Soft power takes a sharp turn: social media & foreign interference

The question of foreign interference in Australian politics hasn’t ended with Sam Dastiyari’s political capitulation. The events of 2017 weren’t even the end of the beginning.

In the same week as the Dastiyari scandal, a report from the US-based think tank National Endowment for Democracy (NED) raised more warnings about covert influence on democracies by China and Russia. This new form of ‘sharp power’—a phrase coined in the NED report—exploits liberal institutions, especially free speech, independent media and electoral democracy. Strengths become weaknesses; Sun Tzu would be proud.

Similar reports by Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project, Freedom Houseand researchers from Harvard, Stanford and the University of California at San Diego have shown how governments use tactics like feigning grassroots support (‘astroturfing’) and targeting campaigns through ‘hashtag poisoning’. China, the Philippines, Turkey and Mexico have all been called out for targeting domestic political opponents and civil society groups. Russia and China are also implicated in international campaigns of covert or malign influence.

It’s been working. The apparent success of Russia’s Internet Research Agency in significantly and perhaps decisively affecting elections in the US and Europe, and the Brexit referendum, is cause for alarm. British PM Theresa May has called such activities the ‘weaponisation of information’, probably referring to a RAND Corporation report of the same name.

Australia’s response has included introducing new laws that take aim at interference via the covert use of social media for political purposes.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull named China (and Russia) in the press conferenceannouncing the legislation, which triggered a full-throated rebuttal from China. A series of editorials from pro-Beijing bullhorns like the Global Times and China Dailycharacterised Australia’s political discourse and media reporting as ‘anti-China’, blamed the hostile rhetoric for attacks on Chinese students, and promoted the perception that Australia is unfriendly to the Chinese.

These assertions are overblown but not irrelevant. They signal potential ramifications for Australia. China has previously imposed de facto bans on—or created coincidental rapid downturns in—entertainment from and tourism to South Korea, and on banana imports from the Philippines (since reversed thanks to President Rodrigo Duterte’s banana diplomacy). It’s both easy and chilling to imagine the effect that a significant drop in Chinese arrivals could have on Australia’s tourism and higher education sectors.

And that could happen without the Chinese government taking any direct action. An online ‘demarketing’ social media campaign by patriotic Chinese netizens, responding to signals in the pro-Beijing press, wouldn’t fall foul of the proposed laws but could really hurt our economy.

The use of social media during the Bennelong by-election to distribute a letter denouncing the Australian Liberal Party as anti-Chinese is another worrying warning. Though the letter’s origins are murky, it was reportedly spread via WeChat (a popular Chinese social messaging service) by networks linked to the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party’s body that’s responsible for building influence internationally. This secretive micro-targeting eerily echoes the communications campaigns under investigation in relation to the 2016 US presidential election.

Social media campaigns present two wicked dilemmas. First, their massive quantities of content and speed-of-light transmission networks probably make them unstoppable. And second, even when they’re identified, discredited and exposed as fraudulent, they remain sufficiently potent to fool enough of the people enough of the time.

Proposed counter-strategies from the likes of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations—such as producing more compelling counter-narratives, and educating or cautioning the public and media outlets about the prevalence of untrustworthy news sources—seem unconvincing.

Seeking influence is neither new nor wrong. Both Turnbull and the NED made a distinction between soft power (Joseph Nye’s term for the power of persuasion and attraction) and sharp power, which is secretive, manipulative and deceitful.

Turnbull also distinguished between soft power and interference (which is ‘covert, coercive or corrupting’) and suggested that Australia’s new laws are designed to indicate the legal limits of foreign influence—and thus make it clear where the red lines are. That will be helpful for everyone engaged in business or political lobbying. Our relationships are far too important to risk damage from misunderstandings based on fuzzy concepts. I think our Chinese friends might agree.

There are reasons to be confident that Australia can weather the storms of deception and misinformation. The NED report highlights the vulnerabilities of democracies with shallow roots; in contrast, Australia’s democratic norms and institutions are entrenched and comparatively strong. But they’re not invulnerable to the debilitating effects of corruption, hyper-partisanship and fragmenting constituencies.

The best defences against interference in our democracy therefore appear to be both banal and challenging: a strong democracy and higher levels of social trust, aided by strong institutions and leaders acting in our common interest, an independent and non-partisan press, an engaged citizenry, and a society that is diverse, welcoming and openly, confidently pluralistic.

And keep diversifying those markets for inbound tourism and education.

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