Cyber-Enabled Foreign Interference: A Growing Threat to Western Democracies

voting stickersForeign interference and manipulation of information represent the new order of emerging threats to Western democracies. In particular, cyber-enabled interference in elections offers unique opportunities for adversaries to transform public opinions and shape political events. To address these threats, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a policy brief, which highlights some of the most recent findings of interference across the world. In addition, the brief includes key takeaways from the current examples of cyber-enabled political aggression.

Drawing observations from the period between the 2016 US presidential election and up until April 2019, this report identifies 97 democratic countries that held elections, a fifth (20 countries) of which indicating clear examples of foreign interference. While attribution of such actions varies widely, the authorities often stop short of formally identifying the perpetrators. Among the alleged actors, Russia and China appear to be the most dominant players, with the former being “inherently destructive to democratic systems.”

The report provides an overview of interference types, including targeting of voting infrastructure and influencing the information environment around elections. The most disturbing consequence of these actions is the long-term corrosion of public trust in key democratic institutions.

In response to this emerging threat, the authors of this brief make the following recommendations:

  • Democracies should utilize risk-based approach when focusing on potential adversaries and their methods;
  • Non-profit, non-government initiatives and independent media should lead the detection and monitoring of foreign interference;
  • Governments should fund research to better understand the impacts of foreign interference and how to combat it;
  • Public figures and political parties should receive better protection against cyber-enabled manipulation;
  • Beyond traditional retaliatory sanctions, democracies should work jointly to impose costs on adversaries;
  • Governments should be prepared to recognize more subtle forms of interference, including provisions of foreign funds to political parties; and
  • Governments and societies should be aware of the existing tensions and grievances that can easily serve as targets for foreign manipulation.

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