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Spiders, posters and hoaxes: it is still war, but not as we’ve known it

By Anthony Bergin and Rhys De Wilde

In July last year, posters started appearing in the Latvian capital, Riga, warning the population against deadly spiders on the loose. The posters advised Latvians to call the country’s health services should they spot one.

While the posters were a hoax, the prank was a clear example of the vulnerabilities faced by free and open societies. Produced at low cost, probably by one person, the posters generated panic among residents and occupied the time and resources of the authorities. The spider invasion raised doubts among Latvians about the ability of their institutions to keep the country safe.

Elisabeth Braw, an analyst with Britain’s Royal United Services Institute for defence and security studies, has argued that although spider posters may seem to have nothing in common with tanks, they occupy the same sphere as tools of aggression: “Like soldiers and military hardware, spiders, computer attacks, and disinformation campaigns can be used to efficiently undermine societies.”

The intentional disruption of civilian life constitutes an easy form of aggression. With social media and “fake news” disinformation campaigns, influence operations don’t respect the sover­eignty of nation-state boundaries.

This kind of blended aggression was the theme of a major speech given recently by Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s international conference War in 2025.

Campbell argued that Western democracies are at risk of being outmanoeuvred by totalitarian powers: states that habitually control information internally and often rely on deception for survival are “better able to harness political warfare methodologies”. He specifically described the role of Russia’s overt and indirect actions against the West.

Our strategic competitors are unrestrained by the rules-based international order and are willing to use information campaigns, cyber operations, theft of intellectual property, coercion and propaganda to weaken us. While Campbell noted that “political warfare” had been used since before World War II, he argued that a modern form of political warfare has emerged.

These so-called grey-zone operations fall short of requiring a war response. That is precisely why traditional defence isn’t so effective against these non-military severe disruptions. The damaging nature of grey-zone warfare has been recognised by Scandinavian states in their approach to national security: Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway base their defence of the homeland not just on the military but all of society.

The Swedish government in May last year sent the brochure “If War or Crisis Comes” to every household. It details how to identify disinformation (crucial given that disinformation can seriously destabilise the targeted country), how to properly provision in a crisis, and how to react to significant disruptions such as power or internet failures.

The brochure explains that “everyone who lives in Sweden shares a collective responsibility for our country’s security and safety. When we are under threat, our willingness to help each other is one of our most important assets.”

A key message arising from Campbell’s warning about the nature of political warfare is that the West must start to consider what are the key components of societal resilience and what is required to implement such an agenda.

It’s not all about a military attack with traditional military defence but the social and economic disruption and damage we could suffer from widespread political warfare, even in circumstances where such operations by adversaries don’t escalate to actual military conflict.

Campbell argues that Western societies distinguish sharply between peace and war. But this has led to a mismatch between us and authoritarian states: Western states often don’t know how to push back. Our vulnerabilities have always been exploited by adversaries. But as our reliance on technology broadens to unprecedented levels, so too does our vulnerability to disruptions and interference in our political functioning through targeted covert influence activities. These can look a lot like corruption or coercion and amplify social discord.

At the War in 2025 conference the new Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, also argued that “more than at any other time over the past seven decades, national sovereignty is coming under new forms of pressure”. She noted that the character of warfare is changing, with more options for pursuing strategic ends just below the threshold of traditional armed conflict and that it is “vital that we be able to bring all of our sources of national power to bear on this problem, not just those of ­Defence”.

In that context it’s significant that Defence has recently commenced a review of mobilisation. The national mobilisation process is the development of the national economy, support base and infrastructure to focus on the achievement of national objectives and to increase the capability and sustainment of our armed forces.

While Australia may not need to develop a “total defence” policy like Sweden or Norway (both countries have conscription), we should adopt a whole-of-society approach to national security which not only incorporates multi-domain warfare but also attempts to bridge the distinction between “peace” and “war”.

Campbell’s speech will have served a useful purpose if it results in a frank conversation with the public about the threats we face as a nation on the front line of political warfare that seeks, in Campbell’s words, to “influence, to subdue, to overpower, to disrupt”.

Open societies such as ours are inherently vulnerable to malicious acts. We must build resilience and deterrence capable of withstanding digital-age threats and challenges in our interconnected world.

As the Chief of the Defence Force warned, while right now and in the war of 2025 you may not be interested in political warfare, “political warfare is most certainly interested in you”.

Originally published by: The Australian on 22 Jun 2019