Engaging the public to counter foreign interference

Australian citizens are frontline actors in today’s national security challenges: as targets of malign interference and coercion, victims of collateral damage, and agents of national resilience.

The establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into social media and foreign interference last week reminds us that global contests for political power are playing out on platforms carried in the pockets of millions of Australians.

Authoritarian governments including China and Russia engage in ‘political warfare’ that views public opinion, democratic institutions and civilian infrastructure as legitimate targets. Indeed, as Ariel Levite and Yoni Shimshoni observed, almost all of the actors challenging the West—both state and non-state—now pursue ‘society-centric strategies’.

As Australia acts to counter these strategies, decisions taken in the name of national security will increasingly affect the lives of ordinary Australians. The government’s effective banning of Huawei and ZTE from the roll-out of the 5G network, for example, imposes short-term costs on consumers and businesses, even as it protects Australia from longer-term risks.

Australia needs a new national security paradigm that recognises the centrality of the social realm and engages citizens as key players.

The obvious reason for this is that citizens deserve and demand consultation and accountability on policies that affect them. While politicians and bureaucrats working on economic and social policy lead listening tours across Australia and pay close attention to public opinion, security experts remain comparatively aloof.

There are other, more instrumental, reasons for increased public engagement. The social realm has been a target since antiquity—economic coercion, violence against civilians and propaganda are well-worn tools of statecraft. However, technology has increased the potency and effectiveness of the tools that states can use to target people and changed the character of conflict in the social realm.

Operations in the social realm are increasingly covert and achieve effects through mistrust and confusion, rather than suffering or deprivation. Previously, populations would know they had suffered a physical attack or had been subjected to a siege or blockade and could identify that a hostile actor was responsible (even if their identity was not immediately known). These activities were chancy in that they could backfire by galvanising the public against the attacker.

The digital environment makes detecting, understanding and attributing responsibility for malign activities—from propaganda to cyberattacks against critical infrastructure—more difficult. By hiding behind a veil of plausible deniability, or engaging in deceptive ‘false flag’ attacks, adversaries maximise the confusion and paralysis caused by their actions. Chinese military strategists, for example, emphasise the way in which a state can impose its will upon another by using cyber-enabled attacks to sow panic and ‘societal disorder’ or induce national paralysis in times of war or peace.

To pierce the veil of plausible deniability that adversaries hide behind, the government needs to prioritise building public trust and educating citizens about the nature of the threats we face. One positive step is the increased public profile of Australia’s spy chiefs. But more can be done.

More frequent, principles-based attribution of responsibility for cyber-enabled activities, such as state-sponsored cyberattacks and data breaches, would help. Building public familiarity with the standards and frameworks used to assess responsibility for such activities can position the government as an honest broker that can be trusted to make correct calls in the future. Agencies could also act to build public awareness of other countries’ political warfare playbooks.

It’s important to note that in the digital age many national security risks are contingent and may never materialise. For example, the decision to exclude certain vendors from 5G infrastructure was not based on a ‘smoking gun’ but on the future risk that access to that network could enable interference and coercion. While Australia has robust processes for crisis communications, agencies will increasingly need to develop ways to inform the public about risks in the absence of an actual incident.

Failing to adapt to an era of society-centric competition and conflict will not just result in poor strategy. It also risks exacerbating domestic political friction, particularly if citizens perceive that national security policy is being made without their buy-in or is not calibrated to the threats we face. This would be the worst kind of own-goal, since the main reason adversaries target the social realm in the first place is to exacerbate infighting and divisions.

This year, there has been much debate about how we can ‘defend Australia’. The bottom line is this: if we do not understand, protect and engage genuinely with the social realm, we cannot defend Australia. Successfully doing so will require an evolution in the way that national security agencies and decision-makers have done business for decades.