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An excerpt that originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph – our CEO and Co-Founder Dr. Brenton Cooper discusses the challenges associated with chasing online extremism and espionage in the internet age.

Foreign Interference and espionage

Late last year the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) deemed there are far fewer individuals with extremist beliefs and violent intent in our communities. This is compared to the 2014 outlook, when threat levels were regarded “probable”.

However, we’re not immune.

Australia faces a broader set of motivations and faster pathways to radicalisation and susceptibility to foreign interference and espionage through social media. Despite our national terrorism threat level lowering to “possible” for the first time in more than eight years, ideological and religious extremism persist, as do efforts by our adversaries to tempt Australians into espionage.

The murders of two police officers and a local man in the Queensland town of Wiembilla is a recent reminder of how terror attacks can still occur, with the shooting defined as a “religiously motivated terrorist attack“.

online extremism – an Australian context

While US extremism typically dominates headlines in this field, ASIO and Australian law enforcement agencies are too seeing a toxic cocktail of conspiracies, grievances, and anti-authority beliefs manipulate segments of public opinion.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, fears over China’s posturing around Taiwan and the south-pacific islands, and generally amounting conflict potential across the globe, there has never been a more important time to understand social cohesion.

ASIO director general Mike Burgess said in his annual threat assessment a few weeks ago, more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any time in Australia’s history. Sydney man Alexander Csergo is one such case after the businessman was alleged to have handed sensitive AUKUS information to Chinese spies for cash.

Espionage, foreign interference, and terrorism are all considered tactics of public opinion manipulation, and with the internet and its influence almost infinite, there are a lot of needles in even more haystacks to sift through.

Hiding behind the scale of the internet

The online world is now so vast that many users feel anonymous and comfortable enough to freely publish thoughts and desires they would otherwise keep hidden.

Some use it to legitimise hate speech as personal expression, and others do it to build a global echo chamber – an open tunnel that reaches the most committed and active extremists, and encourages them to incite real-world violence or recruit new ‘believers’.

For example, the unrest resulting from the death of George Floyd in May 2020, sparked an increase in Antifa communication over social networks; a lot of it radical. Many used open-source platforms – Telegram and Twitter, for example – to coordinate group operations, voice their perceptions of law enforcement, and assert desires for threatening, extremist, and violent action.

Less than a year later, the world was shocked by violent and disruptive protests at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Following the riots, social media became a haven for groups like Boogaloo supporters, the Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracists, and other extremists to deny the legitimacy of the US Presidential election. Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook banned the sitting US President, Donald Trump, from their platforms, along with users similarly involved in violent rhetoric – others didn’t.

While these are US examples, Australia’s island mentality is no more – geographic borders don’t have the same protective influence they did in previous generations. The proliferation of movements such as “sovereign citizens” or “living people” illustrate this.

radilcalisation across international borders

Sovereign citizens describe people who subscribe to a pseudo-law concept – they believe they are not under the jurisdiction of governments and only answer to their own interpretations of common law. The movement first appeared in the US during the 1970s, and later emerged in Australia in the 1990s. You don’t need to look further than Reddit to see examples aplenty.

COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia supercharged the movement. Social media was used to network and express frustrations on Premiers of the time – particularly Gladys Berejiklian for NSW and Dan Andrews for Victoria – and stirred conspiracies around COVID-19, vaccines, and social controls. Self-proclaimed sovereign citizens were seen berating essential workers and arguing with police.

Examples like this truly cement how the online world – surface, deep, and dark web – has become a minefield for exposing radical views and even illicit activity. And the internet’s infinite nature makes it practically impossible for authorities to keep up with the noise given their finite resources.

All the while, investigators need to be able to disentangle individuals and groups with extremist beliefs from those that would undertake violent acts. They should be focused on countering terrorism, not extremist thinking.

Relying on a cork and pin ‘Sherlock Holmes’ board won’t keep investigators in front of the internet’s dark spots. Agencies typically don’t have enough people, nor hours in a day to do things the old way.

We’re seeing a rise in global uncertainty foment greater levels of social unrest, and while the current threat level sits at “possible”, it would be naïve to treat radicalisation, extremism and foreign interference as “negligible”.

Extremist groups and foreign spies aren’t using morse code to spread their message – they’re speaking to everyday Australians through social media at an incredible scale, and we need to be ready to track radical threats and foreign interference no matter where these groups choose to congregate.