Call to guard against threats by bridging societal divides

The target of foreign interference are the fault lines that already exist in society and can be exploited to stir anger and divisiveness, an expert said yesterday.

To guard against such threats, countries need to bridge the divides by having dialogues and being open, said Dr Janis Berzins, managing director of the Centre for Security and Strategic Studies at the National Defence Academy of Latvia.

The main conduit for such operations to succeed is anger, he said during a panel discussion on building resilience against foreign interference.

"They require a sense that people have been wronged by a system that must be reformed," said Dr Berzins.

Calling it a "moral crusade", he said the attackers take people's fears and turn them into anger by moralising and portraying them as being the result of wrongdoing in the system.

"So, by getting at the problems that already exist... people might be angered and you use this anger against the government, the state and institutions, and the people accept it as some sort of moral crusade. It is a very powerful force to be explored," he added.

Dr Berzins did not think that governments and politicians should use public relations to try and neutralise the effects of bad policy choices or incompetence. Instead, they need to start a dialogue with society to explain the logic and motivations behind public policy, he said.

Fellow panellist Allan Rock, a full professor of law from the University of Ottawa, cited the 2011 Canadian elections, in which people working for one political party organised a series of robocalls to voters who were identified as supporters of their opponents.

They then gave the voters misinformation on where and when they could vote.

 
 
 
 

Prof Rock is part of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity comprising political, business and media leaders from Europe and the United States. He said it has proposed that a government should "convene a roundtable with social media platforms and the tech companies, the minister, members of the public and subject experts, and together work out a model code of conduct for the platforms".

The code would require the platforms to publish annual reports showing steps they have taken to comply with it. If it cannot be created, the government should consider using regulations and enforcing them with penalties, he added.

"As an integral part of a national strategy to protect the elections, democracies will have to exercise the appropriate degree of influence over these private commercial interests, given their demonstrated power in the political sphere."

Mr Nicholas Fang, who is the director of security and global affairs at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, noted that it is difficult in some cases to tell "if activism is genuine civil activism, or influence in the guise of activism, or well-intended civil activism being used as a mule or as a proxy of foreign forces".

He said there is evidence suggesting that activists focused on Singapore's political affairs obtained funding from foreign sources, and went on to cite The Online Citizen and New Naratif.

To combat foreign interference, Mr Fang said a whole-of-nation approach is needed as it is inevitable that government-led initiatives will face resistance from a segment of the population.

So, the public and private sectors, as well as non-governmental organisations, need to work together to reach the people, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2019, with the headline 'Call to guard against threats by bridging societal divides'. Subscribe