The 2019 general election in the United Kingdom will be a test of the resilience of Western democracies, which are increasingly alert to the impact of foreign influence operations via social media.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari articulated the unique paradox of democracy when he said that the greatest advantage of liberal democratic institutions, that they are flexible and undogmatic, is also its greatest vulnerability. While liberal democracy can sustain crisis and critique better than any other social order or ideology, its lack of rigidity renders it susceptible.
This vulnerability became apparent post 2016 US presidential election which became the flashbulb moment for public awareness of foreign interference in political systems. Subsequent investigations gave rise to egregious examples of influence, such as the now infamous Russian operated Internet Research Agency and how it managed to influence political discourse through social media.
Countermeasures to improve transparency in political systems have since escalated in Western democracies with particular attention given to social media.
Debate on foreign interference in the UK has intensified in the lead up to polling day on 12 December 2019.
A UK Committee report published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee in February of this year and entitled Disinformation and ‘fake news’ stated:
‘The speed of technological development has coincided with a crisis of confidence in institutions and the media in the West. This has enabled foreign countries intent on destabilising democratic institutions to take advantage of this crisis.’
The debate has been furthered by the delay of the release of a new report by the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian espionage, subversion and interference in elections.
The report, which contains evidence from GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, takes aim at Russian influence on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election – its release has now been scheduled for after polling day.
Social media giants have responded to the issue in divergent ways. A recent announcement by Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, is that it will not allow political adverts on its platform. Another platform, Snapchat, will start fact-checking political adverts. However, Facebook stated it will not fact-check political ads as it did not want to ‘referee’ political arguments. This spread of responses typifies the evolving frontline on mitigating election interference.
The wave of transparency measures sweeping across social media platforms has seen Twitter publish excised content for public analysis. The vast volumes of accounts, their tweets and associated data has provided evidence of influence operations from state actors such as China, Iran and Russia.
The scale of these operations is becoming increasingly more evident. A recent tweet in support of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, by a National Basketball Association coach, saw an unprecedented rise in condemnation on Twitter from suspected bots/trolls in mainland China.
Influence operations are inherently complex and recent investigations have even raised flags on propaganda networks run by agencies that are used by Western political parties, including by the prominent Lynton Crosby.
The large and ever-growing sums of political party, lobby and interest group finance now being spent on social media is representative of the influence it carries.
The boundaries of manipulation are consistently being tested by domestic political parties, party-proxy organisations, and by lobby and interest groups who seek to gain any political advantage available. It’s within the fight for digital supremacy that foreign influence operations have founded space to exploit democratic systems.
In a rapid rise to prominence, Topham Guerin, a boutique digital marketing agency, operates what is described as a ‘social media firehouse of attention grabbing, emotion-manipulating, behaviour-nudging messaging designed to corral the faithful and convert the fence-sitters’.
Topham Guerin are credited with being an integral asset to the Morrison Government’s victory in the 2019 Australian Federal Election and are currently working for the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.
Despite progress in tackling transparency issues and foreign influence operations, including an increased focus from electoral commissions across the West on the regulation of online campaigning, transparency and disinformation, foreign influence operations will continue to plague election periods.
The erosion of trust in democratic systems globally and the vexed attitudes of constituencies, continues to be noted in polling. Reform in Western democratic systems is being outpaced by the evolving social media landscape. However, progress is being made and may well catch-up.
The UK general election provides a case study on just how well the West has adapted to foreign influence operations via social media. The results will inevitably be analysed by security agencies, think-tanks and parliamentary committees.
Philip Citowicki is a former Adviser to Australia’s former Foreign Minister the Hon Julie Bishop and a former Aide to Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.