#China influence afoot? Secure your hashtags, Australia

by Chris Zappone

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.

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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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