Social Influence


Influence at the macro level typically focusses on actions at the scale of national and international actors, and the environments (national political and social systems, strategic environments) in which these actions take place.

In this section, we examine influence as a concept and a practice by foregrounding the following questions:

  • How do nations (or aligned groups of nations) attempt to exert influence – what actions do they undertake, across the spectrum from competition to conflict, with malign or benign intent?
  • What makes a nation influential, and how are nations influenced: what conditions lead to influence occurring, or not?
  • What national characteristics, capabilities and cultures affect a nation’s capacity to, vulnerability to, and resilience to, influence? What informs foreign policy and other whole-of-government decisions related to influence actions? What factors, processes, social groups, social networks and political cultures lead to nations doing what they do?
  • How is influence embedded in systems of relationships? What aspects of the international system facilitate and/or constrain influence? How does this vary according to the capabilities and characteristics of nations, of regions, of groupings, of other actors?

International relations theory provides a bases for conceptual development of influence at a macro scale. For clarity and expediency, and following Sussex (2022) three main approaches suffice: realism, liberalism and constructivism.

Realism in International Relations foregrounds nation states as the primary actors and understands relations between these actors as occurring in an environment largely absent of universalizing moral or legal systems that impose constraints on actors’ behavior). While constraints and cooperation may and do occur, power, in its many forms but predominately material power – economic and especially military power – are the main, if not sole, determinants of how nations act in their own interests.

Liberalism similarly identifies the nation-state as a, often the, primary actor in international relations. Yet, where realism tends to understand power in relative terms – a competition in which one’s gain is another’s loss — liberalism foregrounds the potential for mutual gains for nation states who enter in international relations. This is clearly evident where relations are cooperative, such as in joint security arrangements, co-development projects, international agreements on matters such as addressing environmental concerns or non-state threats. Gains are also possible through competitive economic relations, based on the idea that free and open trade encourages efficiencies in global markets. In other words, liberalism views free and open global trade as benefitting all economically, with the additional value arising out of economic interdependence being that nations that are intertwined have more to gain from stable and peaceful economic competition than they do from conflict.

Liberalism sees cooperation as being optimized where parties abide by agreed, understood, universal rules and norms. What this international order is, who gets to decide how it operates, who gets to participate in it, and whether (or to what extent) it operates as one order or a multipolar network of interdependencies and contests – these are ongoing questions that are going to define and shape liberal international relations for some time.

Constructivist frameworks are based on the notion that identities and ideas are essential aspects of international relations in that they underpin how nations form their understanding of the world, their place in it, and the nature of relations between states. Ideas and identity also drive decision making that leads to action by nation states in the international arena.

Constructivist approaches allow for multiple, different interpretations of strategic circumstances and international events, and are therefore especially useful when seeking to understand, and shape, influence. The emphasis is on a greater range of actors and factors than realism’s emphasis on material power and liberalism’s emphasis on globalised diplomatic institutions and trading networks. In the parlance of defence, it includes all the ‘dimensions of national power’ – typically understood as diplomatic, informational, military and economic (DIME), or including financial, intelligence and law (DIMEFIL) or as six domains: political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII). Moreover, constructivism includes these dimensions of power as acting in concert with one another (see section below on characteristics and capabilities).

In addition to incorporating multiple dimensions of national power, constructivism includes consideration of the multiple actors in the environments in which national actors act. This is necessary in an international system comprised of many nations, many of whom are engaged in multiple and various relationships, as well as non-state actors – NGOs, trans-national corporations, international crime syndicates, and extremist political and terrorist groups. This extends the conceptual range of actors, and audiences, engaged in international influence operations beyond nations and international institutions. It also foregrounds a greater diversity of influence discourses, and greater variety of influence campaign objectives.

Constructivism has an important focus on the role of identities and cultures in shaping how groups understand the world and act in it. This draws into sharper focus the diversity of views and range of approaches to international relations and foreign policy by various nations, challenging over-generalised assumptions about shared values, priorities and strategic mindsets. The risk here is that analysis can be based on stereotypes about national character, myths and motivations (Sussex, 2022). Avoiding this requires deeper and more sophisticated knowledge and understanding of the national cultures and histories.

In practice, these three main frameworks for understanding influence at an international and national scale can be utilised in concert as a means to consider the multifactorial elements of influence.

