Social Influence


Group factors and the civil sphere

The success and failure of influence campaigns, as well as the unintended consequences that may derive from them, are shaped by group level factors and other meso level variables. Groups play a key role in legitimising and promoting beliefs, cultural codes, myths, ritual action, symbolic frames, and values (Turner, 2012). Associations, communities, informal networks and other civil society institutions critically direct how influence attempts are interpreted and the interactions and communicative acts that follow. The status and operations of groups are also relevant for societal resistance to malign foreign interference.

As much as individuals are driven by the basic psychological needs, those needs are all social and reciprocal in nature, and must be understood within social contexts. For democracies, there’s a special arena of sociality that privileges pro-social, rule-based, truth-oriented meanings, what we refer to here as the civil sphere. Specifically, the civil sphere is that part of democratic societies constituted by values, emotions and practices of solidarity that facilitate social integration and public debate. As Alexander (2006, p.3) notes, the premise of the civil sphere is that ‘societies are not governed by power alone and are not fuelled only by the pursuit of self-interest’. Meso factors in this sense relate to the civil sphere in that they involve symbolic ideals, the sense of togetherness and conceptions of the ‘good life’. The civil sphere is directly consequential for influence as it allows for an appreciation of the ways in which communication and interpretation is contextual and contingent (Alexander, 2019). By examining the meso level, analysts attain key insights into why some attempts at influence will succeed in their aim, for example bringing about either social and political change or social disorder and cultural conflict, whereas in other instances similar campaigns fail or achieve only marginal effects.

The outcomes of influence campaigns are varied because individuals do not only act rationally but rather interpret messages in the context of group attachments and social context.

Meso analysis and social structure

The meso level is important for understanding how influence at the micro level of interpretation may develop in ways that result in the shaping of social structures (Turner 2012). Social structure is constituted by the accepted arrangements, institutions and patterns of behaviour that frame socialisation, provide social life with meaning, and effect the direction of social change. Social structural factors include norms, relationships, folk beliefs and accepted everyday practices. These operate beyond individual cognition and the immediate variables of social interaction. At the same time the relatively informal, bottom-up and convention-based nature of social structure differentiates it from macro factors: official dimensions of the social system, including the laws and institutions of the state (Serpa & Ferreira, 2019).

Whereas micro level analysis is the domain of Psychology, and the field of International Relations dominates analysis of the macro as it relates to issues of national and international security, the disciplinary area of sociology is the main intellectual area that engages in the analysis of meso factors. Sociology is the social science of social structures, societal trends and collective action. With its focus on groups and civil sphere dynamics, including how this can result in unintended consequences, meso level research is typically more controversial than the micro and macro. Comprehending the meso level requires relevant empirical evidence and detailed contextual analysis as social structure is complex and teemed with paradoxes. For example, the meso level is an intermediate space that connects the micro and macro, but it also actively shapes both (Lizardo, 2017). Social structure restricts and directs social behaviour and in doing so produces social order. However, it is simultaneously a resource for social actors and groups to bring about social and political change. While social structure is a feature of all modern societies and has some key principals that underpin its operation, its characteristics and dynamics also differ across groups, societies, and time periods. This cultural dimension is particularly significant for understanding influence transnationally.

Comprehending the meso level requires empirical evidence of social structure as it is subject to change and differs across societies.

Societal attachment and new forms of influence

Social conflict and political contestation is not new, but challenges to social and political stability today are distinctive. Meso factors are significant for understanding such conflict and the way it is exploited politically through social influence campaigns as they often relate to a weakening of cultural attachment. This includes how emergent alt right domestic extremist groups have justified political violence by their relative sense of deprivation and reimagining of national identity (Bauman, 2017; Fukuyama, 2018). Such groups have attained latent support through growth in public sympathy for conspiracy theories, something that demonstrates not only an incredulity towards democratic traditions but traditional notions of fact and truth (Osborne, 2021). The promotion of these sentiments frequently occurs through protagonists of new digital media genres such as online influencers (Baker & Rojek, 2019).While each of the above examples are shaped by various specific strategic interests and international relations, they all can also be broadly understood as being heavily shaped by some similar trends in social structure: declining trust and deference to modern narratives, knowledge and authority and an increasing sense amongst the public that the direction of social, political and economic change in recent decades is failing to bring about a better society. Other social influence directly relates to increased societal attachments, such as those related to greater identification with past historical eras in nations that are strategic competitors to the West. These new identifications with the past frequently naturalise conflict over geopolitical borders and exclusive economic zones.

