Final report of the Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media: a quick guide

08 November 2023

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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

On 1 August 2023, the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media released its final report. The committee’s work in the 47th Parliament followed on from a 2019 Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, which tabled a First Interim Report (in December 2021) and a Progress Report (in April 2022) before dissolving following the calling of the 2022 federal election.

Since that time, the foreign interference threat facing Australia has grown in both size and complexity. This is reflected in the committee’s final report, which opens with the emphatic statement that ‘Foreign interference is now Australia’s principal national security threat which risks significantly undermining our values, freedoms and way of life’, before going on to assert:

Foreign authoritarian states … do not permit open and free debates on their own social media platforms. They use ours as a vector for their information operations to shape our decision-making in their national interest – contrary to ours.

Effectively countering foreign interference through social media is therefore one of Australia’s most pressing security challenges. (p. xi) [1]

Australia is not alone in facing a serious threat from foreign interference activities emanating from or directed by authoritarian regimes. Many other liberal democracies face similar challenges. The committee’s report is likely to be closely inspected in Western capitals and has already attracted international media attention.

This quick guide provides a brief overview of the committee’s exploration of foreign interference through social media and current domestic and international responses to the threat, highlights a number of its recommendations, and identifies some areas for further consideration. An Annex provides all of the committee’s recommendations in table form.

The foreign interference ecosystem

The committee report contributes important insights into the evolving manifestations of foreign interference in which social media is a vector, particularly with respect to the various tactics and strategies utilised by authoritarian regimes. Of note, the committee found that in addition to the use by authoritarian states of tools such as bots, troll farms and content farms to spread mis- and disinformation, new trends are emerging (pp. 24–25).

Foreign-Interference-as-a-Service (FaaS)

Among the trends identified by the committee as a ‘national security threat’ is the emergence of FaaS, which refers to private companies that ‘offer fee-based interference services’ (p. 26). The report cited the activities of one entity that not only provided disinformation, but combined this with other reinforcing activities such as staging a fake protest, which was then circulated on social media as further disinformation (p. 27).

The emergence of private actors providing FaaS and the use of such services by state actors makes the threat broader. This has significant implications for how counter-foreign interference strategy is formulated and implemented, and for international cooperation on the issue.

The extent of foreign interference activities targeting Australia

With the exception of TikTok, all of the social media platforms that appeared before the committee stated that they ‘found and removed CIB [co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour] that sought to influence Australia’ (p. 154).

While foreign interference is often conceived of as interference in elections or political activities, the committee’s inquiry also found that information operations have been used against Australian companies. For example, the committee pointed to a Home Affairs submission that described how Australian mining company Lynas Rare Earths was targeted by an information operation seeking to undermine efforts to diversify global rare-earth supply chains (p. 8).

The committee also cited statistics from LinkedIn in relation to fake accounts, with 400,000 attributed to Australia from more than 80 million worldwide in 2022 and pointed to the platform becoming ‘heavily abused by threat actors’ in recent years (p. 89). Elsewhere, the report referenced the alleged contact via LinkedIn between an Australian (who has been charged with reckless foreign interference) and what were reported to have been suspected agents of China’s Ministry of State Security (p. 72).

Current domestic and international approaches to tackling foreign interference

The need to bolster Australia’s current approach to tackling foreign interference through social media is a key theme of the report, which says it is urgently required. It also notes the challenges associated with doing so, contending that ‘in order to identify gaps in countermeasures … it is vital to accurately map the steps currently being taken’ (p. 71).

The committee mapped current legislative settings and responsibilities of Australian government entities working to counter foreign interference (pp. 54–62). It detailed several pieces of legislation applicable to countering foreign interference including the:

  • Criminal Code Act 1995
  • National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018
  • Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018
  • Online Safety Act 2021
  • Privacy Act 1988[2]

The committee also mapped Australian government entities and the connections between them as they relate to tackling foreign interference, as shown in Figure 1 below. The diagram highlights the complex and fragmented nature of current arrangements.

