With the US election fast-approaching there’s a lot of chatter about foreign operations aimed at influencing the elections. Laura Walters asks experts why we’re not having the same discussion in New Zealand

In 2018, Andrew Little wrote to Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, asking it to broaden its election inquiry to include foreign interference.

The committee appeared interested in exploring how online disinformation and influence campaigns, aided by new technologies like AI and deepfakes, could influence voters and impact election outcomes.

Members said they were “very worried by recent examples showing that foreign interference is a growing problem in the world”.

The SIS and GCSB told the committee “interference in New Zealand’s elections by a state actor was, and remains, plausible”. They even said there was no cause for complacency.

They also heard from experts who had seen this happen in other countries – most notably, the US 2016 presidential election.

One of those experts was Curtis Barnes; research director at Brainbox Institute.

Barnes said he was pleased for the interest, after little national discourse apart from Anne-Marie Brady’s research on China’s United Front work.

But a lack of time, resources, money, expertise, in-fighting among committee members, and back-to-back political donation scandals meant the specific issue of foreign information and influence operations “withered on the vine”, as he puts it.

In the lead-up to the United States 2020 election, social media companies, US law enforcement, international experts and reporters are digging into electoral interference.

They continue to uncover real examples of meddling attempts, including by the organisation behind the 2016 election meddling.

But with just 25 days until New Zealand’s general election, there has been little in the way of changes, or extra resources, dedicated to monitoring and identifying attempts to manipulate or influence the election by foreign actors, through the use of disinformation campaigns.

The principles and protocols for GCSB and NZSIS in managing foreign interference and cyber security threats to the 2020 election – an update to the 2017 protocols, which were never triggered – outline how the intelligence agencies would respond if they identified interference, but don’t say how they are protecting against these campaigns in the first place.

And there seems to be little interest from the public on this issue.

“New Zealand is under-prepared; is generally very naive, almost to the point of laughing about it sometimes.”

Brainbox’s Barnes said a lack of focus on safeguards at government level was exacerbated by the “almost non-existent” research capacity from the non-governmental sector.

“New Zealand is under-prepared; is generally very naive, almost to the point of laughing about it sometimes.”

Barnes said ‘the average punter’ viewed warnings about election interference in New Zealand as “tin hat kind of thing”.

“There’s still a parochial sense that it wouldn’t happen to little old us. Even though, one: it would, and two: we’re not that little.”

The country’s recent stand on global issues that were either politically motivated or involved a lot of money, such as gun ownership, oil and gas exploration, and online extremism, gave motivated foreign actors incentive to meddle.

New Zealand also holds significant strategic importance to China – a country known to use state-sponsored media and social media to wage information warfare.

University of Canterbury China expert Anne-Marie Brady has repeatedly warned politicians about foreign interference via China’s United Front work programme, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to foreign actors’ attempts to meddle in NZ’s democratic systems. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“There’s an enormous technological potential to do it; it happens everywhere; it almost certainly happens here; why is there no money or will to find out what’s happening?”

“At this point you have to make a strong case for why New Zealand would be theoretically, or in practice, not experiencing what almost everyone else is. 

“Then the question is: if you can’t make that case, how can we be so uninterested in finding out.”

One of the problems with getting people to engage with the subject is a a lack of tangible examples; for many people, these problems exist in the abstract.

United States think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute is building a catalogue of specific examples through its Foreign Influence Election 2020 project.

The project monitors political coverage of state-sponsored media outlets from Russia, China and Iran, and analyses the themes to determine what messages are being pushed, who is being targeted, and why.

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea.”

Project manager Rachel Chernasky said there was a general lack of knowledge about the threat, and 2020 had created prime conditions for actors like Russia and China to undermine confidence in democratic institutions.

The QAnon far-right conspiracy theory and other domestic disinformation campaigns were having a significant impact in the US.

In New Zealand, conspiracy theories relating to Covid-19, anti-vaxx and 5G were also examples of homegrown disinformation campaigns, which served to undermine trust in the country’s institutions.

Foreign actors fuelled and exploited this discord to further erode trust and stability.

It isn’t that Russia cares whether westerners are vaccinated (for example) but it serves them to destabilise western systems.

And while Russia might have its sights set on the US, Chernasky said New Zealand should be watching China.

Graphika director of investigations Ben Nimmo said anywhere where social media was a significant part of the national conversation, there was the potential somebody was going to try and abuse that.

But he also warned against hysteria and over-hyping the scale or impact of any single influence operation.

It was more important to ask questions like: How was this campaign different? Who was it targeting? How much impact did it have?

Awareness, and proactive cooperation between different sectors of society – law enforcement and intelligence agencies, social media platforms, civil society and researchers, and reporters – meant campaigns by bad actors were increasingly likely to be caught early, and have less of an impact than they did back in 2016.

“You can’t stop them trying; you can make yourself a hard target,” he said.

“You can’t stop them trying; you can make yourself a hard target.”

Nimmo said his mantra in responding to foreign influence operations was “keep calm, but keep watch”. And always demand evidence.

Like Barnes, Nimmo also warned against complacency.

The US was blindsided by the impact the influence campaigns had on the 2016 election, with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg famously dismissing election meddling concerns in the wake of President Trump’s victory.

“Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” Zuckerberg said at the time.

He’s since said he regrets making the comments, and in the wake of that election there has been a growing awareness – in the US and other countries – of disinformation and influence operations mounted by both foreign and domestic actors.

Mark Zuckerberg has been repeatedly challenged to do more to stop Facebook being used as a tool for foreign trolls. But Curtis Barnes says it can’t all be left up to the social media platforms. Photo: AP/Andrew Harnik

Following the revelation of the scale of Russian meddling in 2016 – not to mention a bruising hearing in the US Senate – Facebook, Twitter and Google have all invested in greater efforts to expose and take down similar operations around the world. 

In August, Facebook removed its 100th account linked to coordinated inauthentic behaviour since 2017, and the platform publishes a monthly report on its work, while Twitter has a public archive of accounts it’s removed.

“They’ve upped their game and become more transparent and proactive. The threat’s still out there, but the defences are getting better,” Nimmo said. 

The current political climate – in New Zealand and around the world – coupled with evolving methods from foreign actors, means election interference continues to pose a tangible threat.

And while New Zealand doesn’t appear to be taking the threat quite so seriously, those who spoke to Newsroom said there was the potential for the country to learn from the findings and expertise of social media companies and international researchers, rather than start from scratch.

There was no need for New Zealand to repeat the mistakes of the US, and be blindsided by foreign interference, they said.

* This article has been updated to reflect the release of the updated principles and protocols for the GCSB and NZSIS in managing foreign interference and cyber security threats to the 2020 election.

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