Social influence threats relate to changing levels and types of societal attachments and associated group identities

Having introduced the reader to the broad relevance of meso factors for social influence, the section below will outline the major meso level considerations for exerting and resisting influence. This is not a review of the vast empirical sociological insights relevant to understanding contemporary influence but rather an outline of the principal ways that meso factors are significant for policy makers and practitioners in attempting to curb malign interference or strategically engage in influence campaigns for positive outcomes.

Influence is multidimensional

A large part of the complexity in recognising and addressing malign foreign influence campaigns is that they are often closely intertwined or overlap with social structural factors, typically pre-existing social and political disenchantment. In this regard, policymakers and commentators often lack an appreciation of the multidimensional character of influence, assigning influence campaigns as the primary source of trouble. This denies the way that such messages interconnect with existing grievances or domestic narratives. When such a narrow diagnosis is undertaken there is a danger that associated mitigation strategies will be designed poorly and misapplied. To avoid such errors, it is best to see publics as being constituted by self-aware and reflexive actors and avoid value judgements that promote a view of either the audience being an undifferentiated mass or that certain groups are uncritically open to influence.

Even in cases where influence seems to be operating in a top-down linear fashion, there is typically an indigenisation process at play in which groups have understood and act upon messages in ways that relate to local conditions, cultural codes and established practices. From this perspective acts that appear deviant are frequently connected to past traditions and involve an attachment to society in ways that may not be obvious, but which significantly shapes the nature, impact and consequences of the influence. This multi-dimensional understanding of influence is particularly important for understanding how it operates cross culturally. In foreign contexts, messages will more likely succeed and avoid adverse unintended consequences if they can key into local cultural traditions.

The effects of influence campaigns should not be assessed independent of broad social and political factors that direct behaviour of groups.

Measuring multiple effects of influence campaigns in the post-truth age

Influence effects need to be assessed in relation to their potential for multiple effects, including potential latent consequences of influence attempts. For example, when influence campaigns seek to advance an extreme relativist comprehension of knowledge and prompt scepticism of claims to rational thought, this causes cascading and cumulative effects that are not whether publics subscribe to the certain beliefs or messages being forwarded but rather the consequence of a deluge of disinformation and misinformation might be publics becoming disenchanted with the notions of truth, with the associated questioning of expertise being something that is consequential for deference to state institutions.

The use of social media for exerting such influence is itself significant. Sociologists and media studies scholars have often highlighted how web 2.0 facilitates challenges to the role of experts and affords discourses of a ‘post truth’ world (Fuller, 2018). Post-truth discourse advances the idea that ‘what one wants to believe is more important than what can be proved’ (Monod, 2017, p. 151). Post-truth in this sense is not the rise of deception and lies but advancing the notion that ideas and beliefs should no longer require traditional degrees of plausibility or proof, that different knowledges are equally valid, and as such become only judged in relation to their perceived political orientation (Harsin, 2015). Ideas are still ranked but traditional measures of accuracy no longer have the same level of affect informing the grading process (Monod, 2017).

Countering such post-truth influence is more complex than looking to dispel certain claims and requires more social structural considerations. Often this involves engaging in the same media genres and rhetorical techniques used by advocates of post-truth culture rather than just relying on traditional communication forms and modern rationalist argument (Piltch-Loeb et al., 2021). The design of counter social influence campaigns also needs to account for the possibility that conflict has become an end or goal in itself, devoid of any clear position or goal. In such scenarios, advancing rational arguments are unlikely to be effective. Rather, evoking messages that are infused with symbolic meaning, such as those used for reconciliation purposes and advocate unity over division, may be required to bring about positive change. More upstream mitigation measures though are also significant in avoiding such circumstances, including public awareness and education programs that build general digital media literacy skills and advance cosmopolitan comprehensions of social and political change (e.g. Braddock, 2022).