Realism underscores how some elements of influence are intrinsically bound in national material power. Assets like geographical size and position are virtually fixed. Economic heft and prospects, due to natural resources, population growth and productivity, are less fixed but remain undeniable expressions of the extent, and limits, of national power. Realism also grounds analysis in the cold, hard questions about interests and power.

Liberalism’s emphasis on international interdependence highlights not only the material benefits of global systems of trade, but also the practical necessity for many states (namely, those that are not by themselves powerful enough to deter adversaries) of collective security arrangements. This draws attention to the role of international cooperative institutions, practices and norms, and the value of participating in, employing, and shaping these institutions as a means of exercising influence in the world.

At the intersection of these three paradigms lies the potential of combined explanations and multiple perspectives (itself a constructivist idea). Multiple points of view can be productive when they align, when various frameworks of understanding result in supportive conclusions. They can also be useful when they act as handbrakes, through the provision of opposing arguments that, while introducing complexity, may guard against over-reach through over-simplification.

Influence activities across the spectrum from cooperation to conflict

International Influence efforts include a range of activities, strategies, and goals. While typically there is a tendency to delineate between the various forms of influence activities, our arguments are that (a) activities need to be integrated into an overall grand strategy and supported through whole of government approaches to statecraft, and (b) that certain underlying principles regarding how influence operates can be applied to influence activities across the spectrum from cooperation to conflict. The range of influence activities outlined here should be read with these arguments in mind.

International influence efforts include benign, ordinary, normative and even beneficial activities, such as the various forms of diplomacy (public, cultural, elite and so on), nation branding, soft power, engagement, partnership, and activism for international agreements and ‘global public goods’ (Kaul, et al, 2003). Such activities are founded in liberal approaches to international relations in that they are examples of both beneficial competition and cooperation.

International cooperation is an often over-looked but essential and ubiquitous aspect of international relations, increasingly so as globalisation has progressed. Recent challenges to internationalisation, such as national populist politics, supply chain challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and emergent coercive economic practices (of which, more are below), have shaped globalisation, and sharpened the need for robustness through a mixture of increased sovereign capability and more diverse international commerce.

However, international cooperation remains essential for addressing international problems. Some of the basic requirements for contemporary life, such as international communication and transport, are government by international agreement. Many of the world’s most intractable tribulations, including climate change and environmental degradation, the plight of refugees and displaced persons, transnational criminal activity, and the threat of nuclear conflict, can only be meaningfully addressed involving international institutions and relationships. This remains the case even though attempts to address such issues are inadequate, inevitably entwined with domestic political requirements and geo-strategic considerations. International cooperation remains both imperfect and essential. Its results vary. Its successes, even when significant, are often impermanent.

Participation in international cooperative efforts, in addition to having intrinsic merit, is also a means to develop positive relationships and an enhanced reputation. The opposite is also possible: obstructionism or direct opposition to international collaboration can be deleterious. As such, cooperation, or lack thereof, impacts on all other aspects of international relations, from government negotiations and security partnerships, to cross-cultural people-to-people ties,to international marketing efforts.

Beneficial competition is evident in activities that seek to develop a nation’s strategic narrative and its national brand, in order to enhance its soft power3. Such activities include: cultural and public diplomacy activities undertaken by ministries of foreign affairs; promotional and marketing efforts engaged in by the non-government sector (both commercial and non-profit); and campaigns by those organisations, like national tourism and marketing agencies, that act across the public-private sector.

Nation branding and soft power is an area of international influence where the macro, meso and micro levels of society are interwoven in several ways. In Nye’s formation, soft power is an outcome of the appeal of a nation’s culture, political values, institutions and foreign policy. Therefore, individuals, groups, communities, institutions, society and government all are potential contributors or detractors to a nation’s soft power and therefore its reputation and relationships, and therefore its influence. One implication of this, as Aronczyk (2013) points out, is an implicit soft nationalisation of society, wherein individuals, civil society and the private sector are (inadvertently or deliberately, and for better or worse) charged, or burdened, with the role of representing the nation.

[For the sake of conceptual clarity, nation branding refers to what a nation does while soft power is something a nation has; nation branding and strategic narratives contribute to soft power.]

Influence, in this view, is a whole of nation effort. As such, it carries obvious benefits and risks. Where cultural products are associated with national identity, they can be targeted as sites for influence in various forms including consumer boycotts, online targeting via fan-based networks, and advocacy campaigns. Additionally, the involvement of the private sector as a vector for influence includes the appeals of attractive consumer products, cultural attractions, and the like; it also creates the conditions for economic coercion.

