Influence for hire: The Asia-Pacific’s online shadow economy
Authors include; Dr Jacob Wallis, Ariel Bogle, Albert Zhang, Hillary Mansour, Tim Niven, Elena Yi-Ching Ho, Jason Liu, Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong and Dr Ross Tapsell.
What’s the problem?
It’s not just nation-states that interfere in elections and manipulate political discourse. A range of commercial services increasingly engage in such activities, operating in a shadow online influence-for-hire economy that spans from content farms through to high-end PR agencies. There’s growing evidence of states using commercial influence-for-hire networks. The Oxford Internet Institute found 48 instances of states working with influence-for-hire firms in 2019–20, an increase from 21 in 2017–18 and nine in 2016–17.1 There’s a distinction between legitimate, disclosed political campaigning and government advertising campaigns, on the one hand, and efforts by state actors to covertly manipulate the public opinion of domestic populations or citizens of other countries using inauthentic social media activity, on the other. The use of covert, inauthentic, outsourced online influence is also problematic as it degrades the quality of the public sphere in which citizens must make informed political choices and decisions.
The Asia–Pacific region contains many states in different stages of democratisation.2 Many have transitioned to democratic forms of governance from authoritarian regimes. Some have weak political institutions, limitations on independent media and fragile civil societies. The rapid rate of digital penetration in the region layered over that political context leaves populations vulnerable to online manipulation. In fragile democratic contexts, the prevalence of influence-for-hire operations and their leverage by agents of the state is particularly problematic, given the power imbalance between citizens and the state.
A surplus of cheap digital labour makes the Asia–Pacific a focus for operators in this economy, and this report examines the regional influence-for-hire marketplace using case studies of online manipulation in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and Australia. Governments and other entities in the region contract such services to target and influence their own populations in ways that aren’t transparent and that may inhibit freedom of political expression by drowning out dissenting voices. Several governments have introduced anti-fake-news legislation that has the potential to inhibit civic discourse by limiting popular political dissent or constraining the independence of the media from the state.3 These trends risk damaging the quality of civic engagement in the region’s emerging democracies.
What’s the solution?
This is a policy problem spanning government, industry and civil society, and solutions must incorporate all of those domains. Furthermore, influence-for-hire services are working in transnational online spaces that cut across legislative jurisdictions. Currently, much of the responsibility for taking action against the covert manipulation of online audiences falls to the social media companies.
It’s the companies that carry the responsibility for enforcement actions, and those actions are primarily framed around the terms of service and content moderation policies that underpin platform use. The platforms themselves are conscious of the growing marketplace for platform-manipulation services. Facebook, for example, notes this trend in its strategic threat report, The state of influence operations 2017–2020.4
Solutions must involve responsibility and transparency in how governments engage with their citizens.
The use of online advertising in political campaigning is distinct from the covert manipulation of a domestic population by a state. However, governments, civil society and industry have shared interests in an open information environment and can find alignment on the democratic values that support free—and unmanipulated—political expression. Support for democratic forms of governance remains strong in the Asia–Pacific region,5 albeit with degrees of concern about the destabilising potential of digitally mediated forms of political mobilisation and a trend towards democratic backsliding over the last decade that is constraining the space for civil society.6
The technology industry, civil society and governments should make that alignment of values the bedrock of a productive working relationship. Structures bringing these stakeholders together should reframe those relationships—which are at times adversarial—in order to find common ground. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution, given the region’s cultural diversity. Yet the Asia–Pacific contains many rapidly emerging economies that can contribute to the digital economy in creative ways. The spirit of digital entrepreneurship that drives content farm operations should be reshaped through stakeholder partnerships and engagement into more productive forms of digital labour that can contribute to a creative, diverse and distinct digital economy.
It is already well known that the Kremlin’s covert interference in the 2016 US presidential election was outsourced to the now infamous Internet Research Agency.7
ASPI’s investigations of at-scale manipulation of the information environment by other significant state actors have also identified the use of marketing and spam networks to obfuscate state actor involvement. For example, ASPI has previously identified the use of Indonesian spam marketing networks in information operations attributed to the Chinese Government and targeting the Hong Kong protest movement in 2019.8 In 2020, ASPI also discovered the Chinese Government’s repurposing of Russian and Bangladeshi social media accounts to denigrate the movement.9 Those accounts were likely to have been hacked, stolen or on-sold in the influence-for-hire shadow economy. In May 2021, Facebook suspended networks of influence-for-hire activity run from Ukraine targeting domestic audiences and linked to individuals previously sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury for attempted interference in the 2020 US presidential election.10
Audience engagement with, and heightened sentiment about civic events create new business models for those motivated to influence. Australia’s 2019 federal election was targeted by financially motivated actors from Albania, Kosovo and the Republic of Northern Macedonia.11 Those operators built large Facebook groups, used inflammatory nationalistic and Islamophobic content to drive engagement, and seeded the groups with links through to off-platform content-farm websites. Each click-through from the Facebook group to the content-farm ecosystem generated advertising revenue for those running the operation. A similar business model run from Israel used similar tactics to build audiences on Facebook, again manipulating and monetising nationalistic and Islamophobic sentiment to build audiences that could be steered to an ad-revenue-generating content-farm ecosystem of news-style websites.12 Mehreen Faruqi, Australia’s first female Muslim senator, was a target of racist vitriol among the 546,000 followers of 10 Facebook pages within the network. These financially motivated actors demonstrate that even well-established democracies are vulnerable to manipulation through exploitation of the fissures in their social cohesion.
This report examines the influence-for-hire marketplace across the Asia–Pacific through case studies of online manipulation in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and Australia over five chapters and concludes with policy recommendations (pages 36-37). The authors explore the business models that support and sustain the marketplace for influence and the services that influence operators offer.
Those services are increasingly integrated into political campaigning, yet the report highlights that those same approaches are being used by states in the region to influence their domestic populations in ways that aren’t transparent and that constrict and constrain political expression. In some instances, states in the region are using commercial services as proxies to covertly influence targeted international audiences.
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The above sections are the report introduction only - readers are encouraged to download the full report which includes many case-studies and references.
10 Aug 2021