A lower level Chinese Communist Party spokesman is helping to distort a discussion about Australian news on global social media. What has the CCP learned about antagonizing democracies from their post-revolutionary friends linked to the Kremlin?
The invocation of the language of liberalism to damage our democracies is not new. In a system in which ideas compete for legitimacy, simply artificially pumping up one idea to an unnatural level skews the debate, and leads to damaging outcomes. The success of authoritarians and anti-democratic nations in doing this in recent years is a key feature of our time. Consequently, the voices that crow the loudest about “freedom” and “liberty” — our values — are often doing so to hijack the conversation, to polarize it, and to render it a weapon against sensible debate.
The Internet Research Agency has long crystallized in the mind of the Western public as the source of Russia’s information operations. But a detailed article from Russian media in 2012 suggests Moscow may actually be using more sophisticated tools.
In 2012, 30 million rubles (then the equivalent of $A900,000), were tendered by the Russian intelligence service SVR for firms to develop “new methods of monitoring the blogosphere”.
The contracts aims were “the massive expansion of information sources on social media platforms with the goal of shaping popular opinion.”
The first project described in the Kommersant article, called “Dispute” would “monitor the blogosphere, undertaking ‘research into processes of the shaping of internet social groups that spread information on social media platforms’ and ‘delineation of factors that influence the popularity and spread of information”.
That information would be analysed by another system called “Monitor-3” whose purpose was “the development of methods of organisation and control of virtual internet societies of designated experts”.
A third system, called “Sturm-12”, was designed to be a complex “for the automated dissemination” of information and the development of “mechanisms to initiate scripted scenarios for mass audiences on social media platforms”.
The article said the SVR systems could be used for internal as well as external audiences, beginning in Eastern Europe.
Why then, the Western obsession with the IRA? Could it because the IRA was introduced to audiences via a lush article in The New York Times Magazine. Am I alone and thinking that if the Russian state had a powerful tool for social media influence about, they wouldn’t have allowed a tech journalist access to it?
For information war defense, there needs to be a unity of purpose – pursued by diverse stakeholders. Diverse voices with diverse professional backgrounds – commercial, government, academic, pop culture even – need to be corralled into a unified effort – often with quite short time horizons.
In this way, the defense of the facts and the truth can work to push back on the mass streams of disinformation and conspiracy theory being marshaled through the internet by authoritarian regimes.
American information operations expert Jon Herrmann has laid out valuable ideas in a piece called “Defense and Self-Defense in the Information Age: Collaborative Strategy and Collective Vision”.
Herrmann advises: “News and social media would cooperate with the (US) Department of Education to promote unity on par with diversity.”
He’s talking about the values to promote in education, and yet, the observation points to a broader strategy for democracies to defend and promote truth online, which should be a shared, global goal of democracies.
To look at the example of the United States, it’s clear that a democracy starved of truthful information cannot function correctly. A republic in which the voters have the final say needs factual and relatively truthful information for the public and politicians to play their role.
If the world is awash in misinformation, it makes it harder to know what to believe. Just take a look at the disinformation surrounding Syria today. Not only do Russia and ally Bashar al-Assad contest the events on the ground, they then try to use international fora to further confuse and bamboozle the global public.
In this world, then, Herrmann observes, “The domain shapes the strategy” and unlike land, sea, or air, “arguably, the information environment is the most dynamic, so a strategy that works within that environment must be equally dynamic.”
“The strategy must shape the environment to promote the flow of truth and contest the spread of disinformation and lies.”
But to do so, the US – and potentially any open liberal democracy reliant on good information – “needs a unified strategy to promote free collaboration.”
Herrmann proposes a “joint interagency task force (that) could enhance unity through collaboration across governmental and non-governmental groups.”
Getting this right would take work. A key feature would be for stakeholders to essentially be on-call, and come together in matter of days to counter campaigns aimed at the democracy. Herrmann says “days” but I would almost suggest hours.
In any case, having an open, collaborative, dynamic, on-call approach would be essential. Stakeholders would need to be motivated not by formal structure, as much as shared vision for the world and international relations.
And that shared vision must cut across the private sector, the technological sector (a big ask), the military, intelligence, the political class, and finally, the public. (It’s vitally important that this shared vision is embraced by the public.) The solution would likely be ideals-based, rather than engineered.
In Herrmann’s example, the US State Department: “would encourage partners to enhance the flow of true information (including English education to increase that flow, contrary to tyrannies like Iran). Free flow of information carries risk. Still, the US has a tremendous advantage if true information moves freely and globally. State would also advise partners on increasing capacity to convey truth and counter disinformation.”
Part of the End of History conundrum for Western democracies today is that when history allegedly “ended” (in the 1990s), there was no galvanizing vision for democracies that all people could participate in. Worse, the current exodus from the political center seems to reward a certain level of divisiveness. Social media platforms do as well, as outrage equals engagement equals ad sales.
The notion of “unity on par with diversity”, in fact, could be self-reinforcing, as well, relevant not just for external relations between democracies – but internally, as well.
Internally, for example, the challenge for center-left or centrist parties today is to hold together diverse coalitions of voters.
What if, rather than focusing on a voting segment’s identity and plight, all segments were instead given a unifying focus?
There would still be differences among constituents and plenty of room for them – the day-to-day emphasis of the politics, however, would be on the shared rhetorical goal of party-members, rather than the identity. This is point made by US political scientist Mark Lilla.
I can’t see how a similar effort to draw together various stakeholders in Australia wouldn’t make the same sense.
Why? Because autocracies – even those that Australia trades heavily with – “can often unify and mobilise their governments in ways democracies cannot,” Herrmann writes.
“For example, China can (and does) compel their corporations—and even foreign corporations doing business in China—to censor pro-democracy information and share vast stores of personal information with the ruling Communist Party; the American government cannot.”
“The Chinese model seeks to unify by censorship, myth-making propaganda, and Orwellian control.”
But as Herrmann says in the next line: “A shared vision, with guidelines and a structure to empower that vision, is necessary to unify a democracy.”