Social Influence

Executive Summary

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 enhance national sovereignty and address attempts at malign foreign interference.

The report details concepts of influence, exploring its forms, characteristics, and dynamics across three levels: micro (grounded in social psychology), meso (sociology) and macro (international relations). 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 interests, and enhance international engagement and partnerships.

The report outlines 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 potential for resilience to influence attempts; and
  • likely responses by targets if new beliefs or orientations are adopted.

Implications of Influence at the Micro Level of Analysis

Appreciating the human need for mastery

People all have a fundamental need for mastery, that is, the capacity to understand, make sense of, and predict their environment.

Individual differences in need for mastery

The mechanics of influence vary based on differences in how people think. Those who enjoy more effortful cognitive activities are more motivated to deeply engage with messages. People who adopt more intuitive “gut-feel” modes of cognition are more influenced by heuristics.

Affordances of the medium shape influence

The mechanics of influence vary based on the affordances of the medium, situation or context. Contexts that offer the opportunity for deep engagement tend to be associated with central processing and need high-quality arguments to be successful. Contexts that do not require time or effortful processing are associated with peripheral processing, where heuristics are more influential than deep argumentation.

Appreciating the human need for relatedness

People have a fundamental need to belong, to have and maintain relationships with other people and groups. This is often expressed via commitment to groups, that is, social identification. In some situations, group memberships are the lens through which people perceive the world and their interactions in it and are more important to understanding collective behaviour than personality or idiosyncratic attributes.

Influence as an intragroup phenomenon

People with whom we share a social identity are seen as more important and valid sources of influence than outgroup members.

Persuasive influence is shaped by norms

Social identities are linked to group norms – informal rules that shape emotions, cognitions, and beliefs of group members. Group norms explain why group members act in ways that are similar to each other but different to members of other groups. Such norms affect who is deemed to have authority (or not) and help to determine how information is processed within the group.

Appreciating the human need for autonomy

People have a fundamental need to feel that their individual and group interactions, and decisions, are self-directed and freely chosen.

Legitimate authority and coercive power

People will accept and enact the vision of an authority when that authority fosters a shared sense of identity between themselves and the group. Coercive tactics conversely may prompt disagreement with and highlight difference from an authority, promoting private rejection even if it elicits public conformity.

Higher-order values as a path to shared identity

An effective way of exerting influence is to craft a higher-order social identity between two groups. These should still incorporate meaningful recognition of the strengths and unique attributes of the sub-groups.

Authority based leadership through identity entrepreneurship

Authority-based influence will be more effective where that authority is seen to represent the unique qualities of the group, and actively seeks to benefit the lives of group members.

Grassroots influence

Influence not only functions top-down. It also flows horizontally between group members through discussion and debate. Such interactions provide the basis for the formation of new groups, challenges to the status quo, and the introduction of new states of affairs.

Implications of Influence at the Meso Level of Analysis

Orientations of the public

Publics critically interpret influence attempts in the context of their orientations to contemporary social life, resulting in either a multiplier effect or resistance to the message.

Social conflict and societal integration

Many forms of social conflict can help societal integration. Attempts to widely supress these can paradoxically create disorder.

Avoiding unintended consequences of influence

Disinformation campaigns need to be assessed considering cumulative consequences on established belief systems rather than only assessing narrow and immediate persuasion effects.

Protecting institutions for debate

Societal resistance to malign influence is enhanced by supporting and protecting the institutions and public spheres in which rational and respectful debate is undertaken.

The value of civil society groups

Civil society groups exert positive influence, including by making messages meaningful to diverse audiences, and are therefore valuable for societal resilience.

Fostering positive interactions

Encouraging meaningful interactions and exposure to diverse social identities in an environment of trust discourages political extremism.

Popular culture

Popular culture is an important source of soft power, though one that is also open to being weaponised.

Impacts of disaster and social crisis

Malign foreign interference can be most destructive during times of disaster and societal crisis. The effect of responses to such events and periods are less predictable than under normal circumstances.

Youth as targets of influence

Whole of government and whole of nations approaches to national security need to address factors that make young people a significant influence target.

Implications of Influence at the Macro Level of Analysis

Influence as a spectrum

Influence efforts between nations exist across the spectrum from cooperation to conflict. They include benign, ordinary, normative and even beneficial activities. They include covert and non-attributable efforts to deceive and coerce and to otherwise seek advantage outside of international norms. They include forms of coercive diplomacy, which seeks outcomes through threats, and actions short of conflict such as sanctions and embargoes.

Characteristics of the public

A nation’s influence is subject to the interpretations and responses of others, referred to as audiences or publics. These publics include partners, neutrals, and competitors; they include individuals, groups, societies, nations, and international assemblages.

Pre-existing and persistent factors

The most persuasive factors in shaping the impact 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.

Characteristics and capabilities of the nation

A nation’s influence is partly a product of its characteristics and its capabilities. Characteristics refers to tangibles such as geography, and demographics, as well as less measurable features such as reputation, status, identity and strategic narratives. Capabilities refers to dimensions of national power including diplomatic, informational, military and economic (commonly referred to as DIME). Therefore, influence involves whole of government and whole of nation approaches.

Relational influence

A nation’s influence is relational, in that it varies depending on the nature of its relationship with those it seeks to influence. Relationships are:

  • Embedded in complex networks of multiple connections;
  • Asymmetric and complicated, varying according to issue and context;
  • Dynamic, although some are more stable than others.

Immediacy of influence efforts

Influence efforts effects range from the direct and immediate, through the adjacent and persistent, to long term and wide-reaching (also known as first, second and third order effects). Target audiences and tactical objectives cannot be the only considerations when planning and evaluating influence activities.

Resistance and responses to influence

A nation’s capacity to resist, counter, and otherwise respond to influence is a product of its internal characteristics and capabilities. These include public trust in democratic institutions and norms, the strength of civil society, levels of social cohesion, and the health of the information environment (see also meso section).

Recommendations that arise from the conclusions of the report are discussed in a concluding section. These include:

  1. the need for enhanced target audience analysis when planning or analysing influence activities
  2. the need for multi-level analysis including an accounting for intervening variables
  3. the need to promote resilience of social structures, including institutions, civil society, and public trust
  4. the need to look beyond analysis of Great Power influence activities and recognise the distinctiveness of various national and cultural contexts
  5. the need to understand influence as operating at multiple dimensions and cumulatively over time

In addition to these main sections, three appendices provide further analysis of (A) the forms of grey zone operations, (B) the development of influence techniques in new techno-social systems, including online social networks, and (C) the role of data marketing techniques in audience analysis and online persona creation as aspects of social media influence campaigns. A final appendix discusses some definitions and uses of key terms: influence and interference; grey zone and hybrid warfare; and strategic communication/s.