Strategic competition and coercion

In principle, if not always in practice, it is possible to distinguish between liberal competition as an essential, and valuable, aspect of international relations, and strategic competition that operates outside diplomatic and trading norms and seeks advantage through various forms of malign and coercive statecraft. Deliberately falling below the threshold that provokes military responses, these forms of strategic competition are characterised as liminal or grey zone conflict (Killcullen, 2000); when they are used in combination with kinetic forms of combat, they can be included as aspects of hybrid warfare.

Coercive statecraft – political interference and economic coercion

Strategic competition includes forms of coercive diplomacy, which seeks outcomes through threats, demonstrated resolve and actions short of conflict such as sanctions and embargoes (George, 1991). In diplomatic theory, the concept of coercive diplomacy (Bjola & Kornprobst, 2013) typically refers to the use (or threat) of military or economic power but includes ‘forceful persuasion’ (George, 1991, p.4).

Coercive statecraft includes covert and non-attributable efforts to deceive and coerce, to weaken nations through interference in the information environments (Bjola & Pamment, 2018), domestic affairs, and political processes of sovereign nations, and to otherwise seek advantage outside of international norms. The practice of interfering in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation has a long and storied history. It was a key feature of the Cold War, involving both sides of that struggle in various forms (Rid, 2020, inter alia). In the post-Cold War era, there have been numerous examples of attempts to target democratic systems and processes. Reports on these campaigns have sought to analyse: (a) the identity of the responsible actors (who), (b) the campaign products and activities (what and how), (c) the strategic goals of the campaign (why), and (d), most problematic, the outcomes and impacts of the campaign (what effects).

Of these campaigns, the most infamous, and most studied, case study of malign foreign interference is the Russian operation to target the 2016 Presidential campaign. The who, what and how, and why of this campaign is well established: a Russian effort using online disinformation targeting groups based on pre-existing grievances, and amplifying strategically useful narratives throughout the media ecosystem, to undermine confidence in the electoral process, or affect the election result, or both. But ascertaining the effect of the Russian campaign is more fraught due to the many actors and variables. The difficulties and possibilities of assessing the impact of online foreign influence campaigns, including case studies of some seminal research in this field (Hall Jameson, 2018; Mazarr, et al., 2018) are discussed further in the companion report on influence indicators.

Economic influence and coercion

Economic influence includes benign forms, such as the provision of development assistance and access to markets, as well as official economic sanctions and other types of economic coercion. Official sanctions are imposed through formal processes, typically through international bodies like the United Nations, and openly target a country to deter it from a course of action or compel it to a preferred alternative course of action. Economic coercion, on the other hand, is not ‘sanctioned’ by international law, and as such may be subject to disputation at international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation. Economic coercion may include punitive actions such as increasing tariffs, additional customs or quarantine requirements, restrictions on visas and licences to trade, cancelation of contracts and the like. These actions may be accompanied with an official explanation to offer the appearance of legitimacy, although such pleasantries may be dispensed with where a sterner message is intended.

While the overall purpose of economic influence is generally consistent – to deter or to compel – the strategy may vary according to the nature of the targeting regime. Sanctions against autocratic regimes are more likely to target elites and key decision makers. Against democracies, economic influence has to also consider the impact on public opinion. Gueorguiev, McDowell and Steinberg (2020) outline how publics can react rationally, based on a calculation of material interests, to either resist economic coercion or give in to it, or can react against economic coercion on the basis of identity.

In addition to public opinion, economic influence is also subject to the economic resilience of the targeted nation: the more resilience, the greater the capacity to resist economic coercion. Resilience includes several possible attributes, including the size and diversity of the domestic economy, the diversification of other sources of international trade and investment, and the exposure of the coercing nation to the negative consequences of their actions.

Economic coercion differs from military strategies of deterrence primarily in that they do rely only on (although they do not preclude) the threat of future violence. An additional purpose of economic coercion may be to demonstrate the coercer’s capacity and willingness to other nations, to deter them from acting in ways that might see them similarly targeted.

Coercive actions suffer from two great uncertainties: the intent of the actor, which is often disguised or hidden behind a façade of acceptable behaviour, and the interpretations by the target country that shape their response. Jervis, Nebow and Stein (1985) conclude that participants almost never have a good understanding of each other’s perspectives, goals or specific actions:

Signals that seem clear to the sender are missed or misinterpreted by the receiver; actions meant to convey one impression often leave quite a different one; attempts to deter often enrage, and attempts to show calm strength may appear as weakness (1).