Countering disinformation campaigns in the post-truth age requires strategic symbolic forms of communication that moves beyond the traditional confines of rationalist argument.

Avoiding unintended consequences of unity rhetoric

To successfully curb social influence disruption and positively influence populations, it is important to appreciate that social conflict, and even periods of social crisis, are part of a healthy society. While some forms of conflict may create pathological rifts in the social fabric, other instances and types of conflict enhance group cohesion (Wieviorka, 2013). This occurs by conflict creating release valves and initiating resolution processes that safeguard against the destructive aspects of social conflict. Episodes of conflict also frequently promote cultural discourses that underpin social cohesion and unity.

The clear lesson of the Cold War in terms of social policy is that demanding strict social consensus and national unity can easily go awry and lead to the identification and persecution of citizens as ‘outsiders’ in ways that undermines the moral authority of the state and civil society groups. The recognition of cultural diversity is important in this regard, keeping groups that might be labelled as being on the ‘periphery’, attached to the ‘centre’ of the society (Shils, 1975).

Influence attempts can fail to appreciate minority groups and unintentionally advance marginalisation.

Successful influence campaigns need to recognise diversity in values spheres

Social influence campaigns not only need to account for cultural difference as it relates to minorities but those generally considered as part of the ‘centre’ of society (Shils, 1975). Sociologists since Max Weber (1958a [1917]; 1958b [1919]) have pointed to society being constituted by a variety of different value spheres. These are subsections of society, often orientated to institutions, vocations, and professions, which make the everyday meaningful and create distinctive ways in which groups attach themselves to national society. If social influence campaigns target an undifferentiated mass of people in ways that encourages the conflation or undermining of different value spheres, this can result in a loss of meaning and attachments to the collective, an environment widely believed to promote fundamentalism and extremism (Gustafsson & Krickel-Choi, 2020).

Successful influence campaigns target or are inclusive of diversity within mainstream society.

Resistance to malign influence through supporting quality journalism and public sphere institutions

Maintaining avenues and spaces for respectful rational argument and discursive conflict resolution is an important measure for addressing malign influence campaigns that seek to create an environment of continual social conflict over the most basic of ideas and facts. What makes certain social conflict destructive, resulting in pathological rifts between groups, while other types of conflict eventually result in group cohesion (Wieviorka, 2013) is typically the social setting in which conflict occurs. Support for quality media and the public sphere more broadly is an important way in which policymakers can encourage conflict to result in social cohesion by helping to determine the social relations through which conflict is mediated (Wagner-Pacifici & Hall, 2012). Habermas famously defines the public sphere as ‘a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed’ (1974, p. 49). The public sphere is a critical dimension of civil sphere, underpinning its democratic and egalitarian character. In a broad sense the public sphere is the space that is available for all to engage in public debate and the sharing of politically salient information. This commonly refers to discursive spaces created between competing ideas presented both in situ and via the media, and also includes physical locations used for public gathering – such as coffee shops and town halls (Adut, 2012; Habermas, 1974). For example, studies have shown that societies that have a strong publicly funded television and radio, a situation that allows for investment in quality journalism, have greater voter turnout and less corruption (de Vreese & Boomgaarden, 2006; Van Aelst et al., 2017). By advancing trust in mainstream sources of knowledge, the public sphere can limit feelings of alienation developing and related types of cultural sentiments that often prompt the seeking of destructive mechanisms for dispute resolution, including using violence.

Societal resilience to malign influence can be enhanced by supporting and protecting the media and other institutions and spaces in which rational and respectful debate is undertaken.

