How worried should we be about foreign interference in Australian elections?

By Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling
Research Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide

Foreign interference in Australian elections has become an increasingly prominent concern for the political community amid another campaign. Part of this concern is warranted, as evidence has emerged of malign foreign entities’ attempts to manipulate the democratic process.

Earlier this year, ASIO chief Mike Burgess shared the intelligence agency’s assessment that foreign states are not yet able to influence the outcome of an election in Australia, yet also cautioned that attempts were nonetheless underway.

He revealed details of an interference attempt involving ‘a wealthy individual who maintained direct and deep connections with a foreign government’. Overwhelmingly, it is China’s putative influence over Australian politicians that is at the centre of this public debate.

Earlier this year, Defence Minister Peter Dutton declared that China’s government had ‘picked’ Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese as their preferred candidate, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison labelled Labor MP Richard Marles as a ‘Manchurian candidate’.

Trucks have appeared on the streets of Australian cities depicting Xi Jinping voting beneath the message: ‘CCP says vote Labor’. As these cases indicate, ‘interference’ and ‘influence’ can overlap.

However, foreign interference is more insidious than influence because it concerns convert attempts to manipulate democracy, rather than more ostensibly ‘legitimate’ influence through diplomacy and soft power.

Influence is par for the course in politics, but how feasible is the possibility that a foreign state can covertly interfere in our elections?

Already, there has been clear evidence of cyber interference in election systems and referendums in the US, UK, and France, though there is less evidence of their impact on overall results. Nonetheless, the intent of such efforts signal the increasing digital challenges that liberal democracies must face.

The Mueller Report’s investigation into election interference in the 2016 US election revealed the attempts of Russia’s Internet Research Agency to manipulate public opinion of candidates.

Similarly, the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report concluded that Russia deployed digital technology with the intent to sway public opinion on Brexit.

In light of these dangers, how prepared is Australia?

Measures to mitigate foreign interference

Fortunately, Australian policymakers are taking the threat of interference seriously.

There are multiple legislative and organisational initiatives put in place by Commonwealth, state and territory governments to address the multi-dimensional problems of foreign interference and influence that exist alongside the election laws which provide the administrative backbone of democratic resilience and integrity for our elections.

One such measure is legislation to target various dimensions of the multifaceted interference problem. For example, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 (Cth) fosters transparency of association by requiring those involved in ‘registerable activities’ to disclose connections with ‘foreign principals’.

The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 (Cth) criminalises foreign interference, and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018 (Cth) prohibits the use of foreign donations in campaigning.

The limits on foreign funding are also likely to be intensified, as the currently debated Electoral Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 is designed to broaden existing laws against foreign financing of election material.

Another measure of safeguarding Australian democracy from foreign interference includes dedicated organisations specifically focused on either electoral integrity and/or foreign interference. Agencies such as ASIO’s Countering Foreign Interference Taskforce, the Australian Electoral Commission, and the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce all work towards protecting democratic vitality.

While weaknesses in both legislative and organisational measures are apparent and stem primarily from the cyber attribution problem, tangible interference and influence detection capabilities are operational and continue to be strengthened as we approach the next election.

Further, providing that analogue processes like paper ballots are maintained, the upcoming federal election should be relatively well-protected against direct cyber attempts to distort the voting process.

The predominantly manual ballot system enhanced through digital technology (‘digital-analogue hybridity’) renders hacking of digital systems difficult or, if it occurs, unrewarding since results can be cross-checked manually.

Digital disinformation and distortion of preferences

Despite these protections, there is one dimension of the foreign interference threat looming large over the upcoming election that continues to defy mitigation efforts: digital disinformation.

Significantly, producing disinformation is intentional, whereas misinformation is unintentional. Disinformation can distort and damage the democratic process in several different ways such as by promoting social division and manipulating national political narratives.

One troublesome effect of this is that disinformation can affect voters’ political preferences – i.e., what and whom they choose to vote for (or against). A major risk of foreign disinformation is that it tries to inject disruptive ideas to distort political preferences.

What makes this a particularly insidious dimension of the interference problem is that it leaves the voting system itself intact and unmolested: at the ballot box, voters’ preferences are legally valid and legitimate, and the ensuing election outcome unchallengeable.

It is a feature and not a flaw of liberal democracy that political argument and persuasion influence the outcome of an election. A liberal democracy ideally allows for its members to develop balanced understandings of issues.

According to democracy theorist Robert Dahl, members of a polity should be able to equally acquire ‘understanding of possible government actions and policies’ and how those affect their interests. So we rely on the free, unimpeded and transparent flow of information – via a free media and public debate – to form and express our political views.

That this allows lies, half-truths, bad-faith argument, and propaganda to circulate freely is hardly new to us – Plato was suspicious of the Sophists, who prized clever argument above plain speaking. Yet, the widespread use of social media combined with the open nature of the liberal democratic system leaves elections particularly vulnerable now.

Unfettered access to information about the actions of elected officials is the life-blood of liberal democracy, but, unfortunately, it also allows malign entities, domestic or foreign, to manipulate the information space. Malign entities’ covert manipulation of the public sphere further jeopardises this aspirational characteristic of liberal democracy.

As we approach the 2022 federal election, Australians should be particularly mindful of the covert manipulation of information to sway public opinion.

Reports of recent foreign interference attempts through media manipulation highlights that complacency is not an option. Although Australia is well-protected from foreign interference and influence thanks to robust digital-analogue hybridity and comprehensive policy responses, it remains vulnerable due to its open information space.

To remain resilient against foreign interference in elections, we must strengthen the capacity for the public sphere to serve as robust and diverse communicative arena within which gaining enlightened understanding is not only possible, but more probable.

Banner image: Unsplash / Dmitry Ratushny


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