Sweden this week launched the Psychological Defence Agency, aimed exclusively at identifying and combating foreign information campaigns. With the rise in exploitable communications vectors, is it time that Australia followed suit?
The body, which is expected to employ some 45 employees, was established to identify and combat the rise of foreign information campaigns designed to undermine Sweden’s national sovereignty.
The head of the agency, Lieutenant Colonel Henrik Landerholm, explained that malign information campaigns are designed to undermine national and social cohesion – with the primary threat actors emerging from Russia, China and Iran.
“Psychological defence is society’s common ability to resist undue influence on information and other misleading information directed at Sweden. Our collective resistance to disinformation, propaganda and psychological warfare should prevent or make it difficult for an attacker to influence our decisions, perceptions or behaviours,” the agency addressed online.
“The Swedish Psychological Defence Agency leads the work of coordinating and developing Sweden’s psychological defence – an important part of a strong and modern total defence.”
In the face of global instability, is it time that Australia established its own psychological defence agency?
The threat of grey zone activities lies in an inability for the victim or wider international community to definitively attribute the operation and respond accordingly. Information operations, hacking or even counterspace measures are difficult – if not often impossible – to attribute to state or non-state actors, providing the victim with little legal or military recourse to defend themselves against threat actors.
If one is looking to achieve operational-strategic level goals and get away with little more than a stern warning, information operations are the perfect crime.
Further, if military theorists continue to hold the Clausewitzian maxim that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” true, then Clausewitz’s notion has taken on new life in the 21st century with emerging and infinitely exploitable communications vectors. In this light, Major General Mick Ryan recently explained that “at the end of the day, war is only effective in that it’s about achieving a political end state and achieving influence over someone that they no longer want to fight you.”
So great is the threat of cyber-enabled warfare on the modern body politic that upon the release of the French government’s Military Cyber Strategy in 2019, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly argued that already international “cyber warfare has begun”. Indeed, the French military cyber strategy examined the broad swathe of information operations conducted by threat actors, from intelligence to influence operations and undermining national resilience.
So how does information warfare achieve “influence over someone that they no longer want to fight you”? Simply, new and emerging communications tools provide new vectors for threat actors to foment internal divisions, destroy enemy morale and thus their willingness to undertake armed combat.
Indeed, Virgilijus Rutkauskas’ multivariate analysis in his paper Factors Affecting Willingness to Fight for One’s Own Country: The Case of Baltic States illustrates that “strong national pride, confidence in government and the armed forces, and financial satisfaction” are positive independent variables in determining whether one is likely to fight for their country. As such, disrupting these variables (or nodes) with a consistent and targeted communications campaign – either to devalue one’s perception of their country, their government, stir distrust within their defence apparatus or make them unsatisfied with their personal economic capabilities – would achieve the enemy’s end state: a country whose citizens simply will not defend it.
Foreign exploitations of these variables are evidenced across social media. In the lead-up to the last US presidential election, TikTok removed an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 videos for disinformation – although placing Chinese-owned TikTok and the politically motivated workforce inside the world’s social media giants as arbiters of “information” and “disinformation” is in and of itself a security risk.
A quick search of the TikTok app already yields interesting results. A simple search for “hate America” brings videos totalling 15.7 million views, meanwhile the app banned 81 million other videos in the 2nd quarter of 2021 for various misdemeanours.
When it’s one rule for me and one rule for thee for the social media giants, neuroplasticity might be at play.
“In his book, The Russian Understanding of War, Dr. Oscar Jonsson argues that Russian thought places a special emphasis on the psychological effects of their cyber capabilities. In this view, digital platforms are simply a means to an end ... By focusing on the cognitive dimension of a target population, Russian doctrine hopes to sow doubt and discord,” 2nd Lieutenant Bryce Johnston wrote in the Modern War Institute in September.
Content that people see shapes the way that they think, which then shapes their attitudes to one another and their country.
However, the communications threat landscape goes far deeper than that of just moulding a user’s neuroplasticity. In fact, China’s cyber security laws outline that Chinese companies are required to share their data with the PRC, although TikTok has staunchly rejected that they participate in this practice.
Nevertheless, with an estimated 200 million downloads in the US – the threat of the app being a backdoor into a user’s phone and influencing the perception of the next generation to the United States and international rules-based order is too great to overlook.
An overview of cognitive campaigns
A prototype of such cognitive warfare was evidenced during the Huk rebellion in the Philippines between the 1940s and 1950s, in which ranger teams would place small drawing of eyes into Huk weapons caches. The result was that the enemy combatants believed that they were always watched; fearful of an ambush and divided on how to respond, many of the guerrilla movements disbanded. This hugely successful tactic undermined the rebels’ willingness to fight without having to fire a bullet.
In a sign that things never change, even Sun Tzu prioritised this style of conflict.
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting,” the famed strategist wrote.
More recently, at the outset of the War in Afghanistan, Peter Singer in the Brookings Institution argued that the US should foment division between the local Afghan mujahideen and the wealthier Arab jihadis (termed the “Gucci Mujahadeen”) to mitigate the threat of a unified opposition to the invasion. This way, the ideological and religious bedfellows would nevertheless collapse on their small but exploitable in-group vs out-group characteristics.
Such behavioural operations have been magnified in recent years, with threat actors leveraging new cyber-enabled communications vectors.
Writing in ASPI’s The Strategist in October, cyber expert Pukhraj Singh explained that Australian companies exhibit an array of exploitable weaknesses that place a continuum of organisations – and Australia’s overarching national resilience – at risk.
“The relentless compromising of the private sector, which remains a soft but strategic target, has diluted the conventional boundaries of conflict, forcing the government to enhance its legislative reach,” Singh argues.
Singh notes that while the commonwealth’s Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2020 acknowledges the vulnerability of Australian cyber space, it needs to refine critical infrastructure.
“While the contentious issue of how much access into the enterprise networks the Australian Signals Directorate should be offered requires deliberation, the private sector can’t withstand the Category 5 hurricane that a state-sponsored cyber attack could be,” Singh observes.
Indeed, Singh draws a link to how the breadth of cyber-enabled operations – from hacking through to information warfare are critical tools to psychologically weaken nations, without having to rely on military intervention.
“Before and after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian power grid was repeatedly targeted with destructive malware. Ben Buchanan notes in his book The Hacker and the State, ‘It plunged hundreds of thousands of people into darkness…’ Life went on. But the attacks did demotivate the population, affecting people’s will to fight and resist the Russian insurgency,” Singh argued.
The overwhelmingly intersecting notions of information, psychological and cognitive warfare are not limited to hostile campaigns.
Succinctly, retired US Naval Commander Mike Dahm noted that “violent action is one way to accomplish a mission; it is not the objective”. Simply, strong communications nodes enable the final goal of competing for “foreign hearts and minds” while also winning over “the next generation of warriors through social media”.
Indeed, the French Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly is likely correct in arguing that “cyber warfare has begun”. Low barriers to entry and an inability to attribute attacks to threat actors make cyber incursions too attractive to deny.
New technology sharing arrangements under the AUKUS agreement must enable Australia to tap into world-leading cyber capabilities, build our cyber resilience and mitigate the threat of cyber-enabled information war.
Does the Australian government, intelligence agencies and defence apparatus have sufficient safeguards in place to protect Australia from such influence operations?
As always, join the conversation in the comments below.