Deterrence, coercion, competition and cooperation, in this view, is contingent on interpretation by the target. In the next section we consider these targets – audiences and/or publics – and develop the conceptualisation of the macro level of interpretation and its relationships to the constituent meso and micro levels.

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, to weaken nations through interference in the information environments 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.

National characteristics and capabilities

Influence is in part a measure of a nation’s characteristics and capabilities. In Dahl’s (1957) seminal definition, these are considered the ‘base of power’ – not a complete accounting of how power works, but a foundation for some of the ways in which an actor, in this case a nation, may seek to project power.

Characteristics refers to geography and demographics as well as less tangible 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) and occasionally including financial, informational and legal dimensions (known as DIMEFIL). Military power, supported by economic power, typically is referred to as hard power, whereas ideational and reputational dimensions can be referred to as soft power, and the combination of these has been named smart power (Nye, 1990). To these, Miller adds ‘ambitious interests’ as a characteristic, referring to levels of determination and commitment regarding the use of its capabilities to achieve foreign policy goals (Miller, 2021), related to the ‘national will to fight’ (McNerney, 2018), although the latter may also refer to defensive operations.

National characteristics and capabilities may be, and often are, measured and utilised as indicators of national power. This is discussed further in the Indicators section. Here, the point needs to be made that where these measurements of separate dimensions of power are combined to form an aggregate value, and this deemed to be an indicator of a nation’s total power, this is conceptually inadequate for a number of reasons.

First, these characteristics and capabilities refer to what seminal political theorist Robert Dahl (cited in Long, 2022, at 61ff) refers to as the base or source of power, which is only one of four ways to conceptualise power (and thus influence). The other three factors to consider include (1) the means or instrument of power (how power can be exercised, such as through threats and promises) as well as (2) the amount (how much) and (3) the scope or range (how far) of power. These factors are variable, contingent and contextual, as discussed in the section on relationships, below.

Second, it may be misleading unless the dimensions of national power are aligned strategically and integrated operationally. The importance of integration of the DIMEFIL dimensions of national power is explicitly stated in the Australian Government’s (2023) defence strategic review, which outlines an approach which focusses on aligned activities in the name of combined statecraft. A recent Joint Doctrine note on Defence Strategic Communication from the UK Ministry of Defence (2019) (UK JDN 2/19, discussed further below) makes a related point when it outlines how all aspects of defence activity – training, acquisitions, deployments, missions, publications – communicate, but that what message these activities communicates will vary according to how various audiences interpret them.

A third reason that aggregated measurements of national dimensions of power are, while useful, problematically inadequate is that these lead to the assumption that larger states matter more than smaller states – that, in the oft-cited realist maxim from Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. However, smaller states that are relatively lacking in the traditional forms of material power may possess specific resources that create opportunities for influence (Long, 2022). Such resources may be material, such as valuable commodities, such as small Gulf states with large hydrocarbon reserves, or strategic locations, such as pivotal positions in global transport systems (such as Panama and Singapore). Resources may be ideational, such as a moral authority to intervene due to a reputation as a good global citizen, or the legitimacy to speak on behalf of, or be an interlocutor with, assemblages of nations with similar interests.

In the case of material assets, small states can exercise influence through threats to withhold, or promises to grant, access to these resources. The extent of the influence is therefore dependent on the context – influence is contingent on the extent to which the resource is desired. In the case of ideational assets, influence is additionally derivative, based on the salience of the issues and the strength of the relationships, of which more are detailed below.

Pacific Island nations, for example, enjoy a combination of material and ideational resources. Materially, though small in land area, population and economic heft, they are also ‘large ocean states’ (Long, 2022, p. 62) comprised on small islands spread out over wide ocean spaces. Their large marine territory covers a large proportion of the ocean, including valuable fisheries and shipping lanes. The strategic importance of the positions of these islands has been evident since the Second World War. Ideationally, Pacific Island nations can speak with considerable moral authority on matters such as the exploitation of ocean fisheries and climate change, being directly exposed to the negative effects of both. The colonial histories and ongoing neo-colonial experiences also align them with nations and people with similar heritages, and impacts their relationships with former colonial powers and present great powers.

