“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is an interpretation of Voltaire’s principles by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Freedom of expression is often cited as the last frontier before falling into authoritarian rule. But is free speech, our greatest strength, really our greatest weakness? Hostile authoritarian actors seem to exploit these individual liberties by engaging in layered political warfare to undermine trust in our democratic systems. These often clandestine operations pose an existential threat to our democracy.
The digital age has permanently changed the way states conduct political warfare—necessitating a rebalancing of security priorities in democracies. The utilisation of cyberspace by state and non- state actors to subvert democratic elections, encourage the proliferation of violence and challenge the sovereignty and values of democratic states is having a highly destabilising effect. Successful political warfare campaigns also cause voters to question the results of democratic elections and whether special interests or foreign powers have been the decisive factor in a given outcome. This is highly damaging for the political legitimacy of democracies, which depend upon voters being able to trust in electoral processes and outcomes free from malign influence— perceived or otherwise. The values of individual freedom and political expression practised within democratic states challenges their ability to respond to political warfare. The continued failure of governments to understand this has undermined their ability to combat this emerging threat. The challenges that this new digitally enabled political warfare poses to democracies is set to rise with developments in machine learning and the emergence of digital tools such as ‘deep fakes’.
Make sure to read the full paper titled Political warfare in the digital age: cyber subversion, information operations and ‘deep fakes’ by Thomas Paterson and Lauren Hanley at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10357718.2020.1734772
This paper’s central theme is at the intersection of democratic integrity and political subversion operations. The authors describe an increase of cyber-enabled espionage and political warfare due to the global spread of the internet. They argue it has led to an imbalance between authoritarian and democratic state actors. Their argument rests on the notion that individual liberties such as freedom of expression put democratic states at a disadvantage compared to authoritarian states. Therefore authoritarian states are observed to more often choose political warfare and subversion operations versus democracies are confined to breaching cyber security and conducting cyber espionage. Cyber espionage is defined as
“the use of computer networks to gain illicit access to confidential information, typically that held by a government or other organization”
and is not a new concept. I disagree with the premise of illicit access because cyberspace specifically enables the free flow of information beyond any local regulation. Illicit is either redundant for espionage does not necessarily require breaking laws, rules or customs or it is duplicative with confidential information, which I interpret as synonymous with classified information. Though one might argue about the difference. From a legal perspective, the information does not need to be obtained through illicit access.
With regard to the broader term political warfare, I found the definition of political warfare as,
“diverse operations to influence, persuade, and coerce nation states, organizations, and individuals to operate in accord with one’s strategic interests without employing kinetic force”
most appropriate. It demonstrates the depth of political warfare, which encompasses influence and subversion operations outside of physical activity. Subversion operations are defined as
“a subcategory of political warfare that aims to undermine institutional as well as individual legitimacy and authority”
I disagree with this definition for it fails to emphasize the difference between political warfare and subversion – both undermine legitimacy and authority. However, a subversion operation is specifically aimed to erode and deconstruct a political mandate. It is the logical next step after political warfare influenced a populace in order to achieve political power. The authors see the act of subversion culminating in a loss of trust in democratic principles. It leads to voter suppression, reduced voter participation, decreased and asymmetrical review of electoral laws but more importantly it poses a challenge to the democratic values of its citizens. It is an existential threat to a democracy. It favors authoritarian states detached from checks and balances that are usually present in democratic systems. These actors are not limited by law or civic popularity or reputational capital. Ironically, this bestows a certain amount of freedom upon them to deploy political warfare operations. Democracies on the other hand uphold individual liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly or equal treatment under law and due process. As demonstrated during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, a democracy generally struggles with identifying political warfare initiated by a foreign (hostile) state from certain segments of the population pursuing their strategic objectives by leveraging these exact individual freedoms. An example from the Mueller Report
“stated that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which had clear links to the Russian Government, used social media accounts and interest groups to sow discord in the US political system through what it termed ‘information warfare’ […] The IRA’s operation included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of US persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States.”
And it doesn’t stop in America. Russia is deploying influence operations in volatile regions on the African continent. China has a history of attempting to undermine democratic efforts in Africa. Both states aim to chip away power from former colonial powers such as France or at least suppress efforts to democratise regions in Africa. China is also deeply engaged in large-scale political warfare in the Southeast Asian region over regional dominance but also territorial expansion as observed in the South China Sea. New Zealand and Australia recorded numerous incidents of China’s attempted influence operations. Australia faced a real-world political crisis when Australian Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was found to be connected to political donor Huang Xiangmo, who has ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, China having a direct in-route to influence Australian policy decisions.
The paper concludes with an overview of future challenges posed by political warfare. With more and more computing power readily available the development of new cyber tools and tactics to ideate political warfare operations is only going to increase. Authoritarian states are likely to expand their disinformation playbooks by tapping into the fears of people fueled by conspiracy theories. Developments of machine learning and artificial intelligence will further improvements of inauthentic behavior online. For example, partisan political bots will become more human and harder to discern from real human users. Deep fake technology will increase sampling rates by tapping into larger datasets from the social graph of every human being making it increasingly possible to impersonate individuals to gain access or achieve certain strategic objectives. Altogether, political warfare poses a greater challenge than cyber-enabled espionage in particular for democracies. Democracies need to understand the asymmetrical relationship with authoritarian actors and dedicate resources to effective countermeasures to political warfare without undoing civil liberties in the process.