Social Influence


Rising concerns about geostrategic competition and coercive forms of statecraft have led to greater attention to concepts of influence. While emergent interest in influence is evident in policy, research and commentary, the term is frequently deployed in ways that lack a clear comprehension of how meaning-making and behavioural effects are shaped by interpretation processes, audience factors, and social contexts.

To better comprehend how influence operates, this report undertakes a review of applicable social, psychological and political science concepts, theories, and models. In doing so the report highlights key insights into how Australia and its partners can further address attempts at malign foreign interference and enhance national sovereignty through engagement and partnerships.

The report details concepts of influence, exploring its forms, characteristics, and dynamics across three levels: micro, meso and macro. A companion report addresses the identification and measurement of influence indicators. Both reports consider factors that are significant for the development of capabilities with the means to mitigate foreign interference, to promote national values and defend national interest, and enhance international engagement and partnerships.

By exploring the dimensions and dynamics of influence, this report will aid in the identification of

  • factors that make an actor influential;
  • reasons why some groups become a target;
  • conditions that increase the capacity for resilience to influence attempts; and
  • likely responses by targets if new beliefs or orientations are adopted.

The current security challenges arising out of influence activities directly relate to attitudinal and behavioural factors within mainstream society as well as among groups traditionally understood as being marginalised. Online communication and social media receive a great deal of attention and remain critical vehicles of influence and change but it is notable that social interactions, associations, and attachments typically combine online and offline elements. This report therefore includes interpersonal and mediated interactions, social structures, and identifications that have a bearing on the impacts of influence efforts.

Influence and coercive statecraft

Over the last decade there has been an increase in malign statecraft activity and a qualitative shift in the ways that actors advance their strategic interests. Most notable is the rise in tactics which seek to attain a strategic advantage through disrupting and reorientating the attitudes and behaviour of populations.

The concept of the grey zone (and the associated term, hybrid warfare) is examined in greater length in the Appendices (see Appendix A and the Discussion of key terms). For the sake of clarity, the report here offers a definition derived from Hicks and Friend (2019, p.4) that grey zone tactics are “beyond those associated with routine statecraft and below means associated with direct military conflict between rivals”.

Grey zone aggression is evident in how coercive statecraft is actively practiced through activities such as promoting disinformation to encourage societal disorder, information campaigns to interfere in elections, espionage, the use of trade sanctions to influence political positions, and symbolic threats through military or state sponsored paramilitary incursions into sovereign territory.

Central to this form of coercive statecraft is a consideration of how audiences, and the people that comprise them, will interpret and respond to such activities. Specifically, grey zone tactics are designed to fall short of causing a national by nation-states with military force reaction. Grey zone aggression is typically designed to have a high level of ambiguity regarding intent and/or attribution of responsibility.

A major concern of grey zone activities is the impact on the confidence that populations have in the norms, institutions and conventions that contribute to social and political stability. Also, in democratic nations military responses to foreign aggression require a base level of public legitimation.Civil society1 and the public sphere2 are therefore central to comprehending grey zone tactics and impacts.

Benign and malign influence in the grey zone

As is apparent in numerous related government reports, think tank research papers and defence doctrine publications, the term “influence” has numerous meanings and uses. For the purposes of this report, influence is associated with efforts to affect the thoughts (cognition), feelings (emotions) and/or behaviour (social actions) in ways where the intended outcomes are relevant to strategic competition. Further detail on how influence has been defined and how it relates to terms such as interference, engagement, persuasion, coercion, propaganda, strategic communication, public diplomacy can be found in the Discussion of select key terms (Appendix D).

In this report, influence includes benign and malign types. Influence is benign when it denotes a routine aspect of international, social and interpersonal relations, typically that being conducted openly and within accepted rules and norms. This form of influence inevitably includes competition and contestation, such as when vying for attention, prestige, markets, and customers. It may involve advocacy, by nations, groups, individuals, organisations or coalitions, for changes in policy or practice.

Malign influence, no matter who undertakes it or for what goal, will seek to interfere in domestic political processes and/or disrupt the existing social or political order. Malign influence is also more likely to be covert or disguised, less likely to give importance to honesty or fairness, and – by definition – be malicious.

Benign influence further differs from malign influence in that the former demonstrates a greater respect for national sovereignty and operates in ways that are consistent with the international rules-based order. In practice, though, benign and malign influence can appear in combination as part of ongoing geopolitical manoeuvring.

1 Civil society refers to the networks of communities and groups that exist between the individual/family and the state.
2 The public sphere refers to the areas within social life and civil society where people discuss political and societal matters.

Scales of influence: micro, meso, macro

The three main sections of this report outline how influence operates at levels from micro through meso to macro.

At the micro (individual) level, the concept of influence is grounded in the role of the human perceiver – that is, how aspects of people’s cognition (biases, heuristics) and emotions, as well as identities and group memberships shape openness, or resistance to, influence.

At the meso (group) level, the report continues to consider how social identity factors and social influence processes relate to either an openness or resilience to malign forms of influence, as the focus turns to group structure, networks, culture, norms, interactions, power and conflict dynamics.

At the macro (inter/national) level, the report focuses on the geopolitics and geo-economics of strategic competition in addition to softer approaches to influencing states which include the role of international institutions, diplomacy, and other forms of strategic cooperation.

The three levels of analysis are explained in depth in their respective sections of the report. While they are presented separately, these different dimensions of influence are inter-related. Analysis of influence requires therefore recognition of its multidimensional nature, involving individuals, groups, societies and nations, and the interactions between micro, meso and macro levels.

The need for multi-level analysis is the case whether the analysis in question concerns influence actors, actions, or effects. Influence effects can occur at multiple levels, and inter-relations between levels can in turn result in effects that are ongoing or aggregated.