A nation’s influence is a product of its characteristics, its capabilities and its ‘ambitious interests’ (Miller, 2021). Characteristics refers to tangibles such as geography, and demographics, as well as less measurable features such as reputation, status, identity and strategic narrative/s. 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 – major, middle and minor powers4

Major powers

The actions of, and relationships between, major powers has typically been at the foreground of international security concerns. This is understandable. Great power conflict or the threat thereof resulted in wars, hot and cold, in the twentieth century, and has re-emerged as a driver of international strategic instability. Moreover, major powers act differently. They “seek special privileges and “their pretensions may influence the external conduct of the power structures.” This situation has not changed. Great powers exercise more influence than ordinary states, and leaders of great powers assert their right to rule on the basis of their ability to maintain order, which they describe as in the common interests. (Lebow, 2016, pp. 7-8, citing Max Weber).

Middle and minor powers

The focus on major powers often leads to a characterisation of nations according to the relationship relative to the major power/s of the day: either as ally (or ‘strategic partner’) or challenger, or non-aligned (Mazarr, Blank, Charap, et al., 2022). However, the focus on major power relations is insufficient. Most nations are not major powers, so considerations of how influence operates for most nations requires a wider view. Long’s (2022) categorisation, while designed for small powers, can applied more broadly to include powers of greater or lesser standing including middle powers such as Australia. The conceptual framework (see Table 5, below) includes four characteristics of influence (base, means, amount, and scope) and further develops the basis for analysis by considering each of these characteristics in terms of a state’s relationships – both with larger powers (derivative) and with powers of similar stature (collective).

Table 5 Three categories of power (From Tom Long (2022), p.61




Base (source)

Resource inherent to a small state.

Relationship with a great power.

Relationships with other powers.

Means (instrument)

Threat / promise to withhold or grant.

Lobbying, framing, patron alliance, manipulation.

Institutional, ad hoc coalitions.

Amount (extent)

Contextually dependent.

Potentially great.

Depends on coalition.

Scope (range)

Directly related to resource, plus linkages.

Issue specific.

Narrow for ad hoc coalitions, diffuse for institutions.

The classification of major, middle and minor powers is imperfect but useful. The categorization is imprecise, and contextual: New Zealand, for example, could be categorized as a minor power globally, a middle power in the Indo-Pacific, and a major power in the South West Pacific. An indicative example of how Indo-Pacific powers are categorized is provided by the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index (Patton, Sato, and Lemahieu, 2023).

The base of derivative power is the relationship between a small state and a greater power. The means, amount and scope of power will vary according to the specific influence goal, the degree to which interests are aligned, and the importance of the issue for the greater power (Long, 2022, p. 63). While creating opportunities for amplification of a small states’ concerns, derivative power is likely therefore to have a narrow scope, restricted to specific areas of mutual interest, and control over the outcomes of influence efforts are limited.

Collective power is based on various types of relationships with near-symmetrical powers. These relationships can be established and practiced through dedicated regional institutions, through issue-based groupings, and can occur on an ad hoc basis. Acting in concert, smaller powers seek to access larger audiences for their influence efforts, demonstrate greater relevance for shared concerns, and increase the resonance of arguments, especially those centred on morality or survival.

Organising collectively, smaller states attempt to garner enough diplomatic support for their causes to influence greater powers, in which case collective power resembles a more complex version of derivative power. Where there are obvious differences in power or status within the collective, the capacity to act collectively may benefit from arrangements, such as institutionalised modes of cooperative decision-making that reduce both the perception and the practice of power asymmetry.

In sum, four aspects of relationality apply to the conceptualisation of macro influence:

  1. Relativity: some nations are not major influences globally, but may be regionally.
  2. Networks: the numbers, strength and types of connections contribute to influence.
  3. Issues: influence is contingent on the issue in question.
  4. Dynamism: influence relations are not fixed; some relationships (on some issues) are more stable than others

A nation’s influence is relational, in that it varies depending on the number, strength and type of relationships. Relationships are:

  • embedded in complex networks of multiple connections;
  • asymmetric and complicated, varying according to issue or context;
  • dynamic, although some are more stable than others.

Orders of effects

Conceptualising the effects of influence efforts is, inevitably, both complex and essential. The complications arise for several reasons – only one of which is that actions can have micro, meso and macro effects, which involve various means of measurement, assessment, analysis and evaluation. Here, we focus on three aspects of effects that have clear consequences for the conceptualisation of influence at a macro level: the conceptualisation of targets; of messages, and of impacts.