Supporting cultural production to build societal resilience and exert influence

The diminishing of cultural fields can be destructive to the civil sphere and as such weaken democracy and national resources for exerting influence. By cultural fields (Bourdieu 1993) we mean a zone of social activity in which the creation of cultural products is undertaken. Cultural fields are important for the ability of groups to hold the power of government and industry to account. As outlined above, in the Cold War the obsession with national security in the U.S. threatened cultural fields through a demand for social uniformity and simplistic patriotism. This included an undermining of the traditional role of intellectuals as defenders of civility and tradition (Shils, 1956). Since the end of the Cold War the greater challenge to the relative autonomy of cultural fields comes from neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005) rather than directly from state authority (du Gay 2000). For example, recent mobilisation efforts in the West have found that deference to global free trade and economic profits can override the willingness of groups to support national security strategies.

A re-engagement of the state with groups actively involved in the production of culture (e.g. cultural industries, education, heritage, arts) is an important part of a national social influence strategy. This includes through re-establishing the types and levels of funding to these areas found during the Cold War. National culture can be an active force in building resilience to malign influence and being an important cultural basis for building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. However, by being largely driven by neoliberal rationales, cultural production in Australia and other Western nations is open to being funded by foreign actors in ways that work against our national interest. At the same time our competitors are less susceptible to such social influence as their form of state capitalism facilitates a whole of society approach to Defence.

Financially supporting cultural fields in ways that allow them to have a relative autonomy from neoliberal economics will build resilience to foreign interference and maximise the ability of governments to exert influence.

Civil society and positively managing conflict

Support for civil society is an effective measure for exerting influence through providing a mechanism for positively managing conflict. Civil society is a key dimension of the civil sphere but specifically relates to the role played by community-based organisations, networks and activities of a social group that are not officially managed by the state. Such organisations range from sports clubs and religious institutions to political movements and unions. While these different types of entities are distinctive from each other in many ways, they all constitute civil society in that they provide an organisational space for shared participation in civic activities (Calhoun, 1993) and facilitate interaction between fellow citizens from various backgrounds (Edwards & Foley, 2001). This diversity and interactive dimension of civil society differentiates it from the more culturally homogenous and typically vocationally focussed nature of value spheres and cultural fields (see above).

Sociologists have empirically highlighted how a vibrant and healthy civil society has structural benefits for groups and that these mechanisms render destructive forms of conflict less likely to originate. Civil society can also play a role in initiating constructive social and political movements that hold power to account. The institutional context of civil society for such forms of societal protest and justice discourses are important in making civil society groups orientated to productive as opposed to destructive outcomes (Alexander & Smith, 1993). One way that civil society groups do this is by creating an infrastructure for social movements, with conflict more likely to have an orderly character. As Wagner-Pacifici and Hall (2012) point out, for conflict to have a productive resolution the parties involved need to coordinate and cooperate.

Civic organisations provide the meeting rooms, sports fields, groups, church halls and other settings with their associated rules and norms of interaction, which allow parties to negotiate and cooperate. In a sense civil society provides the spaces and norms necessary for disputes to be initiated and carried out in a civil manner. These entities often provide a model and discourses that can be drawn on by other groups and the government. This is evident in various post-conflict societies where civic organisations have played a key role in engendering political stability (Orjuela, 2003). Pinckney et al. (2022), for example, demonstrates that the presence of civil society greatly enhances the likelihood that social conflict in non-democratic states will lead to democratisation. Using the resistance movements in Africa from 1990 to 2015, Pinckney et al. (2022) show civic organisations, such as ‘trade unions, religious organisations, and professional organisations have the durable mobilisation infrastructures rooted in everyday social networks that are needed to generate and sustain democratic transitions’ (Pinckney et al. 2022, p. 4). Highlighting the direct importance of civil society to public sphere narratives, Hynes-Bishop (2022) argues that in the case of Colombia, the discourses associated with small local civil society activity was critical for the success of the civil war peace process in that it offered new ways of conceptualising the conflict and the enemy for both sides.