Moreover, inter-relations between influence effects may be more than the sum of their parts and may develop over time into unforeseen and more widely ranging outcomes, typically referred to as second and third order effects depending on how long-term and widespread they are. Approaches to the empirical analyses at, and between, these various levels are outlined in the companion Influence Indicators report.

Micro, meso and macro levels of analysis share an emphasis on the active nature of the actors involved in, and targeted by, influence efforts. Whether concerning individuals, groups, societies, institutions, or nations, understanding how influence operates is predicated on an understanding of those at whom influence efforts are directed — in other words, this speaks to the need for sophisticated and contextualised target audience analysis.

Influence and audiences / publics / networks

Understanding target audiences is a foundational prerequisite for influence efforts. This includes insights related to cross-cultural awareness, communications campaign planning, creative and targeted messaging, and evaluation of campaign processes, activities, and outcomes. These types of activities have developed over a long history, based in part on the types of communications technologies and practices that have been intrinsic to their operation. A brief outline of these developments is included in Appendix B.

Audiences can refer to individuals, groups, societies, nations, and international assemblages. At macro and meso levels, at the level of the nation state, or groups within the nation state, audiences are often referred to as publics. This is to denote the connection between (1) the many private lives and interests, individually and collectively, of citizens and (2) the formation of political power and the development of public policy that occurs in the (idealised) realm of the public sphere, a space for debate and discussion and the public opinion.

Conceptions of audiences /publics vary; many are underdeveloped in ways that diminish their utility. Szostek (2020) for example outlines some problematic assumptions about influence that arise out of the use of the language and concepts of information warfare. First, that information can be targeted like a weapon to achieve a predictable result. Second, that audiences engage with an adversaries’ influence efforts because they are vulnerable. Third, that ‘winning’ requires having a target audience believe and respond to certain information. While not irrelevant, these assumptions are insufficient, and if uncritically adopted may be deleterious.

Further problematic conceptualisations of audiences /publics arise when they are considered to be homogenous units: a ‘mass’. Audiences and publics are more productively understood as being comprised of multiple individuals, groupings and segmentations – an uneven, distributed and dynamic network – and as being part of larger networks. Where audiences / publics are considered for example at the level of the nation, it is prudent to consider both international relations and domestic politics.

This is of paramount importance for understanding influence conceptually and operationally. Influence operations typically operate internationally (by definition, foreign interference campaigns are conducted by foreign actors). They also engage transnational actors (media networks, content creators, social media platforms, the internet). They target domestic constituencies and audiences – the groups, communities and networks that form societies, shape public debate, and influence politics in various ways (formally and informally, properly and surreptitiously). They do so in order to impact policy decisions at a national level. This connects the macro and micro scales of influence with meso scales.

Taking a networked approach, nations are understood as constituting various elements and groups, themselves comprised of smaller elements, in an unevenly distributed and dynamic network. International relations is understood as similarly operating in a network including national, sub-national, international and transnational actors and groups. In this view, the nation acts as a node in a larger network, while simultaneously acting as a network comprised of multiple nodes and relationships.

A ‘networked publics’ approach to planning and/or analysis of influence operations broadens the range of actors and actions to consider, and increasing and complicating the pathways through which influence can occur. Analysis of influence at a macro level is contingent on the meso levels that constitute the macro, and the micro levels that constitute the meso. This highlights the need for identification and analysis of the groups and networks that shape how nations are influenced, including especially the identification of priority meso and micro level actors and actions – the ‘actors and factors that matter’. This need and attempts to address it are discussed further in the companion Influence Indicators report.

Active audiences and the limits of influence

Typically, the most persuasive factors impacting the effectiveness of influence efforts are pre-existing and persistent values, interests, beliefs, internal power structures, and external relationships. These factors determine how much attention influence efforts are given in the first instance, and how such efforts are interpreted and acted upon. A fundamental assumption of influence campaigns in general (and which applies to international influence) is that most attempts to influence will usually be, at most, only marginally effective. One of the central premises of this report is that influence is ‘co-created’ by both the influencer and the target audience /public. Botan (2021, p.11) goes further to argue that the audience/public is usually the most significant contributor to its own influence, by a significant amount: the influencer “is about 1/10 to 1/8 as strong” as the audience / public.

Two main reasons account for the limitations of influence campaigns. The first is that there is no shortage of information in contemporary media environments – publics are constantly subject to multiple influence campaigns — and there are limits on how much attention can be paid. Audiences determine therefore in the first instance what content they will pay attention to; most messages will be ignored, dismissed or paid scant attention.

For influence campaigns, once the first objective, attention, has been achieved, the second and more difficult task is to have one’s message interpreted in ways that are favourable to the campaign objectives. In Botan’s (2021, p.11) terms, a message has to first be “accepted for interpretation” and then that message will be subject to “new meanings co-created by publics”.

Therefore, the likelihood of influence efforts being successful is contingent on the target audience’s interpretation of the messages. The likelihood of a favourable interpretation will increase where interests and identities align, or when – as Reich and Lebow (2014, p.35) argue, target nations are persuaded that such alignment exists, where “it is in their interest to do what you want them to do”.

The importance of understanding the audience applies at micro, meso and macro levels, and to the inter-relationships between these levels. These factors determine how much attention influence efforts are given in the first instance, and how such efforts are interpreted and acted upon.

This has consequences for research, including for Target Audience Analysis undertaken and the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of influence operations, and counter-influence programs. Appendix C provides an example of how these basic requirements are undertaken in the planning of social media influence campaigns.

The three main sections outline fundamental principles leading to deeper understanding of these target audiences at the micro, meso and macro levels.