Targets of influence efforts may be discretely, specifically defined – either key individuals or significant groups – yet the effects of influence efforts are not typically limited to those targets in isolation. Individuals and groups sit within and are constitutive of larger, networked systems of influence, including socio-cultural, economic, and political systems. Effects should therefore be conceptualised at the level of the target/s and of the wider system/s.

Influence effects are the result of influence messages. Messaging, broadly defined, includes deliberate communication efforts but also includes all other activities that will send messages, even where those messages are not the primary motivation of the activity, and even where those messages are subject to multiple interpretation. This is articulated in the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence (2019) Joint Doctrine Note on Strategic Communication (JDN 2/19). This JDN redefines strategic communication from “‘advancing national interests by using all Defence means of communication to influence the attitudes and behaviours of people” to “advancing national interests by using Defence as a means of communication to influence the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of audiences” (3-4, emphasis added).

JDN 2/19 makes explicit the multiple orders of effect that defence actions have:

Every Defence action, and inaction, has communicative effect. Everything we do, or do not do, communicates a message that will be perceived differently by a multitude of target audiences, be they friendly, supportive, neutral, opposing or hostile; both at home and abroad. Differing perceptions of our activities will influence the attitudes and behaviours of those audiences. The military is one of the four levers of UK national power and its use, or non-use, is one of the most powerful forms of messaging available to government. (UK JDN 2/19)

UK JDN 2/19 lists some of the activities that will “send a message”, including:

  • the acquisition and use of defence assets;
  • the location and types of training exercises;
  • support for social causes;
  • publication of research and reports, and
  • engagement with international partners.

Moreover, UK JDN 2/19 notes that “the messages that is received will vary by audience” (UK MOD, 2019, pp iii – xiii). The implication here is that effects should be conceptualised as potential results of all defence activities, and that these effects will be subject to multiple interpretations. The consequences of this in terms of how indicators of influence are developed are discussed further in the indicators section of the report.In military doctrine, effects-based operations (EBO) have a primary focus on the achievement of the desired end state and are contrasted with approaches that focus on immediate outcomes of actions. Outside of EBO, effects are typically described in more general terms as being first order (direct, without intervening mechanism between the act and the outcome) and then second and third order effects (sometimes fourth, fifth and further orders are added) as the relationship between the action and the consequence becomes less immediate and less direct, and more diffuse.

The inevitability of second and third order effects, however understood, means that indicators or measures of effect need to take these into account. This means that a wider range of impact measures, a greater number of affected people/groups/institutions/nations, and a wider time frame can and possibly should be considered. This is addressed in the companion report on Influence Indicators.

Influence effects range from the direct and immediate, through the adjacent and persistent, to the systematic, long term and wide-reaching (also known as first, second and third order effects). Messaging, and interpretation of messages, occurs in ways that are unintended, unavoidable, yet predictable. Target audiences and tactical objectives cannot be the only considerations when planning and evaluating influence activities.

National responses to malign influence – resilience and vulnerabilities

A nation’s capacity to resist, counter, and otherwise respond to influence is related to its internal characteristics and capabilities, as well as its actions at a macro level. 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. Many of these are (also) meso level factors, and the connections between the macro and meso level are intrinsic to understanding how malign influence occurs and how it can be addressed.

The areas of macro activity related to resilience to malign influence covered in this section are: monitoring, regulation, and institutional and cultural capacity development.


Macro levels of influence resilience include the capacity to identify, through monitoring agencies, four main attributes of malign influence campaigns. Firstly, identification can include the recognition of problematic content, often referred to as narratives, and of the strategies that these content types seek to exploit. This typically takes the form of a characterisation or categorisation of the content in question.

Identification, secondly, can also include measures or indicators of the reach or pervasiveness of the campaign – the size of the audience reached is one form of reach; another is the number and type of platforms such as social media, online news sites (marginal or mainstream), and key individuals such as opinion makers and influential commentators, and ultimately the cross over into formal political discourse as evidenced in, for example, speeches and formal communications by political decision makers, in governments and parliaments or similar.

Thirdly, identification can include efforts at attribution of the source or the accelerant (through targeted and/or paid distribution) of campaign, either to a single actor – foreign or domestic – or a network (loosely or tightly coordinated) andits motivations – paid or voluntary, ideological or commercial or otherwise.

