Foreign interference: Countering evolving tactics
As technology has advanced, so have methods of foreign interference. Countering this threat isn’t the work of a moment and everyone – governments, platform owners and netizens – plays a crucial role.
While many of us first learned of the danger of foreign interference from well-publicised incidents like the alleged foreign interference in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in the United States, this phenomenon traces its roots much further back.
During the Warring States period (475-221 BC) in ancient China, for instance, General Yue Yi from the state of Yan was ousted from his position and forced into exile when foreign agents from a rival state spread false rumours of his treachery and successfully influenced the King of Yan to turn against the general. General Yue Yi was dismissed and forced to flee. Weakened, Yan’s forces were driven away.
Ambitious people have also long turned to foreign sponsors to boost their political prospects. During the Roman era, Greek politicians of the Achaean League turned to the powerful Roman empire for support. Rome was more than happy to oblige. This solicitation of foreign interference eventually contributed to the Roman conquest of Greece.
Similar patterns of behavior can be seen around the world today.
BOTS AND FAKE ACCOUNTS
The age of social media has enabled new tactics for foreign interference agents.
The US Intelligence Community’s Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections report on interference found that Iran carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign to undermine public confidence in the electoral process and US institutions and sow discord. They created social media accounts, published over 1,000 pieces of online content and expanded the number of inauthentic social media accounts to at least several thousand and boosted the activity of these accounts.
Foreign interference isn’t limited to election campaigns. A Reuters report stated that Russia’s intelligence services had directed three online publications to undermine COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. A US state department spokesperson said that the disinformation campaign covered a variety of topics, including the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, international organisations, military conflicts and any divisive issue that could be exploited.
A DEEPER DECEPTION
Experts warned that technological improvements could make hostile information campaigns (HICs) more difficult to detect. For example, deepfakes – false but realistic photos or videos of persons generated by machine learning technology – are one such innovation that could be misused in such campaigns.
Foreign interference agents have also evolved new ways to evade detection. For instance, fake social media accounts created for the purpose of foreign interference now target journalists and social media influencers in the hope that these influencers will spread the messages to their followers. Some hostile actors are also using troll farms in third countries to post content, to make it harder to trace the source of the HICs.
Foreign interference agents have also started miniaturising their disinformation campaigns. For example, according to a New York Times report, Iranian agents infiltrated small WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels and messaging apps that Israelis used to discuss domestic politics.
FIGHTING FOREIGN INTERFERENCE
How can we counter this evolving threat?
Social media platforms have a role to play, in making sure their platform does not get abused. Educators also have the responsibility of inculcating digital literacy among their learners, so that there will be a growing population of people who can recognise and reject foreign state-sponsored campaigns online.
Beyond such measures, governments also need to protect their people with appropriate legislation. A new legislation was passed in Parliament to deal with HICs, as well as to deal with offline subversion of politically significant individuals and entities.
The Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) allows the Government to obtain information to investigate potential interference in our domestic politics, as well as expose and disrupt them. FICA seeks to protect our sovereignty and the right of Singaporeans to shape their own politics.
FICA focuses on online and offline forms of foreign interference.
- The first is HICs, where foreign actors use social media and online communications tools to manipulate domestic opinion to advance the hostile actors’ objectives. Examples include using social media accounts in a coordinated way, to give Internet users a false sense of support for or opposition towards a particular point of view.
- Offline forms include using local proxies to interfere in political processes or government decision-making. The tactics include funding or non-monetary support for specific entities and persons who are actively engaged in politics or who are in positions of power or influence over governmental decisions.
The new law requires social media companies to help the Government respond to HICs by, for example, providing the Government with information that can help it determine if content is of foreign origin, and by removing content and accounts involved in such campaigns from being seen by Singapore users. It also requires persons or entities who are involved in the nation’s political processes to regularly disclose funding and other information, to ensure transparency and deter interference through these proxies.
Foreign interference campaigns have survived from ancient politics to today’s social media platforms. The emergence of technologies like deepfakes has unfortunately strengthened the arsenal of the entities running foreign interference campaigns.
While educators, social media platforms, and governments work hard to combat foreign interference, it is critical that we also cast a critical eye on what we read online.
Find out more about how foreign interference can destabilise nations.