Civic organisations also work to feed information from citizens to governments and in turn aid the effective implementation of government policies at the local level (Putnam, 1995). In a cultural environment characterised by cynicism, if not hostility, towards the state, centrally organised government programs are typically met with scepticism that render them ineffective. In such cases, civil society organisations are more trusted sources of knowledge and as such are a valuable resource for addressing social problems in contemporary society in that their independence matters. In the US, for example, programs run through local companies and local government have had success in advancing counter narratives and upstream support for democratic processes and providing preventative measures of political extremism and violence (e.g. Braddock, 2022). This provides an alternative to punitive institutional and combative narrative of the criminal justice system, approaches that risk labelling and emboldening those that discursively support political violence (Miller-Idriss, 2022). However, neoliberal government policies have recently threatened the independence of civil society organisations independence from the state, lessening its potential role in maintaining social order.

In the contemporary social and political environment, civil society groups can be effectively engaged to exert influence to diverse audiences and initiate conflict in ways that constructively holds power to account.

Social capital and societal attachment through interactions with diversity

Other benefits of civil society that sociologists have pointed to are lower minority group unemployment, reduced crime rates and higher quality schools (Putnam, 1995), all of which tend to reduce competition over resources and values and thus lessen social conflict. Robert Putnam describes this inclusive aspect of civil society as the promotion of ‘social capital’: “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (1995, p. 67). Social capital establishes community attachment because “networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust” (Putnam, 1995, p. 67). Incentives for individual opportunism is reduced as people contemplate the others in their networks or as people consider the ‘we’ as well as the ‘I’. In Putnam’s words, “Members of associations are much more likely than non-members to participate in politics, to spend time with neighbours, to express social trust, and so on” (1995, p. 73). Whereas civil society generally relates to those within a group with a shared interest, Putnam (1995) describes how social capital is inclusive of a ‘bridging’ function, being more outwardly focussed, establishing social bonds between individuals in otherwise diverse groups.

Such interactions address perceived depravation that has been pointed to as an important sentiment amongst the groups from which extremists emerge. While inequality is an important macro measure for addressing the potential for extremism, humans are quite poor at assessing perceived levels of inequality and injustice, something that creates imagined exaggerations of depravation and a sense of victimhood. Attempts at building social capital are important in this regard to counter disinformation and political extremism as studies have highlighted how humans conceive of themselves in reference to those in who they have close contact.

The idea of influence occurring through the lived experience and the embodied and experiential opportunities for meaning-making provided to groups is consistent with early media and communication research that emphasised the significance of peers. Katz and Lazarsfeld’s (1950) book Personal Influence, for example, highlighted the continuing fundamental significance of interpersonal relationships for shifting beliefs of the audience despite the emergence of mass communication. In effect media messages have most impact when they also align with communication within small, intimate groups, whether that be person to person sharing of opinions and attitudes or person-to-person communications networks. In both cases personal communication is often significant as a mediating factor for attempts at exerting influence through the media, whether it be mass media or a more niche digital form. As online and digital media has become ubiquitous in our lives, there is a need for more analysis of ‘personal influence’ that comprehends the interconnections between media messages and engagement with social groups, and small group communication (Couldry, 2014).

Encouraging commitment to local groups and meaningful personal interactions between individuals of different groups can discourage political extremism through attachment to diverse social identities.

Volatility of meaning in times of disaster and crisis

Influence campaigns have the potential to be most significant and detrimental during times of disaster and crisis. In such episodes, social mechanisms work somewhat differently, with symbolic frames and narratives taking on a heightened significance. While times of disaster and crisis can have the effect of bringing about social unity, as seen in the relation to the Covid-19 pandemic they may also bring about competition between groups in ways that disrupt the trust they have in state institutions and other groups. In Turner’s terms (1974), disaster and crisis are associated with periods of ‘liminality’ where exceptions to existing dominant norms and cultural processes are frequently permitted. While these ‘anti-structural’ responses are typically temporary, they can become an event that embeds and normalises particular social structures, including through becoming associated with the sacred remembrance of these events.

