The Strategic Implications of Manipulative Digital Platforms: A Trust-Driven Approach

Author name: 
Dr. Zac Rogers
The National Security College

Australia’s strategic environment is rapidly changing. The most measurable changes are shifts in the regional balance of power and intensifying competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific. These developments have been complicated and exacerbated by the uncertainty generated by the presidency of Donald Trump, and most recently by unpredictable but not unexpected events such as COVID-19.

Yet in many ways, shifting power balances based on conflicting interests between geopolitical actors – and unpredictable events – are the normal cycles of international politics. Less obvious (but arguably of greater concern) are fundamental technology-driven changes in how power flows among networks of actors and institutions, and how conflicting interests are contested and mediated in a disrupted information environment.

Key points

  • Consumer-facing digital platforms are components of a manipulative regime of technologies, designed to monitor and modify people’s behaviours and preferences.
  • These platforms are widely exploited by domestic and foreign actors for commercial, political and strategic ends.
  • Foreign adversaries also benefit from the social and political vulnerabilities the normal daily use of these technologies exacerbate within democracies. Manipulative technologies can weaken public trust in institutions and deplete the social capital which upholds our convention- based society.
  • Trust – as the bedrock of a convention-based society – has become a key battleground between states. It should be understood and protected as a strategic resource.

Policy recommendations

  • National security agencies should pay close attention to the security consequences of manipulative technologies, and play a stronger supporting role in policy development led by other portfolios – for example, competition and consumer protection, industrial design, technology standard setting, public education, and media policy.
  • Agencies should prioritise, with dedicated resources, strategic engagement across all relevant portfolios on the use and governance of digital technologies, including flow on impacts on trust.

About the author

Dr Zac Rogers is Research Lead at the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University of South Australia.

Series editor

Katherine Mansted is senior adviser for public policy at the National Security College.

About this publication

Policy Options Papers offer short, evidence-based and forward-looking insights and recommendations for policymakers on topical national security issues facing Australia. Every paper in the series is informed by consultation, and reviewed by practitioner and academic experts.

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