Figure 1    Counter foreign interference network

Source: Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media final report, August 2023: 55 (prepared by Monique Nielsen, Committee Office, Department of the Senate).

The committee also carefully explored and detailed international approaches to tackling foreign interference, including initiatives put in place by Europe and the US to use ‘a common methodology for identifying, analysing and countering’ the activity (p. 158). Ensuring interoperability of systems and standard methodologies and terminologies will be important to the efforts of liberal democracies to counter foreign interference.

Notably, in its recommendation that Australia designate an entity with lead responsibility for whole-of-government efforts to counter cyber-enabled foreign interference (recommendation 6), the committee also outlined the importance of Australia’s designated lead entity moving to ‘quickly … adopt the same standards and join’ the efforts of the US and Europe (p. 158).

Committee recommendations of note

The report contains 17 recommendations, which are outlined in full in the Annex. This section discusses some of the key recommendations.

Recommendation 1 – mandatory transparency requirements

This recommendation would impose a set of mandatory ‘transparency requirements, enforceable with fines’ (p. 149) on social media platforms operating in Australia. The requirements include mandating that: platforms ‘must have an Australian presence’, ‘disclose which countries they have employees operating in and who can access Australian data, and keep auditable logs of any instances of Australian data being transmitted, stored or accessed offshore’ (pp. 149–150).

The requirements also mandate a series of disclosures platforms must make, which include disclosing: ‘any government directions they receive about content on their platform’; ‘cyber-enabled foreign interference activities … originating from foreign authoritarian governments’ on their platform; ‘takedowns of coordinated inauthentic behaviour networks’; removal or adverse action against an elected official’s account; and ‘any changes to the platform’s data collection practices or security protection policies’. There is also a requirement that platforms maintain ‘a public library of advertisements on their platform’ and ‘make their platform open to … researchers to examine cyber-enabled foreign interference activities’ (pp. 149–150).

While some of the disclosures outlined in the recommendation are already being implemented by several platforms in order to comply with the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation and Digital Services Act (DSA), and Australia’s existing voluntary code, the committee’s recommendations would make such disclosures mandatory in Australia. The recommendation does not explain how, or via what authority, such a ‘system of enforceable minimum transparency standards’ would operate beyond the recommendation’s outline that if platforms repeatedly failed to meet the requirements, they could ‘as a last resort, be banned by the Minister for Home Affairs via a disallowable instrument’ (p. 149).

Recommendations 3, 4 and 5 – extended platform bans

These recommendations call for an expansion of the TikTok ban on Government devices enacted by the Attorney-General in April 2023.

Recommendation 3 sets out an expansion of the ban on specific applications (such as TikTok) on government devices to include ‘all government contractors’ devices who have access to Australian government data’ and the ‘work-issued devices of entities designated as Systems of National Significance’(SoNS).

SoNS are a subset of designated critical infrastructure assets that are the most important to Australia because of their interdependencies and the potential for serious and cascading consequences to other critical infrastructure assets if disrupted, and the consequences that would arise for the country’s ‘social or economic stability, defence or national security’. If a critical infrastructure asset is declared a SoNS, it may be subject to Enhanced Cyber Security Obligations.

A ban covering the devices of entities operating an asset declared a SoNS is a significant expansion as it would extend the ban into the private sector. Exactly who it would cover is not known because the assets ‘cannot be publicly named’.

The report details the potential mechanisms for these changes on page 156, using information from both Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD).

For bans on SoNS, the report cites a budget estimates hearing for Home Affairs on May 22 2023 (p. 67) where executives suggested such a ban could be accomplished under the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act (SOCI Act) using the risk assessment obligations for SoNS, or the ministerial directions enabled by section 32 of the SOCI Act. In relation to the report’s recommendation to place bans on contractor phones, the Protective Security Policy Framework’s ICT systems policy appears to already specify that the same security requirements apply to outsourced providers. However, it is not clear that there is any centralised oversight of compliance. The report cites the AGD and notes:

…while the PSPF also applied to government contractors, AGD did not have oversight over whether departments had turned their minds to ensuring contractors either knew about or were adhering to the TikTok ban. (p. 155)

Recommendation 4 recommends that the government ‘consider extending the Protective Security Policy Framework directive banning TikTok on federal government devices to WeChat’ (p. 156).

