In 2018, when I was in my first year of university, I moved into a student residence that mostly served to house Chinese students studying abroad in Australia. The Chinese students tended to stick together. Posters in student halls were in Mandarin, while stores and restaurants surrounding the residence catered to homesick students seeking groceries direct from China.
On the March 11 of that year, the Chinese government approved the removal of two-term limits on the presidency, and Xi Jinping effectively became “president for life.”
On that day, I walked out of my student accommodation and saw that, in a rare act of defiance, a student had put up posters of Xi with “NOT MY PRESIDENT!” written in bold letters across them. The posters were all over campus. Within three hours they had been taken down.
The stifling censorship faced by Chinese students in Australia from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been well documented. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published evidence that many Chinese students were afraid to speak out on politically sensitive issues in Australia due to fear of repercussions from Beijing.
HRW researcher Sophie McNeil said the study revealed that Chinese students in Australia had a “very deep fear of being watched. Students expressed surprise that they’d come all the way here to only still feel that they lived in a system similar to what they were living in under the CCP.”
The experience of Chinese students in Australia is a warning sign. Technology has woven its way into our lives, but so too has the ability for governments and groups around the globe to further political agendas and consolidate power, not just in their own country, but in other countries too.
The geographical boundaries of states are becoming increasingly blurred. Chinese censors can follow a student to Australia, or an Indonesian covert operation can try influence West Papuan sentiment through Australian social media accounts. The threats to Australia’s national security will be numerous.
During the Cold War, Soviet citizens were banned from traveling outside their homeland. Nowadays, for economic reasons, authoritarian states have greater motivations for tolerating, and sometimes even encouraging, their populations’ mobility. Online communication has become a platform from which anyone can speak. But equally, integrated communication may provide new opportunities for governments to suppress voices abroad. Unless regulated, surveillance technologies and disinformation techniques will only become more effective in manipulating or silencing public opinion.
Speedier connection around the world also increases the chances of Australian communities being drawn into overseas conflicts. Last month, four Sikh students were attacked by a group of men in Harris Park, Sydney. The attacks were a reaction to the current farmers’ protests in India, where many Sikhs have been demonstrating against the Indian government’s new agriculture laws.
The Harris Park attacks demonstrate the relative ease with which conflicts abroad can play out in Australia due to social media connectivity. Tensions stoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his sectarian actions in India, have widened division within the Indian Australian community, between Hindu nationalists and India’s numerous religious minorities.
Dr. Surjeet Dhanji from the University of Melbourne, in an interview with the Guardian, said that Hindu nationalist “hate factories” on social media had influenced the Australian diaspora and created “a whirlwind effect such that the messages become a reality affecting them in Australia – far away from their country of origin.”As social media becomes even further integrated into society, the Australian government needs to prepare for the domestic affairs of foreign nations to produce ripple effects at home. This can be curbed by broader integration of social media into the nation’s security agenda.
First, universities and campuses need to expand support for overseas students and provide outlets for discussion away from the fear of repercussions at home. Some welcome progress on this front has been made, but continued action will be needed.
Second, citizens need to hold social media firms and other tech companies accountable if they compromise commitments to democratic values. Facebook, in particular, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has put minimal effort into reducing the adverse effects of widespread fake news generation on their platforms.
Third, more government funding should be channeled into researching Australia’s social media and messaging habits. Staying ahead of the curve of social media trends can better inform strategies for combating foreign influence and false information.
On top of this, schools should be encouraged to start teaching courses to increase media literacy among Australian schoolchildren, or improve those that already exist, to take into account the impact of social media and other new technologies. This would include teaching students about the prevalence of “fake news” as well as how algorithms and other intrusive digital technologies function.
In the future, technology will allow the infiltration of Australia’s borders by foreign interests on an unprecedented scale. Australia has been comparatively successful to date in handling this challenge, but we must stay vigilant. For all its positives, social media will continue to blur the lines at the point where Australia’s borders end, and those of other nations begin.