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The beginner’s guide to foreign interference

From the United States and United Kingdom to our own shores, foreign interference is very much in the news. But what exactly is it and what can we do about it?

The beginner’s guide to foreign interference

Disinformation can take on innocuous forms online, like memes and GIFs. Their intentions however, could be more sinister and can play up social fault lines and sow discord abroad. Images: Shutterstock

Foreign interference has featured prominently in the news over the last few years, often with far-reaching consequences. For instance, a US National Intelligence Council report on interference during the US Elections in 2020 claimed that, amongst other interference attempts, Russian troll farms had attempted to discredit then presidential candidate Joe Biden and US officials with links to the Obama administration by alleging that they had corrupt links with Ukraine.

According to a New York Times report, Russia used online message boards, closed chat rooms and private Facebook groups to circulate their messages. The use of private platforms made detection of such efforts more difficult.

In the United Kingdom, foreign interference was alleged to have affected the 2016 Brexit referendum. The Guardian reported that accounts run from a Russian troll farm tried to sow discord over the Brexit referendum.

Foreign interference isn’t limited to elections. For instance, the BBC reported that during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of fake or hijacked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts were producing pro-Chinese government messages about the COVID-19 pandemic. The content was critical of the US and European Union’s handling of the pandemic. The objective? To reduce these governments’ credibility among their citizens. 

Singapore, too, has not been immune to foreign interference. In 1988, the first secretary of the US Embassy’s political section, Mr Hank Hendrickson, had sought out disaffected Singaporean lawyers and urged them to contest in the upcoming elections.

Here’s what you should know about foreign interference and the threat it poses to countries around the world.

WHAT IS FOREIGN INTERFERENCE?

Foreign interference occurs when agents from a foreign country try to manipulate the domestic politics, actions or policies of their target country to advance their own interests. The idea of foreign interference is nicely summarised by the Gerasimov Doctrine – named after the Russian Military Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.

He stated that the rules of war now include non-kinetic military measures. In the age of social media, hostile foreign actors may use social media and online communication tools to conduct hostile information campaigns. Foreign agents share or forward memes and disinformation to deepen divisions in their target country, stoke hostility between the different groups living there and widen public distrust of the country’s major institutions.

This was seen during the runup to the 2020 US Presidential Election. According to a Department of Homeland Security report, Russian agents were aggressively trying to inflame social and racial tensions in the US. A 2019 report stated that Russia aimed to weaken the US by sowing discord and division in the hope of impairing the US’ ability to challenge Russia’s strategic objectives.

Ukraine is another country that has suffered from foreign interference. According to an Atlantic Council report, ever since the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution (which resulted in the country’s elected president, Mr Viktor Yanukovych, being ousted), a Russian disinformation campaign has aimed to undermine trust in the new Ukrainian government. For example, hackers attacked the country’s power grid and foreign agents used bots and fake social media accounts to smear the image of the Ukrainian government.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

One way to investigate foreign interference is to trace where the campaign’s funding comes from. In the 1970s, two Singapore newspapers, the Eastern Sun and the Singapore Herald, were discovered to have received foreign funding. These newspapers propagated the editorial lines of their foreign backers. This practice continues today, with recent cases having been discovered in New Zealand.

In another recent case, wealthy foreign donors were alleged to have bought influence over an Australian senator who eventually resigned from office. To combat such vectors of foreign interference in politics, Singapore has long banned foreign political donations, and countries such as Australia and New Zealand have recently introduced similar levers as well. 

Australia introduced significantly tougher laws against foreign interference in 2018, while it was dealing with new allegations of foreign interference in its country, including an alleged attempt to plant a foreign-backed MP in parliament. These new laws defined new espionage offences, established a register of foreign political agents and launched tougher penalties against spies.

HOW FOREIGN INTERFERENCE AFFECTS YOU

What does this mean for the average Singaporean?

Foreign interference poses a direct threat to our way of life. It undermines our sovereignty and the ability of Singaporeans to make our own decisions about our society and future.

While social media platforms were initially reluctant to undertake self-regulation, this is starting to change. For instance, in the wake of the Capitol riots in the US on Jan 6, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram banned the accounts of Donald Trump and some of his staunchest supporters for their incendiary rhetoric.

According to Facebook’s The State of Influence Operations 2017-2020 report, the tech giant took down and publicly reported on over 150 covert influence operations from 2017 through the middle of 2021. Originating from over 50 countries, these operations targeted foreign and domestic public debate.

While encouraging, these steps are not enough, as hostile information campaigns are evolving. For instance, the New York Times reported that Iran used small-scale campaigns in Israel, infiltrating small WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels and messaging apps to spread disinformation. The small scale of these operations made detection by platform owners more difficult, which is why it’s important for users to be able to suss out fake news for themselves.

Users have to learn to identify foreign interference campaigns and halt their spread, lest they spread information from such campaigns without realising it.

Foreign interference campaigns do not only use disinformation as a weapon. This can also take more seemingly harmless forms like memes, satire, commentaries and opinion pieces that may also be used to undermine social cohesion.

According to a New York Times report, Russia is trying to encourage white nationalists to more aggressively spread hate messages. At the same time, it is also trying to push black extremist groups toward violence.

As responsible Singaporeans with digital lives on social media platforms, it is imperative that we be aware that hostile foreign agents may seek to turn us into the unwitting tools of their malicious information campaigns against Singapore.

When we receive a juicy story, meme or video on platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram, it is important to think about whether it is wise to share or forward it to our groups or followers.

We can still express our views on issues that concern Singaporeans, but let’s not unwittingly become part of a foreign interference campaign.

Find out more about how foreign interference can destabilise nations.

Source: CNA

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