Social Influence

Discussion and Implications

Overview and Relevance

This report draws on behavioural and social science theories and models to enhance current comprehension of influence. This knowledge can be applied to the planning, conduct and evaluation of influence operations. Specifically, the report can be used to improve:

  • incorporating influence theory and models and indicators into experimentation and war gaming;
  • facilitating the planning, implementation, and evaluation of influence campaigns;
  • developing sovereign capabilities for influence campaigns;
  • directing the development of counter-influence strategies;
  • framing training for influence awareness and resilience; and
  • enhancing diplomatic engagement.

The analysis of influence advanced in the report is concerned with Australia’s national interest but also shared regional security interests as it relates to a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific, one that is open and inclusive; where sovereignty and the rights of all states are respected; and where the rule of law is upheld. As outlined in Australia’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review, diplomatic efforts, regional partnerships, and domestic resilience will be key factors in promoting regional stability and Australia’s National Defence. From this perspective, better and more comprehensive awareness of the mechanisms and effects of influence make effective regional partnerships more likely to be realised.

Influence is positioned then as having a dual strategic relevance. It is comprehended as something used by Australia’s adversaries to engage in foreign interference. However, for Australia it can also be a constructive basis for building resilience to such acts by safeguarding social cohesion, trust and democratic assuredness.

Major Conclusions

The report outlines insights at the micro, meso and macro levels that can inform the development, management and evaluation of influence efforts. These insights are listed in the Executive Summary. Across the micro, meso and macro chapters of the Report, five major conclusions have been made regarding how influence strategies should be shaped or responded to:

1. The role of advanced target audience analysis needs to be emphasised

Influence is conditioned upon comprehending with specificity who is encountering the message, with what worldview, and via what source/medium. Within any advanced diverse society there exist group memberships that may be in tension across the local community as well as civic, political, cultural, and national spheres. Grey zone tactics feed off the increasing extent and nature of the divisions between these groups and spheres, with fragmentation of traditional group identifiers and a waning of associated solidarity mechanisms in contemporary liberal democratic societies. Influence that seeks to further entrench division will often identify and target these fault lines, if not seek to create such fault lines where they did not exist.

In this fragmented environment, counter influence campaigns that seek to build positive effects need to be undertaken in highly targeted ways with specific outcomes in mind. While influence is an outside threat, attempts that appear to come from “the outside” will mostly be less influential than messages that appear to originate from within the group. Similarly, influence attempts that seemingly originate from within the group will often fail if they contravene or are otherwise inconsistent with the key norms, values and beliefs that are defining of the group (“who we are”). Rather than conceptualising influence as a grand project directed towards societies at large, influence attempts are more likely to be successful if implemented in niche ways, with attention being on aggregated and cumulative effects. (This is discussed further in the companion ‘Influence Indicators’ report.)

A related implication is that influence campaign strategies will rarely attain success unless they are tailored to the local cultural contexts of the society in which the audiences reside. Appreciation of cultural context is, in many regions, not well developed. Research into nations that have not been of major economic importance is currently not at a level required to inform the design of targeted influence campaigns. Such empirical knowledge is significant; what works in one instance will not necessarily work in others. Comprehending cross-cultural differences and appreciating local cultural context, including how societies are constituted by various segments and divisions, is a critical dimension of designing influence strategies and campaigns.

2. Empirical accounting for intervening variables

Influence is often comprehended in simple, linear ways that are inadequate for comprehending how these processes operate in the complex real world. This is often the case due to a lack of account for intervening variables that are a prominent feature of audience processes related to interpretation and meaning making. Such variables include many of the elements of social relationships and information environments that are discussed in this report.

One of the risks of such linear thinking includes influence campaigns appearing to their producers as being meaningful and consequential while appearing to target audiences as largely transactional and/or inconsequential, which promote outcomes that are contrary to those intended.

For this reason, influence campaigns not only need to be designed in targeted ways but appropriate methods should be used to monitor and measure their effects. This assessment is critically important as not only can miscomprehension of influence result in poor strategic and social policy but a poorly designed influence campaign looking to build societal resilience may actually promote societal disorder and undermine public trust.

Approaches to address these concerns are the subject of the companion report on influence indicators.

