Influence for hire: the Asia–Pacific’s online shadow economy
10 Aug 2021|

In our analysis of information operations and disinformation campaigns linked to the Chinese state, my colleagues in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre and I found anomalies in the data: networks of social media accounts that had previously been marketing Indonesian IT support services, and Russian and Bangladeshi accounts that shifted abruptly into Chinese language. These data points were evidence of an online shadow economy in influence-for-hire services that intersects with the information operations of state actors.

A surplus of cheap digital labour makes the Asia–Pacific in particular a focus for operators in this economy, and our new report, Influence for hire: the Asia–Pacific’s online shadow economy, examines the regional marketplace, with case studies of online manipulation in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and Australia.

A range of commercial services increasingly engage in these activities, from content farms through to high-end PR agencies. There’s growing evidence of states using commercial influence-for-hire networks. The Oxford Internet Institute found 48 instances of states working with influence-for-hire firms in 2019–20, an increase from 21 in 2017–18 and nine in 2016–17.

It’s not just states that interfere in elections. The combination of heightened social media activity and political sentiment during the last federal election here in Australia was exploited by financially motivated scammers from Albania, Kosovo and the Republic of Northern Macedonia to steer Facebook audiences into revenue-generating content-farm environments.

The social media platforms are conscious of this growing marketplace. Facebook, for example, notes this trend in its latest strategic threat report and the company’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, foregrounded the growth of disinformation for hire recently in his testimony to the Australian parliament’s Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media.

The Asia–Pacific region comprises states in different stages of democratisation. Many have transitioned to democratic forms of governance from authoritarian regimes. Some have weak political institutions, limitations on independent media and fragile civil societies. The rapid rate of digital penetration in the region layered over the top of this political context leaves populations vulnerable to online manipulation. In fragile democratic contexts, the prevalence of influence-for-hire operations and their leveraging by agents of the state are problematic, given the power imbalance between citizens and the state.

Governments in the region contract such services to target and influence their own populations in ways that are not transparent, and that may inhibit freedom of political expression by drowning out dissenting voices. Several governments have introduced anti-fake-news legislation that has the potential to inhibit civic discourse. These trends risk damaging the quality of civic engagement in the region’s emerging democracies.

There’s a distinction between legitimate, disclosed political campaigning and government advertising campaigns on the one hand, and efforts by state actors to covertly manipulate the public opinion of domestic populations or citizens of other countries using inauthentic social media activity on the other. The use of covert, inauthentic, outsourced online influence is also problematic as it degrades the quality of the public sphere in which citizens must make informed political choices and decisions.

Commercial influence-for-hire services will continue to proliferate for as long as there’s a market and cheap digital labour to deliver them. This creates risks for societies that aspire to meaningful democratic participation and opportunities for foreign interference. A manipulated information environment doesn’t serve democracy well.

To ensure that the region’s information environment and digital economy best align with democratic forms of governance, the report recommends a multi-stakeholder approach that encourages partnership between governments and industry. The Asia–Pacific is politically, culturally and linguistically diverse. This diversity creates challenges for the social media platforms, whose content-moderation policies are built around the universal value of open expression. Much of the responsibility for taking action against covert manipulation of online audiences falls to the social media companies operating in these complex environments.

Support for democratic forms of political expression remains strong in the Asia–Pacific, albeit with degrees of concern about the destabilising potential of digitally mediated forms of political mobilisation and a trend towards democratic backsliding over the past decade that is constraining the space for civil society.

One potential vehicle for this multi-stakeholder approach that the report recommends is an Asia–Pacific centre of excellence in democratic resilience. Such a centre could support public–private partnerships designed to maintain the health of the region’s online public sphere and develop initiatives that can reshape the entrepreneurship driving content-farm labour so that it makes more productive contributions to the region’s digital economy.