The internet and social media pose an unprecedented threat to Australia’s democratic systems and an urgent response is needed to safeguard against attacks, according to a new report.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report drew on case studies from the US and found technology had enabled malicious foreign forces to potentially influence elections on a “scale and scope previously unseen”.
- ASPI report finds fake news rife and influenced US election
- More than third of pro-Trump tweets, one-fifth of pro-Clinton tweets were from bots
- Australia urged to learn from overseas examples and address threats
“Two critical elements of the democratic process are under assault,” said the report’s author, Zoe Hawkins.
“The security of our election infrastructure — think hacked voting machines — and the integrity of our public debates — think fake news.
“The technical vulnerabilities of elections is an increasingly attractive target for malicious actors as systems become increasingly digital.”
The fake news problem
ASPI’s report, Securing Democracy in the Digital Age, focuses heavily on the recent US presidential election and Russian influence.
It found that in the days just before the 2016 election, Facebook users’ engagement with fake news actually surpassed engagement with mainstream news.
Fake news gained increasing influence in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election
It also found automated “bots” were rife on Twitter, publishing a torrent of tweets in support of both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
More than a third of pro-Trump tweets were found to be automated, while almost a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets were from bots.
“The question about the integrity of voting booths in particular has been around for quite a while,” ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre director Fergus Hanson said.
“I think what was the big surprise in the US election in particular was the infiltration and use of fake news, for example, and efforts to manipulate public opinion that we hadn’t seen on a scale like that before.
“I think what really took people by surprise was the extent and the level at which this sort of order came from.”
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” in 2016 to undermine faith in the democratic process and specifically denigrate Mrs Clinton.
ASPI’s report found that for a long time the concern around hacking threats focused on infrastructure — taking out an electricity grid, opening a dam or disabling air traffic controls — but it was the more subtle influence that needed greater focus.
“Public trust in the reliability and integrity of the electoral process is the foundation of the social contract between the governing and the governed in liberal democracies,” the report reads.
“So citizens must be able to trust that the computer systems responsible for handling the execution of an election will deliver an accurate result.”
How can we protect ourselves?
A healthy scepticism of what is seen online is a start, according to Mr Hanson.
Information security recommendations
- Increase dialogue with private sector: Support and incentivise industry innovations, such as fact-checking technology.
- Bring political organisations into the tent: Educating and supporting the cybersecurity of political organisations is a step towards national election security.
- Consider whether existing legislation is sufficient: Developing clarity on the distribution of responsibility for election security will improve processes.
- Educate the public on identifying reliable information sources: Work with the private sector to stem influence of information operations.
Source: ASPI Securing Democracy in the Digital Age report
“[We need] to be very cognisant of these threats that are coming down the pipeline that we are seeing in other countries around the world and taking steps early here in Australia to protect against them,” Mr Hanson said.
Beyond that, ASPI makes a series of recommendations for protecting against future threats.
“While every national context is different, several high-level policy considerations need to be taken up in all democracies,” the report reads.
Specifically, it urges greater investment in security systems for existing electoral infrastructure and increasing public awareness of existing cybersecurity measures to keep faith in the election process.
It also makes four key recommendations around combatting fake news, including looking at the scope of existing legislation and educating the public on how to identify reliable information.
“This multifaceted vulnerability isn’t going to disappear overnight, and it’s a challenge that all modern democracies should consider and address,” the report reads.