The public square: the next theatre of conflict in the digital age

How Australia acts to protect its public square from foreign interference in the digital age will be a defining issue for our country—and for democracies the world over.

Australia has already been a canary in the coal mine, elevating the issue of Chinese foreign interference to the global agenda. But the interference activities Australia has experienced to date—from intimidation of journalists to buying access to politicians—are still ‘analogue’ in nature. They are only prototypes of the insidious and sophisticated digital attacks we can expect in the near future.

The public square has always been the cornerstone of democracy: it’s where ideas are debated and the best ones triumph, and it’s how citizens inform themselves about policy and who to trust to run the country.

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have revolutionised the public square, enabling millions of Australians to join the national conversation. However, while our public square is now just a click away for most citizens, it is equally accessible to operatives in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.

Propaganda and disinformation are of course not new tools of state power, but in the digital age our adversaries can manipulate the national conversation with unprecedented pace, scale and effect.

By shaping or changing the beliefs and perceptions of opinion leaders or specific political or social groups, adversaries can bend Australia to their will—and achieve their foreign policy goals without firing a shot.

The rise of non-Western social media platforms like China’s WeChat, and the increasingly volatile geopolitical situation in the Asia–Pacific, will ensure that Australia remains on the frontlines of an emerging and intensifying global information conflict.

Australia has a narrowing window of opportunity to devise a strategy for protecting our public square from cyber-enabled foreign interference. In a report published this week by Harvard’s Belfer Center, I argue that our response must be based on three important facts.

First, in the digital age, the public square is a place made of 1s and 0s. This is a far cry from even a decade ago, when national debates occurred mainly in the pages of hardcopy broadsheets, on national radio and television programs, in pubs and town halls, and in the corridors of universities, trade unions and corporations.

A Cold War agent might have spent years cultivating relationships and building influence on the ground, or relied on expensive broadcast infrastructure to distribute generic mass propaganda. In the digital age, armies of foreign ‘trolls’ or bots can engage in highly targeted information blitzkriegs—infiltrating the social fabric and political bloodstream quickly and with potentially irreversible consequences.

Second, states, especially those with authoritarian governments, increasingly see cyber-enabled interference as an important way to advance their foreign policy objectives. Russia’s ongoing intervention in US politics is a stark warning sign for Australia. Russia’s widespread and systematic disinformation campaign during the 2016 American presidential election is still fuelling bitter political in-fighting and social upheaval—nearly two years later.

However, Russia isn’t the only state investing in cyber-enabled interference, nor will all adversaries have objectives or tactics similar to Moscow’s. Authoritarian governments have always used propaganda and information control to bolster their power at home. They are now also weaponising information to advance their national interests abroad. Just as it has successfully used island-building in the South China Sea to slowly change facts on the ground, evidence suggests that China is increasingly using cyber-enabled ‘sharp power’ to progressively manipulate public opinion and perceptions in its near neighbourhood.

In Australia, China has used its cyber capabilities primarily for espionage. But we shouldn’t be surprised if China’s focus shifts, particularly in response to a crisis or diplomatic flashpoint. Instead of just collecting information, Beijing might exploit its access to sensitive private, university and government data and networks to seed fake content into the public square or to leak sensitive documents in an effort to influence public opinion and Australian policy.

Third, cyber-enabled foreign interference is just as much a threat to individual rights as it is to national security. Foreign manipulation of public opinion undermines the rights of Australian citizens to determine their own political future. Australia’s response must therefore avoid treating cyber-enabled interference as a purely counterespionage or national security issue.

Cyber-enabled interference isn’t a problem that can be solved by governments alone. Bolstering our offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, developing early-warning intelligence systems, and introducing new laws to regulate social media platforms are essential, but will be insufficient.

Protecting the public square in the digital age will require a whole-of-society effort that mobilises industry, tech-savvy and well-funded journalists, a vibrant research sector, bipartisanship from political parties, and—crucially—an educated and prepared Australian people.

At their best, these are the features that make our democracy great, and all of them will be essential to protecting it from foreign cyber-enabled interference.

This post is based on ideas advanced by the author in The public square in the digital age, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2018, which can be downloaded here.