Theme: Society and Global Transformation

Project Title

Defence against the dark arts: guarding the public discourse from propaganda and fake news, and promoting truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the media and social media

Project Description

Social media is causing major disruption to society, politics and traditional media. It enables the most widespread and inclusive public discourse in history, but also enables sophisticated manipulation of readers. It has global reach with easily-identifiable interest groups, giving advertisers and propagandists unprecedented access to targets via detailed profiles of susceptible consumers. Social media also copy content from traditional media without adequate compensation to populate user’s newsfeeds as a vehicle for targeted advertising. Not only is media content being abused, but so too are the means by which content is found. Gaming search engines to redirect traffic is a well-established industry, but it also appears it is being done by secretive organisations for propagandist purposes. This is the weaponisation of information.

On traditional media, the public discourse is dominated by influential individuals; even so the public knew that published opinions were from some privileged 'other'. Social media has now given people a sense of ownership of the public discourse as they directly contribute to it. However propagandists and advertisers now also use social media to exploit the natural human tendency to trust others, hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet. Hence, readers make poorly-informed decisions about advertised goods, in critical choices such as voting in elections, and even existential judgements such as whether climate change is genuine.

The damage from covert social manipulation is significant. It threatens the integrity of people's decision-making, coercing people into decisions that may counter their own interests. It exploits the natural trust humans place in each other, undermining core social values such as trust and transparency. The commercial and political imperatives that drive social manipulation will not disappear soon, when those who wield such influence are already in positions of power or influence, and seek to maintain it. Until social manipulation disappears, people need help to recognise it when they see it so as to empower their individual decision-making and choices.

This project will detect, expose and de-weaponise propagandists’ exploitation of social media, promoting truth and public trust in the media and social media. The project will benefit from students with technical skills but also from students with complementary skills.


A PhD scholarship is available to support a fully funded doctoral candidate. The candidate will benefit from a full fee waiver (for eligible Australian residents) and an annual living stipend of AUS$26,682.00 p.a. for a three-year duration.

There is also a top-up scholarship available of $7000 p.a. for exceptional students who are successful with this or an alternative living stipend scholarship.


The PhD scholarship is open to Australian Citizens, and Permanent Residents of Australia.  It is expected applicants will fulfil the requirements of candidature for a PhD place at the University of South Australia, which means holding a first class Honours degree (or equivalent). The Scholarship will be awarded on the basis that the candidate be studying full-time and be resident in Adelaide, South Australia, for the duration of the PhD.

How to apply

Proposals for the studentship must include:

  • A project proposal, including rationale, proposed methodology and methods, anticipated outcomes and a timeline.
  • A full curriculum vitae.
  • Evidence of academic achievement (i.e. full academic transcripts).
  • The names and contact details of two academic referees.

Further information on the application process can be found at:

Further information

If you are interested in this opportunity please contact:

A/Prof. Helen Ashman
School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences
University of South Australia
Phone: +61 8 830 25335 


Areas of study and research

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