In fighting online interference, the first line of defence is the mind 
12 Mar 2019|

‘Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests’, British statesman Lord Palmerston famously observed. Two centuries later, the adage of foreign policy remains true but the internet extends its relevance into a nation’s domestic affairs.

That’s because the internet and social media give authoritarian nations a lever to pull in democracy’s debate. That can be done through intermediaries who help guide the opinions of groups, or by promoting a worldview that undermines the legitimacy of liberal democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party’s ability to methodically shape views of diaspora communities poses a risk of creating a bloc of voters who could—in theory—support decisions that run counter to Australia’s established national security interest.

The challenge of this domain requires the citizens of democracies to keep their minds open for new and ever-changing information, even while filtering out ideas shaped or co-opted to undermine the state itself. The information challenge is simultaneously external and internal.

The internet creates a scale issue in the economics of propaganda, too.

Censorship in the West today is not so much about restraining free expression, as it was in 20th century; it’s more about being able to drown out legitimate voices online.

In the hours it takes to fact-check a claim, or rebut a false one, another specious claim can be disseminated. Foreign powers, such as Russia, that aim to gum up the wheels of liberal democracy are aware of this.

Recognising these features helps to understand the limitations of using exposure of the online networks as a primary form of prevention. In fact, exposing specific disinformation online can add to the mental complexity of keeping track of what’s factual.

Beijing’s overseas media networks may have diverse owners, but they have a singularity of message on key issues such as the nature of China’s rise, the legitimacy of the CCP and the justification for China’s actions in the South China Sea—all topics that should be open to fair debate.

In this environment, a system designed to defend against disinformation may fail to properly protect vital, genuine, democratic debate.

So how do we bolster democracy’s communication, avoid amplifying distorted facts, and do so without creating additional complexity?

One way we can do it is by seeking to take the battle away from the network and pulling it back into the minds of citizens.

The individual must be able to see through not one, but many simultaneous attempts to sour debate or subvert democracy. To do that, they must understand broadly what information to accept and what to reject, a priori, about their democracy. They must understand the broad information goalposts of democracy: the need for sensible, rational debate that doesn’t descend into conspiracy thinking, or fact-free venting at rivals.

Cyber researcher Bruce Schneier and political scientist Henry Farrell have produced a research paper that seeks to divide information into two camps: common political knowledge and contested political knowledge. The danger that propaganda often poses to a democracy is when commonly held political knowledge (the rules of the system) is miscast—particularly online—as contested knowledge, like when a legal investigation is described as a ‘witch hunt’ and the media is labelled the ‘enemy’.

A broad sifting of political knowledge in this way—even if imperfect—can help the human mind navigate our changed information environment.

This has relevance in Australia, where, for example, the local variant of the anti-establishment gilets jaunes movement raises concerns about genuine political issues but proposes remedies that would arguably chip away at the overall stability of the system.

Another way to aid the democratic mind would be for the government, politicians and institutions to raise questions in voters’ heads about the veracity of politics as experienced on social media.

Ironically, building trust in politics today may require increasing scepticism for what passes as normal on social media platforms. Many-to-many communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter encourage emotion over reason, to the detriment of the non-hysterical debate needed for a democracy.

Communication over social media networks brings a special risk for the personality-driven politics of Australia. Familiar figures can be corrupted by moneyed influence campaigns, or seduced by ideas that prove to be hostile to the state.

To better organise the mind for our information environment, civil society, government and engaged citizens should recognise that not all technologies are suitable for all tasks. Automobiles were in wide use before society fully acknowledged that it wasn’t appropriate for them to be operated by intoxicated drivers under any circumstance. Likewise, democracies may eventually have their own ah-ha moment about the suitability of social media for stable political outcomes.

Democratic societies may ultimately learn that social media, open by necessity to foreign subversion, create unnecessary vulnerabilities. The availability of high-speed mass communication doesn’t necessarily justify its use for the thoughtful endeavour of understanding issues, weighing them and voting on them.

Helping the public fix its gaze not on minute-by-minute news flows or on personalities who can be suborned by foreign powers but on the lasting principles core to Australia’s national interests is key to navigating the information chaos of the 21st century.

To do so, the first line of defence should be in the minds of citizens. Reminding the public of this will pay dividends into the future.