3. Promoting the resilience of societal structures

Existing analyses of influence, especially recent reports, focus on online behaviour. Although the online world is a key enabler of mass influence, it is also the case that influence achieves its effects through aspects of people’s identities and interactions that also relate to their “offline” world. Resilience to undesirable influence can involve targeted educational initiatives such as those that aim to increase media literacy in the population or programs that seek to counter the spread of radicalisation and growth of political extremism and violence. However, social structural issues are significant when addressing vulnerabilities to malign influence. Many of the structural factors that play a preventative role to malign influence have been weakened by neoliberal economic and social policies. While general notions of social inequality are typically discussed in the public sphere as enablers of extremism, this report focuses on threats more directly involved in the interpretive acts associated with influence such as failures to protect quality journalism, challenges to the autonomy of civil society groups from other spheres of power, and the benefits derived from an inclusive national identity.

Addressing such structural factors is significant as the security threat within democracies comes from both those traditionally conceived as being marginalised and those who are part of the dominant culture. This includes approaches to professionals, such as academics, judges, and journalists, at levels not seen since the Cold War.

4. Influence and national distinctiveness

The growing security literature on influence is overwhelmingly orientated to its exertion by Great Powers. More understanding of influence is needed in relation to a range of nations and societies, and the distinctive role and strategies they can employ in resisting and exerting influence. For Australia, this involves better comprehending distinctive issues of national solidarity and the various cultures and politics of the Indo-Pacific as it relates to influence, including Australia’s reputation and ties as a distinct Middle Power. While US and European research on influence strategies and campaigns has some relevance to understanding the threats and opportunities in the Australian context, the different geo-political and strategic context needs to be considered. Similarly, a view of influence that is limited to the return of Great Power competition can fail to appreciate the ways in which influence attempts occur in ways that involve various nations, with influence attempts not just stemming from those with vast economic power. Bipolarity in viewing influence can also blind us to comprehending that strategic competition can also exist between nations within security alliances.

5. Influence as multidimensional and cumulative

The report explores influence and demonstrates its dynamics across three levels of analysis: micro, meso, and macro. This approach illustrates how influence has different dimensions, involving cognitive, emotional, and behavioural variables that are frequently not considered simultaneously, if at all, when influence is analysed from one level. The overriding recommendation is that it is strategically beneficial for influence to be defined and operationalised as being multidimensional.

This multidimensional understanding of influence moves beyond something that is “done to” or “done by” people, with the report arguing that influence is best strategically understood as “working through” people. From this perspective, influence has cumulative effects, occurring through interactions between the micro, meso and macro levels. To advance this cumulative understanding of influence we need to move beyond a comprehension of influence that is bound to any one effort or campaign. Rather, empirical indicators that are specific to measuring and monitoring influence at different levels are required to comprehend how influence attempts have multiple effects, both immediate but also cascading and enduring, considering both current and previous influence attempts, as well as other from sources of social and political change that shape social structure.

At the micro level, this cumulative effort relates to the ways in which primary psychological needs of mastery, relatedness, and autonomy, which are important for psychological wellbeing and motivation, are being met. This framework helps to explain who will be more influential, when and how as well as why some people more than others will seek out certain information. The concern of the meso level is not foundational needs but how rapid changes to civil identification and communication practices, that underpin a sense of community, have left people more open to malign influence. The macro also accounts for cumulative dimensions of influence by considering the ways in which various forms of diplomacy, partnerships, and international agreements, as well as past covert and non-attributable efforts to deceive and coerce, shape the ability of nations to be persuasive.

Influence as it relates to security and grey zone tactics are not reducible to any one set of actions or behaviours. Rather influence simultaneously involves a combination of micro, meso and macro factors and how they interact with each other. As such influence is best understood as a process – or series of processes – through which the environment, ranging from personal interactions, groups and (inter)national institutions, is subtly shaped in ways that, at a cumulative and system level, achieve more than the sum of their individual parts. Although the three levels have been described above as separate it should also be understood that there exists considerable overlap and interconnection. Similarly, while disciplinary tradition will see micro, meso and macro analysis occur separately, in the development of policy and practice relating to influence campaigns it is important that all three levels are simultaneously considered.