It's only a matter of time before New Zealand is drawn into the global game of information warfare, argues Stephen Davis.
New Zealanders have a reputation for being very trusting. With our generally moderate political discourse and openness, we could easily be used as a test bed for the kind of disinformation campaigns that have been so successful overseas, a concerned senior New Zealand government official told me before the last election.
He had in mind an operation such as Cambridge Analytica, which harvested personal data on Facebook and used it for targeted but distorted political advertising. The company worked for the Vote Leave campaign in the UK, which influenced the Brexit vote with racist claims that the vote could lead to millions of Turks moving to Britain. (Turkey is not in the European Union, and the chances of it ever being a member have plummeted.)
His anxiety was based on the assumption that the stories we tell ourselves about sane and sensible Aotearoa are at least partly true. We have our extremists – I constantly hear from Kiwi followers of the crazed QAnon cult – but on the other hand, when David Hood, a data analyst at the University of Otago, examined political tweets in five countries – New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Sri Lanka and the US – he noted our tendency towards moderation.
"New Zealand Twitter has a number of characteristics that show a much greater emphasis on social cohesion than other countries," Hood observed.
Does decent and trusting equal more likely to be fooled?
The 2020 election seemed to feature only the usual amount of political dissembling but there is no cause for complacency.
The Ministry of Defence has just issued a stark warning that our strategic environment is deteriorating and is becoming the most challenging in decades. We need to be worried about China, it said, and about nuclear-powered submarines, fighter jets and warships poking their noses into our corner of the world.
But it also highlighted a grey zone, neither war nor peace, featuring sabotage, propaganda and foreign interference. Part of that grey zone is the weaponisation of information.
The National Cyber Security Centre is part of the Government Communications Security Bureau. It monitors cyber threats and disinformation (often linked) and reported an increase in the frequency and sophistication of incidents in its latest report. There were 404 such incidents affecting nationally significant organisations in the 2020-21 year, a 15 per cent increase on the previous 12 months.
These numbers reflect the security centre's focus on incidents likely to have a national impact, which means they will represent just a small proportion of the total incidents affecting New Zealand
Of the total number of incidents, 28 per cent showed links to suspected state-sponsored actors, and a similar proportion (27 per cent) were probably criminal and financially motivated.
According to the report, some states (it does not name them) have increased their disinformation and political-interference efforts and investment. It suggests this will continue to escalate, and that the rapid growth of artificial intelligence and the growing ease of access to virtual online services and infrastructure will only make matters worse.
We not only have to worry about other countries, but also malicious private campaigns, it seems.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet convenes a misinformation and disinformation group which brings agencies together to ensure co-ordination and to share lessons learnt.
According to Tony Lynch, the deputy chief executive of the department's national security group, those who spread information and disinformation are now moving to less-regulated channels, following a crackdown by social media platforms on groups and individuals breaching their terms and conditions.
These groups and individuals are also getting more organised. "We have seen links to disinformation-spreaders and conspiracy theorists globally, using this content as a tool for recruitment and radicalisation, to reduce health controls and to cause division, hatred and, in some cases, violence," says Lynch.
Nicole Matejic, who has been appointed the principal adviser on digital safety at the Department of Internal Affairs, combating online child sexual abuse and online violent extremism, has expertise in information warfare.
She has a background in information strategy as a non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare in Virginia, whose job is to enhance the United States Marines' war-fighting capability.
She also wrote a fascinating, if frightening, paper on information warfare for Nato, which presents a grim vision of the future.
"Nato may not be particularly inclined towards information warfare, but information warfare has long been interested in Nato," it warns.
In the paper, Matejic states that conflicts and instability in the future are likely to arise from present-day crises such as "the decay of democracy, climate change and resource scarcity".
Artificial intelligence (AI) – and the race to AI dominance – will also play a part in shaping the information environment of the future, she says.
She also predicts that the convergence of political, technological, informational, environmental and economic crises has the potential to manifest global instability, insecurity and conflict "on a scale never seen before".
"We have already seen the beginning of non-conventional informational warfare being played out in world politics," it says.
The report references the Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election, and also notes that terrorist organisations such as Isis have "similarly weaponised social media to conduct broad-scale [campaigns] against both the near and far enemy."
By 2040, it predicts, the world will be in an "intense, prolonged crisis".
"Population growth in areas experiencing resource scarcity and/or climate change will drive people towards cities in their own or other nations, creating large waves of migration on almost every continent. Conflict over those same limited resources is likely to displace even more people in geographies where human habitability is in sharp decline.
"Populists will view this through the lens of migration 'invasion' and leverage events to ignite and fuel ethno-nationalist conflicts, creating insecurity in already strained democratic nations."
Most importantly, the essay warns that Nato cannot lose the ability to project soft power and influence into regions of future instability and conflict. In essence, it says, the West is already in the information warfare game, whether we like it or not.
