Japan plans to start using artificial intelligence to analyze foreign disinformation campaigns, bolstering its response to the spread of fake news across social media.
Disinformation campaigns are part of what is called cognitive warfare—which involves manipulating public opinion and sowing dissent through social media and other channels. Given its potential reach, it is increasingly considered a sixth domain of conflict after land, sea, air, space, and the cyber realm.
Japan is currently ill-equipped to fight such disinformation campaigns. It does not have a dedicated agency monitoring fake news from abroad or laws that punish election interference.
The Foreign Ministry will launch an AI-powered system in fiscal 2023 to collect and analyze fake information on social media and other platforms, allowing it to track how foreign actors are trying to influence public opinion over the medium to long term.
The framework will not only cover information geared toward the Japanese audience, but also information aimed at harming foreign perceptions of Japan.
Private-sector experts will be recruited to start regularly identifying fake news on social media in fiscal 2023. The government wants to catch disinformation campaigns early and counter them with facts.
The Ground Self-Defense Force will also set up a dedicated information unit within a decade. The Maritime SDF will launch a unit with combined cyber and communications capabilities.
Cognitive warfare emerged as a global concern with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Fake news articles about Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton spread through social media are believed to have helped sway the race in favor of her opponent, Donald Trump.
Disinformation has also played a role in the Ukraine war. Fake reports of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fleeing Kyiv circulated on social media shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. Western sanctions were blamed for the global surge in food prices, winning support for Russia from some developing countries.
In response to recent moves by China and Russia, Japan’s National Security Strategy, approved in December, includes plans to bolster the country’s ability to respond to “warfare in the cognitive domain, including the spread of disinformation.”
Several countries already have mechanisms in place responding to cognitive warfare. In the U.S., the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is tasked with monitoring and alerting the public about disinformation. Trump signed an executive order in September 2018 to sanction foreign actors that meddle in American elections, including by freezing their U.S. assets.
The U.K. monitors social media 24/7. While the country does not have formal penalties against election interference, a special parliamentary committee published a report in 2019 urging the government to look into past elections.
In Asia, Singapore in October 2021 passed a law allowing authorities to restrict online content to prevent foreign interference.
Japan’s response against disinformation so far “has been held back in part by Article 21 of the constitution, which guarantees secrecy of communications,” said Motohiro Tsuchiya, a professor and expert on information technology at Keio University in Tokyo.
“The government will need to work with Facebook and other social media operators to create a framework to delete false information,” he said.