Such events in Sewell’s (1996) sense, can be considered to have causal characteristics, bringing about new societal directions and futures. As Wagner-Pacifici (2017) highlights in cases that include the September 11 terrorist attacks, fundamentally what is at stake in events, are identities, loyalties, social relationships, and our very experiences of time and space. The danger of disinformation campaigns via social media is heightened during such times, particularly if traditional media and communication sources have been disabled. The loss of trusted news and information sources is particularly consequential, as research has highlighted that traditional media sources generally attain greater significance during such periods. However, studies have also shown that these periods also have significant potential for counter narratives to emerge from them, highlighting the potential of positive influence campaigns. For example, using various historical cases including the Suez crisis and Iraq wars, Smith (2005) has argued that it is the genre that develops in the national public sphere during times of crisis, rather than political or economic interests, that influences whether contemporary nation-states decide for or against using military means to address security threats. Similarly, West (2008) outlines how in the Australian public sphere circumstances and media practices allowed for a counter narrative to emerge in response to the narrow nationalist rhetoric that immediately followed the Bali bombing terrorist attack. This counter narrative worked to dampen hyper critical voices of the Indonesian state and promote a dialogical sense of joint suffering, something that has resulted in ongoing productive joint security operations between the two countries.

Malign foreign interference can be most destructive during times of disaster and societal crisis, however, such events and periods are also ripe for counter narratives to be encouraged.

Generations and message targeting

Societies are increasingly plural with rapid social and political change making generations an increasingly important source of group identity (Corning & Schuman 2020). The generational divisions and identities though differ across societies and can also often be overstated in the popular imagination (West & Aarons, 2016). Generational thought can also see diversity within age cohorts being overlooked. For influence campaigns to correctly identify target audiences, age is a critical factor but the complexity of generations also mean that assumed generational characteristics can result in unintended consequences. For example, while young people tend to be more cosmopolitan in their worldviews than older generations (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2009), Miller-Idriss (2009) has identified that the way in which this is advanced in the German education system, often creates a backlash amongst young people who want to have a sense of pride in being German, an important factor contributing to the making of radical right-wing groups. For this reason, generational target analysis for social influence campaigns needs to be informed by strong empirical evidence.

Both youth and elderly citizens though are major groups targeted by influence campaigns. Rates of criminal and deviant activity across the lifecourse (Benson, 2012) suggest that adolescent children and young adults might be particularly open to influence effects as they are yet to establish firm identities embedded in vocational and marital arrangements, and as such are more open to engaging in deviance. For this reason, nations that have large populations under the age of 30, much of Africa and many Pacific nations for example, face particular security issues. In the cross-cultural context it is particularly important that youth is not associated with being pro-Western or politically progressive, with various cultural contexts demonstrating a cultural turn amongst youth towards conservatism. For example, as Saefullah (2022) outlines, in Indonesia in the 1990s, youth subcultures were largely secular and multicultural, largely mirroring new left Western politics. In contrast, much youth subculture today is orientated to an Islamic revivalism, with rising intolerance towards religious difference (Laksana & Wood, 2019). In the West it is the ‘ageing population’ with the overrepresentation of those born in the two decades following WWII that potentially poses a far greater risk in relation to disinformation. For example, older adults were the most likely to be exposed and also share fake news during the 2016 U.S. election (Brashier & Schacter, 2020). While research has consistently shown that political attitudes remain largely stable as individuals age (Peterson, Smith & Hibbing, 2020), there is some evidence to suggest that the elderly are particularly susceptible to disinformation, being more likely than other groups to experience fear and panic as a consequence of their exposure to fake news (He et al., 2019; Rocha et al., 2021). This in part relates to lower levels of digital media literacy amongst older adults but it also potentially reflects greater anxiety about societal change.

Young people are a significant influence target due to their openness to identify with and engage in various forms of deviance while older adults are more likely to experience fear and panic from exposure to fake news.