In addition to multiple submissions and witnesses raising concerns about WeChat, the report highlights that ‘WeChat repeatedly declined multiple invitations to participate in a public hearing’ (p. 90) and when the committee’s chair ‘submitted 53 detailed questions to WeChat … WeChat failed to meet the transparency test by not providing direct answers to the questions that were asked of them’ (p. 91).

Recommendation 5 emphasises the need to continually ‘audit the security risks posed by the use of all other social media platforms on government-issued devices within the Australian Public Service, and issue general guidance regarding device security, and if necessary, further directions under the Protective Security Policy Framework’ (p. 156).

Together, these recommendations could be viewed as suggesting that the committee is putting forward a platform-specific approach as the way to address the foreign interference risks social media apps can pose.

The pursuit of a platform-specific approach instead of platform agnostic standards-based approach is contentious as policy. Government senators (p. 170) and the Australian Greens (p. 173) commented that platform-specific policy is ‘a game of digital whack-a-mole’, which the report attributes elsewhere to multiple witnesses (p. 71).

The government may be considering alternative approaches. During budget estimates on 22 May 2023 (p. 69), Home Affairs described ‘a review of social media issues generally, presented to the government on 16 March’, which covered risks including ‘high-risk data vulnerabilities’. Home Affairs also outlined varied international approaches ‘from India, which has a complete ban on some applications economywide, to the French government, which looks at banning [all] recreational applications [on government devices]’ (p. 69).

Recommendation 6 and 7 – responsible entities

Recommendation 6 provides for the establishment of ‘a national security technology office within the Department of Home Affairs to map existing exposure to high-risk vendors such as TikTok, WeChat and any similar apps that might emerge in the future’. The committee envisaged that the office could ‘recommend mitigations to address the risks of installing these applications, and where necessary, ban them from being installed on government devices’ (p. 157).

The report does not appear to advocate for the development of a methodology for assessing apps in a manner that would support a platform agnostic approach, further reinforcing the platform-focused nature it appears to have adopted.

It is also unclear how the mapping role would interact with agencies that currently advise government on IT vendors, including the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), and AGD under the PSPF.

Recommendation 7 identifies the need to ‘designate an entity with lead responsibility for whole-of-government efforts to counter cyber-enabled foreign interference, with appropriate interdepartmental support and collaboration, resources, authorities and a strong public outreach mandate’ (p. 158).

The committee’s mapping of organisations involved in countering foreign interference highlighted the varied and overlapping responsibilities among them. Implementation of recommendations 6 and 7 would require consideration of how the proposed entity and its roles would interact with already established entities with an existing role.

For example, it is unclear how a lead entity for cyber-enabled foreign interference tasked to cover collaboration within government and outreach to the public would interact with the existing roles of the eSafety Commissioner or the newly established Cybersecurity Coordinator under Home Affairs. There may be overlap with functions and roles within the ACSC, the Critical Technologies Hub within the Department of Industry, Science and Resources (DISR), the DTA, the eSafety Commissioner, and the newly established Cybersecurity Coordinator within Home Affairs.

Further consideration is potentially required as to whether this entity would have any role in assessing reporting from platforms as outlined in recommendation 1, or whether this would be the sole purview of the office established within Home Affairs, as outlined in recommendation 6. The report’s discussion of recommendation 7 highlights the current operational restrictions on Home Affairs, but does not explicitly recommend addressing them.

In particular, the discussion notes that ‘despite having responsibility to run the Counter Foreign Interference Coordination Centre, [Home Affairs] was not a member of the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce’ (p. 157), and that when a new community outreach program was established in ’February this year … Home Affairs … was not given any new resources to undertake this work’ (pp. 157–158). Elsewhere, the report notes that no new funding was provisioned in the Budget for the ‘establishment of the Coordinator for Cyber Security within Home Affairs’ (p. 63).

