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Democracy Under Siege: Foreign Interference in a Digital Era

05 Apr 2021
By Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling
Cyber Security, sourced from piqsels,

Foreign interference poses unique challenges to democracies as digitisation has transformed its form, scope, and methods. In this context of virtual interconnectivity, it has never been easier or more rewarding for malign foreign entities to interfere in democracies.

Liberal democracies globally recognise foreign interference as a threat in the digital era. Today, foreign interference tends to be regarded as conduct by foreign actors or their proxies that is covert, deceptive, and against the target state’s national interests. Notably, conceptualisations of foreign interference also emphasise potential effects of interference, particularly: undermining democratic processes and disrupting critical infrastructure. Despite this, general consensus about what constitutes foreign interference, it is clear that it remains conceptually opaque.

Current use of the term also appears to encapsulate notions of both cybersecurity and information warfare, which only further complicates an already amorphous concept. The normative bias in the terminology of “malign” entity and “foreign interference” only adds to the complexity. It has become apparent that globalism rendered by digital technology has not only begun to dissolve geographic barriers but also the barriers of existing conceptual knowledge on foreign interference. The digital era blurs the line between “foreign” and “domestic” interference. This presents additional challenges for detection and mitigation of threats, as well as for using “foreign interference” as a concept.

Globalised digital advancements have transformed information warfare in a way that poses unique challenges for liberal democracies which must balance the protection of civil liberties with national security. Contemporary foreign interference is markedly different to analogue-era interference because digitisation has revolutionised tactics of subversion. Foreign interference has, to a large extent, morphed into cyber interference. No longer do foreign entities need to dispatch legions of intelligence officers to geographically distant locales, nor carefully cultivate sources of human intelligence. Risky and sophisticated undercover operations to corrupt critical infrastructure can now be replaced by a remote hacking campaign.

We witnessed a cyberattack paralyse banks and government agencies in Estonia in 2007 and governments around the world invest exponential resources into cybersecurity to secure their systems and infrastructure from external intrusion. At the click of a mouse, algorithms can also acquire, analyse, and categorise vast swathes of data that malign entities, foreign or not, can exploit. Digital information operations have become a hallmark of contemporary foreign interference. Independent or state-sponsored hackers can anonymously procure and selectively leak politically sensitive emails. Such conduct has the power to discredit or manipulate political elites. Similarly, anonymous actors can share other compromising documents online and fabricate origin and authorship of materials.

These types of operations are not constrained to traditional fiscal and time constraints of print publishing. They are also not restricted by geography or political position and power. Likewise, inexpensive and quick to produce, “cheap fakes” have supplanted the more convincing “deep fakes” for the very reasons of urgency and cost-effectiveness. Both are forms of media manipulation that aim to deceive by making consumers believe that a false image or video is “true.” Although cheap fakes are more easily identified as fraudulent than deep fakes, they can be produced without the need for sophisticated software and can still achieve a similar effect faster and at the most pivotal time—when an issue is “trending.”

Traditionally the purview of wealthy state actors, the coercion through deception that is characteristic of foreign interference was once almost indistinguishable from state-based espionage. Historically, states targeted other foreign competitor states to achieve a geopolitical advantage. Now, with non-state actors possessing amplified information warfare capabilities, the notorious attribution problem is magnified. Digitisation already renders it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint the origin of cyber operations, let alone identify the perpetrators. With an indeterminable number and variety of actors now able to competently engage in digital interference, it is exponentially more challenging to find and punish the culprits. Even in cases that appear clear-cut, unequivocally connecting operations with states is difficult, as we have seen in the case of “Russia’s” Internet Research Agency.

At the same time, digitisation has increased the target pool too: just as anyone can be a malign entity, anyone can be a target of foreign interference. The proliferation of social media is a prime example of how digitisation facilitates access to society in unprecedented ways. For example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated just how cost-effective and simple it is to electronically acquire intelligence on individuals and populations, process that information using machine learning, and generate digital methods of manipulating the targets’ behaviour. As recent investigations into foreign interference operations confirm, foreign interference goals usually revolve around two goals: stimulating the target state to alter its behaviour or destabilising the target state to induce weakness. Nonetheless, despite the standard interference objectives, the Russian government’s digital assault on the US 2016 presidential election was a watershed event that highlighted the extent to which digital information operations have come to define contemporary foreign interference.

While any political system is vulnerable to foreign interference, liberal democracies are uniquely vulnerable to digital-era foreign interference because information, the non-kinetic silver bullet of malign entities, circulates freely. Freedoms of information, communication, and expression that characterise liberal democracies allow disinformation and misinformation to proliferate largely unchecked. While social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are beginning to curtail such content, the problem is far from resolved. Social media platforms are still reluctant to censor content and appear to remove material primarily when they are under extreme public pressure. This is exemplified by the circumstances surrounding the removal of Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

Moreover, countering information interference remains problematic due to legal, ethical, detection, and mitigation dilemmas. Digitisation has also enhanced the potential net-benefits for malign entities that interfere in democratic processes. Malign entities are potentially able to corrupt election data from afar and thus engineer their preferred result. Importantly though, they can also tarnish the public’s perception of deliberative processes. Information operations can be exceptionally powerful in terms of destabilising the polity due to their potential to discredit and delegitimise electoral processes without significant data manipulation. Russian government operations in the US are a case in point.

Perception of a compromised process can damage the vitality of any liberal democracy which rests on a bedrock of trust and engagement with institutions and processes of democracy. While digitisation has allowed foreign entities to exploit technology to more efficiently target offshore states, the goals are the same as they have always been: to stimulate the target to alter its behaviour somehow to the benefit of the foreign entity or to destabilise the target.

However, it is becoming increasing difficult to conceptually differentiate between foreign and domestic interference. Technology allows both types of entities to utilise cyberspace to conduct operations that are tactically and strategically similar and also lowers the costs of collaboration between foreign and domestic malign entities. It presents particular challenges to liberal democracies which cannot stringently regulate the information space or retaliate in kind without sacrificing the fundamental principles that sustain them. Although digitisation does not radically change the raison d’etre of foreign interference, it renders it far more complex because digitisation makes achieving these aims cheaper, faster, less risky, and more effective against liberal democracies.

Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling is a Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide. Her research interests centre around democratic resilience, foreign interference, digital information operations, and national security policy. Currently, Dr Dowling is engaged in projects exploring cyber information operations and their impact on Australian democracy.

This is an extract from Mellissa-Ellen Dowling’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “Democracy under Siege: foreign interference in a digital era.” It is published with permission.