Finally, and most difficult, is the identification of the effects or impacts of malign influence campaigns. This is difficult for numerous reasons, including: the contingent and complex nature of mediated political environments; the heterogeneity of individual’s media diets (due to personalisation of online content through recommender algorithms), and the limited access to relevant data. Demonstrating causality is impossible. However, probabilistic estimates and reasonable assumptions can be cautiously inferred. This is necessary, else planning and evaluation is unbounded by analysis.


Regulation of influence efforts can take multiple forms, targeting different aspects of governance and political systems. For the purposes of concision, here the regulations are summarised according to whether the influence efforts are targeting individuals, institutions and infrastructure, or the wider public.

Influence efforts that target individuals are exemplified by direct actions to coerce or entice individuals who are positions of power or have access to confidential or classified information. Most nations have various laws that prohibit such activities, the punishments can be severe where a criminal conviction ensues. In cases where criminality or even impropriety is not necessarily occurring, such as in lobbying efforts, regulations can aim for transparency and accountability either to a representative body, such as a parliament, or to a statutory independent investigative agency.

Influence efforts that target institutions, such as universities, unions, industry groups, think tanks, non-government organisations and the like, can face similar regulatory requirements. For example, Australian universities have requirements to safeguard national security interests when engaging in research with foreign partners. Additionally, regulations may monitor and restrict foreign investments and veto foreign companies’ activities where these are deemed to pose security risks.

Influence efforts that target the wider population, principally through mediated communication networks including news services and online social networks, can also be met with regulatory efforts by governments. However, this is far from straightforward and varies considerably based on the political system in question, especially its free speech protections (see O’Hara & Hall, 2021). In more authoritarian systems, governments have greater powers to restrict public speech, and will do so to limit both foreign interference and domestic political opposition using the same or related sets of laws that are ostensibly aimed at protecting trust in political institutions and political stability.

At the other end of the scale are political systems in which free speech is prioritised and self-regulation by industries (such as the news media and technology companies) is given greater emphasis. This is exemplified by the United States, where free market and free speech protections dominate. A pertinent example of these protections in operation is the protection provided to social media platforms via the Communications Decency Act (1996), specifically Section 230 which prohibits treating social media platforms as though they are the publishers of the content which third parties (that is, the users of the site) post, thereby exempting them from most laws that would otherwise apply to harmful content such as defamation laws. (The Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act (2010) (SPEECH Act) protects United States-based companies from defamation penalties incurred outside the United States.)

Between the authoritarian and free market / free speech models, the European Union model seeks to balance the benefits of an open media and communications with protections of individual privacy and a more pre-emptive and interventionist approach to harm prevention.

Institutional and cultural capacity

Macro level aspects of resilience to influence include national institutions, as well as what are referred to here as national cultural characteristics, such as trust and literacy.

Some national institutions that limit the impact of malign foreign influence do so through the preservation of the integrity of political and economic systems. Independent electoral commissions, for example, can act to ensure that elections are fair, and are deemed to be fair, thus increasing trust in electoral processes and the legitimacy of outcomes of these process. This limits the opportunity for foreign influence efforts to either undermine the electoral processes or public faith in the outcome. Similarly, institutions that act transparently to operationalise the laws and regulations mentioned above (such as those regarding corruption or foreign investment) can both limit risks in these areas and preserve trust through accountability, openness, and independence. Nations can enhance their efforts to mitigate malign influence through institutionalised coordination of efforts, and integration of these efforts into a national security strategy.

Managing risk of malign economic influence can also be supported through national institutions that support diversification – and, in recent parlance, ‘de-risking’ (Gewitz, 2023) – of export markets, international supply chains, and sources of foreign investment. The aim in these cases is to enhance economic resilience and economic security.

Programs to develop critical digital literacy among the wider population can also be a means for nations to address concerns about the impact of malign influence operations. Institutional support for efforts that address information disorder (misinformation, disinformation and mal-information) can also include provisions for fact-checking, pre- and de-bunking and the like. Moreover, institutional support for a mainstream press that is professional (that is, required to meet certain standards and is subject to professional oversight), diverse, and independent can also be counted among the ways trust in a mediated information environment can be promoted.

Finally, resilience to influence can include macro-level support for programs that outreach to groups that are either of special interest or have special needs, or both. A ready example is diasporic communities that may have limited literacy in the dominant language/s of the nation, and who may have ongoing significant ties to foreign nations that make them appear a more valuable target for influence efforts.

A nation’s capacity to resist, counter, and otherwise respond to influence is a produce 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.