Understanding mass influence activities is critical

Mass influence

The damaging effects of mass influence campaigns perpetrated by scrupulous or unscrupulous entities, which may have a negative impact on public perception, must be understood in order to respond effectively.

That is the finding of a new report Understanding Mass Influence commissioned by the Department of Defence and undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Adelaide, Edith Cowan University, Macquarie University, University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales.  While funded by the Department of Defence, the views expressed in this activity are the views of the authors and may not reflect the views of the Australian Government or the Department of Defence.

The researchers examined the activities of three organisations which carried out mass influence campaigns. Case studies included Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the Russian Internet Research Agency. The research into Cambridge Analytica (CA) was led by University of Adelaide academics.

“Some countries, non-state actors and commercial entities are increasingly using cyber capabilities to influence people psychologically, politically and economically,” said the University of Adelaide’s Professor Michael Webb, Director of the Defence and Security Institute (DSI) and Academic Coordinator for Defence, Cyber and Space.

“We found that low levels of cyber security awareness, high levels of user credulity and strong incentives for organisations to seek to persuade, manipulate or coerce target audiences, contributed substantively to detrimental outcomes – intended or otherwise – for individuals and organisations.”

Private British behavioural research and strategic communication company Cambridge Analytica is an example of a non-state actor engaging in global information and influence operations. It was a political campaigning firm that operated between 2013 and 2018 primarily to influence the US electorate to favour the Republican Party.

The report found that the CA operations relied on:

  • Mapping and exploiting the regulatory environments in which it operated;
  • Using large cohorts of online as well as offline data from multiple sources to profile millions of individuals and groups and to target them with tailored messages;
  • Using traditional and “quasi-experimental”, data intensive digital techniques in its political campaigns;
  • Using psychological profiles, developed from large amounts of qualitative and quantitative data, to design targeted content for the purpose of shifting public opinion at scale;
  • Profiling and manipulating of individuals and groups was underpinned by simplistic theories and models which weakened its efficacy; and
  • Illegal data harvesting and use.

This research project identified important considerations for the Department of Defence as it works, within a whole-of-Government context, to strengthen Australian digital sovereignty in response to growing state and non-state threats to Australian governments, businesses, and communities in cyber space.

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