‘Turbocharged by cyber’: one prime minister speaks up for democracy and against authoritarian interference

What could Donald Trump do to prevent foreign interference in the US? Spoiler: he likely won’t do anything – as he personally benefits from it.

But in a better world, an American president would act with politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, to protect his own nation – and fellow democracies. If that would happen, what would it sound like in the year 2017?

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull
PM Malcolm Turnbull

To get an idea, listen to what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in the second reading of the newly unveiled National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill of 2017.

Not only does he talk about changes in technology, he speaks of the underlying value and motivation in defending democracy this way. Rather than simply discussing the mechanics, he discusses the morals – and importantly, helps locate this complex issue for the public.

Turnbull’s entire statement is worth reading, as he distinguishes between fear and realism around the issue of China. However, he gets to the challenge in noting that technology “designed to bring us together…is being used as an instrument of division.”

And until the forces of democracy can align themselves in this new technological period, to reverse that situation, democracies will remain divided.

Turnbull’s words:

Our relationship with China is far too important to put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of healthy and sustainable engagement. Modern China was founded by the statement that Chinese people have stood up. And today, and every day, the Australian people stand up and assert their sovereignty in our nation, with our parliament and with our laws.

Anyone who has glanced at the international media over the course of this year will see that questions of foreign interference are not all about China—far, far from it. Globally, Russia has been wreaking havoc across the democratic world.

There are credible reports that Russia was actively undermining the integrity of the Brexit referendum, this year’s presidential elections in France and last year’s presidential election in the United States.

And other nations are reportedly conducting interference operations outside their borders, including Iran and North Korea.

In some cases, authoritarian states have been literally manufacturing public opinion in order to hijack political discourse and tilt the decision-making landscape to their advantage.

These are their aims but it is up to us to determine whether they are successful.

And now these methodologies have been turbocharged by cyber.

The very technology that was designed to bring us together, the internet, is being used as an instrument of division.

Russian agents seeking to sow discord in the United States reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube, according to the belated admissions from those platforms.

We are witnessing the mass production, the democratisation if you like, of disinformation.

George Orwell portrayed a post-truth dystopia, where, ‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.’

His dark prophecy is not our present reality but nor is it entirely fantasy.

Listen to the recently retired US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony to the US Congress in May:

If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it.

This is not just a call for action in the US. It is a clarion call to open societies everywhere.

We must ensure Australian democracy is resilient to all threats, from any country, now and in the future.

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US National Security Strategy: Is the influence game about ideology or perceptions?

The US plans to prioritize competition in the information realm, where the private sector “has a direct interest in supporting and amplifying voices that stand for tolerance, openness,  and freedom,” according to the recently released National Security Strategy.

sealThe document gives the US government a failing grade for efforts to date:

“US efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and
fragmented. US efforts have lacked a sustained focus and have been hampered by the lack of properly trained professionals.”

To remedy this situation, the US government should “priortize competition” and “drive effective communications”.

In an extension of Cold War strategy, the NSS calls for activating local networks in targeted countries.

“Local voices are most compelling and effective in ideological competitions,” the document states.

My question is: Is this an ideological competition? Without communism as a framework to contrast against western capitalism, it’s not clear we have an ideological competition underway between authoritarians and democracies.

Certainly there are shades of ideology. But day-to-day, it seems to be a massive, ongoing perception conflict.

Authoritarians kleptocracies today don’t necessarily want to upend Western capitalism or Western power, as much as discredit liberal democracy, its values and virtues. Authoritarians regimes actually need lawful Western society in some cases, as a place to sink their wealth safely.

That’s not the same as the Cold War competition, when the economies were largely cut off from each other.

The NSS document describes China’s use of AI and data to rate citizen loyalty, which at least acknowledges that the mix between technology and the public has shifted in recent decades.

It’s important to understand in which way things have shifted, however;  how whole segments of society can live 24-7 in an information that only reinforces their often factually challenged views.

“We must amplify credible voices and partner with them to advance alternatives to violent and hateful messages,” the NSS document says.

OK. That’s good.

But what if these relevant voices don’t have access to contested minds in the first place?

This is the problem with our new media environment. Nearly every audience is discrete, with their own news cycles. Fewer news events reliably cut across all these different siloed areas. Fewer topics reach across diverse audiences.

All of which means, when considering strategy to counter influence campaigns run online, the US needs to start from scratch. Don’t think that because Russia, China and terror groups have a legacy of strategic messaging from the 1970s, you can rely on  solutions with roots from that time as well.

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Freedom of Press Foundation ‘strongly opposes’ any US gov’t persecution of WikiLeaks

…So apparently concludes their December 9 email to radical transparency group Wikileaks.

“We continue to strongly oppose any prosecution attempts by the US government for WikiLeaks’s publishing activities,” according to an email reportedly from FPF director Trevor Timm released by WikiLeaks.

OK. So why pull support for WikiLeaks now?


After helping Wikileaks received funding from Americans for years, what has changed?

Assange in a lengthy letter provides some needed background – and, ahem, transparency – on the history of the organisation, which he says was created by himself and cyberspace-godfather John Perry Barlow to “protect WikiLeaks and its donors from politically induced financial censorship.”

FPF says the reason for dropping WikiLeaks is that “the financial blockade by the major payment processors is no longer in effect.”

Will be interesting to know if there are other reasons. Assange states that he didn’t know of FPF’s plans until a November 2017 Daily Beast story revealed the plan.

One to watch.



#China influence afoot? Secure your hashtags, Australia

Given the surge of news and developments around the China influence story, it’s worthwhile to consider what Australians would do if they found the hashtag #Chinainfluence blocked in their own social media conversations.

More likely, the term could be drowned out. Or rendered unusable.


So imagine if trolls or bots or other coordinated teams of humans undertook a campaign to suppress the productive use of hashtags like #auspol, or #dastayari or #UFWD or #SouthChinaSea or one as broad as #China itself in Australian social media conversation.

Trolls could be located overseas even as they influenced or squelched domestic Australian discussion.

It’s not as if China doesn’t already do this domestically as a way to shape and derail public conversation.

The ability to micro-blog relevant news on the subject of influence campaigns on social media platforms such as Twitter has become the norm for the nation’s class of  academics, researchers, policymakers and self-selected members of the informed public.

In a crisis, would important news about Australian national security be accessible on this platform?

Think about how reliant communications regarding Australian national security are on a foreign-based platform with an incredibly uneven record of countering abuse and misuse.

The social media companies are staffed with people who confuse the concept of “free speech” with the action of coordinated trolling campaigns, often driven by nation states.

That means, when authoritarian nations are exploiting social media platforms to undermine democracies, don’t expect timely or effective help from the company.

As Australia begins addressing influence operations conducted on its own shores by foreign powers, it’s important to consider the enormous vulnerability of social media that many in Australia’s political class and civil society have embraced as normal, and even desirable.

What kind of backup plans and redundancies does the nation has in place to prevent discussion on social media from being stymied, manipulated and disrupted?

It’s just a thought.

But one worth thinking about now – before a crisis hits.

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