Trash talking is a dangerous game when it’s about national security

By Tom Ravlic

February 21, 2022

Bad state actors have engaged in digital warfare using social media. (kinwun/Adobe)


Trash talking opponents is quite at home during a weigh-in for heavyweight boxers, or with the larger-than-life characters bristling and shouting at each other on World Wrestling Entertainment.

Those sporting contexts rely heavily on this trash talk for narrative and drama for entertainment purposes. Neither boxing nor televised wrestling tournaments are the business of government. They are an outlet for people to distract themselves from everyday reality.

The national parliament is not a boxing or wrestling arena, but viewers of the past fortnight’s worth of Question Time antics could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the national parliament was aping the worst excesses of wrestling entertainment. 

This was particularly so when the government attempted to create the impression that the opposition under its leader, Anthony Albanese, would be weak on national security issues.

Assertions that members of the opposition were in one way or another more palatable to the regime in Beijing might play well for the evening news, but there are grave risks that come with that level of amateur rhetorical recklessness.

The first area of concern is that it makes it appear to those who only watch Question Time or the nightly news for political news that Australian security matters are not a bi-partisan affair. This amplifies divisive rhetoric in the context of a domestic audience when news organisations play the clips either as part of their updates or panel programs.

One reference was made in the House of Representatives by prime minister Scott Morrison to Richard Marles, the deputy leader of the opposition, being a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ or a sell out to China; that statement was later withdrawn.

Withdrawals are a formal matter for parliament, but the reference goes viral once it is let out into the wild.

The problem with references that are withdrawn in parliament is that they will still dominate the news cycle and form a part of analysis about the nature of debate. They will remain in the public consciousness.

Heightened attacks on the opposition for what the coalition sees as weaknesses in the area of national security and intelligence have also been pointed to by Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, as being unhelpful given that any side of politics could be the target of foreign influencers seeking to conflict and corrupt Australian politicians.

Burgess’ caution came after government ministers riffed on allegations that Labor politicians may have been the subject of intelligence concerns arising because of an attempt by a foreign power to influence players in our democracy.

Warnings from the spy chief should be taken seriously, but there are signs that the spirit of what Burgess said is still being ignored by a government intent on banging on about differences between it and the ALP on national security.

Here’s the rub. Most people understand the need for people to be competitive in the lead up to an election. There is also a general understanding that some bumps and shirtfronts need to be tolerated in the political area.

Domestic political scraps in the lead up to a federal poll are one thing but our political class needs to be very careful what it wishes for because the consequences of such public, rhetorical, and often bellicose spats can unleash forces Australia’s politicians have no control over.

Making disputes over national security obvious to people at home and overseas will leave the door open for foreign players to mount their own efforts to further exacerbate and widen domestic divisions.

Don’t think so? Consider the research reports done by numerous organisations have chartered the progress of bad state actors as they have sought to engage in digital warfare using social media.

The Rand Corporation, Soufan Center, and the Oxford Internet Institute have used machine learning and data science to unveil the way in which social media is used by malevolent digital operatives to try and amplify divisions in countries such as America.

Take a look at the problematic nature of the QAnon conspiracies in the United States. The Soufan Center conducted a research project with Limbik, a content analysis consulting firm in the US, to look at the way in which conspiracy theories spread online.

The majority of that social media traffic analysed by the Soufan-Limbik team was between domestic adherents but the more interesting and concerning trend was the visibility of overseas agitators from countries that would take some perverse pleasure in stoking the domestic fires in jurisdictions they regard as unfriendly.

Prominent among those countries are the usual suspects such as Russia and China. Saudi Arabia gets into that mix as does Iran. All of these countries will have their own reasons for wanting to play digital games with the US but one thing they have in common is the understanding that these are times when deep divisions can be exploited as a part of geopolitical positioning.

Now for some data. The April 2021 Soufan Center report found that 166,820 Facebook posts published between 1 January 2020 and 28 February 2021 were categorised as being QAnon-related. Analysis of these posts revealed that almost 20% of them were linked to foreign accounts.

Who was responsible for these posts seeking to inflame tensions in the US? Russia, according to the authors of the reports, had responsibility for 44% of the posts that were clearly aimed at stirring further anti-government sentiment. Why not get Americans already agitated with government for their own weird, conspiratorial reasons to work for you and tear each other apart simply by buying into the internal bickering taking place in the US?

China came second, with 42% of posts analysed being linked to Chinese accounts. There are clear motivations for China to get involved and one of those, of course, is that former-president Donald Trump had gotten aggressive with China over its role in the origin of the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran tinkered with American minds, and it appeared as the source of 13% of posts identified as foreign interference. Saudi Arabia also dabbled in the QAnon frolics, with evidence of their dabbling appearing in 1% of posts.

Keep in mind that these posts from foreign players were bobbing up during the lead up to the election in the US as well as in the lead up to the events that took place at the Capitol on January 6 last year. This does not mean that this cohort of foreign dabblers were a principal cause of the unrest on January 6, but their online involvement would have done nothing to persuade people convinced QAnon theories were real to think otherwise.

These findings from the Soufan Group provide a point for reflection in the Australian context. There is no reason why Russia, China or another foreign country would seek to dabble in the American political environment and not consider Australia a viable target for a similar kind of amplification of dissent and discord.

Creating that kind of division with the goal of retaining government in the short term leaves a door open for this kind of exploitation from overseas players.

This is without considering the extensive activism that already exists in the online space with Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy. That kind of activism is ‘in your face’ and provocative. Anything that causes a perception that the difference between a government and its opposition is more than paper thin could attract Twitter and Facebook activism for which Chinese foreign office officials have gained notoriety.

Australia has been subject to posts from Chinese foreign office officials to which the highest levels of our government have reacted in the past. Has the wolf warrior post targeting Australia over the allegations of war crimes in the Brereton Report focused on the Afghanistan deployment back in December 2020 been forgotten? Why would anybody in government place the country in a position where Chinese officials could again tickle it underfoot by alleging it is inconsistent or less than unified on national security matters?

Come back to the warning from Burgess at ASIO on the politicisation of intelligence analysis for electoral gain. Intelligence analysis exists in a nuanced environment, and it is entirely plausible that the brutal nature of the political pantomime being played by the prime minister and some of his colleagues would not assist people seeking to tap contacts and sources for information to help Australia assess the climate for security threats.

It should not have to be pointed out that human intelligence matters and other forms of intelligence such as signals intelligence and image-related intelligence from drones and satellites may only be a part of a larger mosaic that needs assembling for threat assessment. Sometimes people are the only real source of intelligence that fills essential gaps.

Has anybody considered that the amplification of rhetoric on national security issues could make people that might otherwise want to provide information to government agencies reluctant to do so?


ASIO foiled foreign interference plot in lead up to election

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