a cavalcade of the world’s largest weapons companies, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Thales. Perhaps even more worryingly, many of ASPI’s key personnel moonlight as defense contractor executives. Indeed, almost half of its senior council are on the boards of weapons or cybersecurity firms.

Robert Hill is a case in point. As Minister of Defense between 2001 and 2006, he was one of the key figures driving Australia towards war in Iraq. Hill consistently lied to the public, claiming that it was “not in dispute” that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and that the occupation, in fact, saved many Iraqi lives. One former senior defense advisor, Jane Errey, claims she was even forced out of her job after she refused to lie to the media on Hill’s behalf about Iraqi WMDs. Today, he is on the board of Rheinmetall Defense Australia, a company that supplies fighting vehicles and ammunition to the Australian military.

Hill’s successor as defense minister, Brendan Nelson, is also on ASPI’s senior council. Nelson continued Australia’s collaboration in the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, although his loose tongue got him in trouble in 2007, when he casually stated that the reason Australia was in Iraq was not WMDs, as Hill had insisted, but in order to secure a slice of the country’s oil reserves for itself. “Energy security is extremely important to all nations throughout the world and, of course, in protecting and securing Australia’s interests,” he said, in response to a direct question about whether this was a war for oil.

While director of the Australian War Memorial – a monument to those who died in Australia’s wars, Nelson controversially allowed weapons companies Boeing, Thales, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems to sponsor the institution, a decision critics allege turned it from a sober memorial into a glorification of war. Just weeks after stepping down from that position, he accepted a job as president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific, a title he still holds.

Michelle Fahy, an investigative journalist specializing in the Australian arms industry, was particularly concerned by Nelson’s position at ASPI, telling MintPress:

Along with the funding, it is hard to see how this board appointment fits with a claim to being an ‘independent’ organization when Boeing is a multi-billion-dollar, top-five contractor to the Australian Defense Department, the third largest arms manufacturer in the world, and Nelson was formerly Defense Minister in an earlier government of the same political party now in power.”

Thus, a group headed by the individuals who championed the biggest political deception of the 21st century – one that led to the deaths of 2.4 million people – is now in charge of deciding what is real and what is fake news online for the entire planet. This raises a question: if ASPI had similar control over the means of communication in the early 2000s, would voices questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion have been silenced for promoting false narratives?

Lt. Gen. Ken Gillespie was Vice Chief of the Defense Force from 2005-2008 and then Chief of the Army – the highest military position in Australia – between 2008 and 2011. As such, Gillespie was central to Australia’s efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As his own LinkedIn biography boasts, “I led the initial Australian Defense Force contribution into the Middle-East and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 strikes on the U.S.A. I was a key planner for Australia’s contribution to the Iraq war, and I commanded all Australian Defense Force operations for a lengthy period.” Both Gillespie and fellow ASPI council member Jane Halton are on the board of Naval Group Australia, producer of warships and other combat systems. They both also work for cybersecurity companies; Gillespie is director of the Senetas Corporation, a cybersecurity firm that regularly partners with weapons manufacturers, such as Thales, that have heartily endorsed Senetas’ work. Meanwhile, Halton is chair of the board of directors at Vault Cloud, a defense-minded cybersecurity firm.

Another ASPI council member is former politician Gai Brodtmann. Brodtmann serves on the advisory board of cybersecurity firm Sapien Cyber, a firm that has secured a number of large military contracts and is chaired by former Minister of Defense Stephen Smith. In addition to this, she holds a senior position at Defense Housing Australia, a company that provides a range of services aimed at military personnel.

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