Despite the fact that Matejic has a huge online presence – she has her own website and features in many YouTube videos – and has appeared in public at an information disorder conference at the University of Otago, the Department of Internal Affairs refused to allow her to be interviewed by the Listener.
In fact, there is a general reluctance by government officials to go beyond generalities in official answers to questions about disinformation, perhaps because getting into detail would involve specifics about the two greatest disinformation threats to New Zealand – Russia and, more importantly, China.
The Russians are still active in this area as part of a broader strategy to undermine Western democracy and our trust in governments. They often target individual communities and causes, rather than nations.
In Aotearoa, we have not yet suffered from this sort of targeting – disinformation aimed at a community in Auckland, say, or Dunedin.
It is hard to overstate, however, how sinister some of these campaigns are. One such example took place at the University of Missouri in Columbia, home to one of the world's best journalism schools, which I visited on two study trips.
It struck me as the most peaceful and friendly of college towns. I was surprised, then, when there was a series of rows on campus over race.
It was true there were a number of issues involving the status of black students on campus and at one stage the football team threatened to go on strike. What was shocking, however, was how quickly the dispute escalated, hostilities spread and it became a global news story.
It turned out that wasn't by accident. A hashtag called #PrayforMizzou began trending and quickly reached the top of news feeds with the sensational development that the Ku Klux Klan were marching on campus, as well as the police. A user called Jermaine said his little brother had been beaten up. He posted a picture online of a black child with a bruised face.
The story spread quickly. The university's student president tweeted a warning to stay off the streets and lock doors because "KKK members were confirmed on campus". TV news channels had camera crews racing around looking for violence. There were news reports quoting tweets describing cross burnings and shootings.
But none of it was real. US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jarred Prier, in a study on social media as information warfare, explained: "Looking at Jermaine's followers, and the followers of his followers, one could observe that the original tweeters all followed and retweeted each other. Those users also seemed to be retweeted automatically by approximately 70 bots. These bots also used the trend-distribution technique, which used all of the trending hashtags at that time within their tweets, not just #PrayforMizzou.
"Spaced evenly, and with retweets of real people who were observing the Mizzou hashtag, the numbers quickly escalated to thousands of tweets within a few minutes. The plot was smoothly executed and evaded the algorithms Twitter designed to catch bot tweeting, mainly because the Mizzou hashtag was being used outside of that attack."
The picture of the black child was not from Missouri but from an incident in Ohio a year earlier. But that wasn't revealed until much later and by then the damage had been done.
Ironically, the media was blamed by many tweeters for not covering the violence on campus. So fake tweets about fake violence led to actual news coverage and attacks on the media for their lack of coverage – all triggered by an event that did not take place.
Racial tension increased, American society was made to look bad, faith in the mainstream media was weakened – all in all a triumph for the Russian-developed computer software, or bots, that hijacked the news.
According to the study, the same accounts were later used to spread anti-Islamic and anti-European Union propaganda in debates over immigration. Prier summed it up as a new kind of attack, exploiting the trend mechanism on social media.
"'Commanding the trend' represents a relatively novel and increasingly dangerous means of persuasion within social media. Thus, instead of attacking the military or economic infrastructure, state and non-state actors outside the US can access regular streams of online information via social media to influence networked groups within the United States."
China is trying to command the trend, too, and it has changed its strategy. According to a Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation compiled by the University of Oxford, China has become a major player in the global disinformation order. "Until the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, most evidence of Chinese computational propaganda occurred on domestic platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and QQ," it says. "But China's new-found interest in aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should raise concerns for democracies."
China is the main source of state-sponsored cyber attacks against New Zealand. It is also the main source of disinformation campaigns and actively tries to monitor the activities of the Chinese community here.
Calling it out, however, is problematic because of the huge trade interests at stake. China is New Zealand's largest trading partner, with two-way trade (exports and imports of goods and services) exceeding $33 billion. There is also an understandable reluctance to say anything that inspires local racists.
New Zealand is trying to thread the needle – sometimes, not often, criticising China for disinformation and human-rights abuses while also being careful not to provoke any trade retaliation, as Australia suffered when it called for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
For example, when Wellington expressed concern about China's promotion of a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat, China's Foreign Ministry queried what the incident had to do with New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was careful to say this country was not taking sides. "If we saw a visual representation published by Australia that was incorrect, that was a doctored image, for instance, we would raise that concern also," she said at the time.
Trade Minister Damien O'Connor also hastened to reassure everyone that the relationship between the two countries was "healthy" and "mature".
Will this strategy survive an increase in Chinese disinformation aimed at Aotearoa ? Can we successfully call out China for cyber attacks, disinformation and human rights abuses while maintaining our trade?
In the information wars of the future, we may well need to pick a side.