Recommendation 9 – sanctions

The recommendation sets out that cyber-enabled foreign interference actors should be included as targets for Magnitsky-style cyber sanctions under the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011.

Under a regime introduced on 21 December 2021, Australia can already impose sanctions in relation to significant cyber incidents, but these do not cover cyber-enabled foreign interference activities of the kind the committee’s final report details.

The use of sanctions to target foreign interference is already in use by the EU, which, at the end of July 2023, imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and entities who it alleged were responsible for a digital information manipulation campaign. In the press release the EU noted that this measure and others it adopted were part of its policy to address foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI).

While sanctions can be a useful tool and are increasingly being adopted, their impact can be limited. In addition to cryptocurrencies, some actors still use cash, which allows them to potentially evade sanctions.

Moreover, while sanctions can be imposed, enforcing compliance can be difficult – particularly in relation to cryptocurrency payments. The financial intelligence units of many countries are yet to be empowered with legislation that improves the currently limited visibility many have in relation to the financial activities of criminal actors using cryptocurrency.

Although the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) extended anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) measures in 2019 to also cover cryptocurrencies and associated services (referred to by FATF as virtual assets (VA) and virtual asset service providers (VASP) respectively), Australia, like many other countries, has not fully implemented FATF’s recommendations. As a result, Australia currently only has visibility of digital currency exchanges (DCE), as it does not yet regulate VASPs (such as crypto mixing services).

Areas for further consideration

Other apps and platforms

The committee’s final report is especially concerned with specific risks on ‘platforms which originate from authoritarian states’ (p. 87), and its recommendations focus mostly on TikTok and WeChat, which are widely used in Australia. However, there exist a number of other apps in use in Australia that may be vectors for cyber-enabled foreign interference, including but not limited to several others originating from China.

Weibo, a second pillar of Chinese social media along with WeChat, has users among both the Chinese diaspora in Australia and the Australian government, including former prime minister Kevin Rudd, the Australian embassy in China and Tourism Australia. Crikey noted that video editing app CapCut[3] and shopping apps SHEIN and Temu were among the 20 most popular apps in Australia.

Determining what constitutes high risk in relation to cyber-enabled foreign interference in a platform-agnostic manner is potentially worthy of further consideration. Platforms operating outside of authoritarian states can also be manipulated, compromised or otherwise involved in foreign interference activities, and varying ownership models could also influence the degree to which platforms cooperate with authorities.

Twitter (recently renamed ‘X’), which was acquired by Elon Musk just prior to the start of the committee inquiry and was subsequently taken private, is one such case. According to media reports, Twitter was purchased with support from a range of investors. Following news that Musk’s investors included ‘Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and Qatar Holding, an investment firm owned by the Arab country’s sovereign wealth fund’, questions were raised about this potentially posing a threat to US national security. US President Joe Biden was quoted as saying ‘I think that Elon Musk’s cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at’. It was also reported that ‘other investors in Musk’s Twitter purchase have ties to China and the United Arab Emirates’.

The purchase of Twitter and its move to a different ownership model appears to have impacted transparency and accountability. Reuters reported in January that ‘a Twitter program that was critical for outside researchers studying disinformation campaigns’, which had included a partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), had stalled as ‘nearly all … employees who worked on the consortium have left the company’. In June 2023, the eSafety Commissioner ‘issued a legal notice to Twitter’ due to ‘an increasing number of reports of serious online abuse since Elon Musk’s takeover of the company’. The committee’s final report does reference some of these issues in relation to Twitter/X.

The report cites the Human Rights Watch submission, which asserted that while Twitter had been accused of negligence prior to the acquisition, the company had ‘quickly reacted to requests to protect the accounts of Chinese human rights defenders’ and that ‘the gutting of the infrastructure and staff that deal with these issues threatens to change that equation between the platform and China’ (pp. 95–96).

The apparent waning of Twitter’s initiatives to combat disinformation was also highlighted in the report. It quotes the European Commission noting in its announcement of the first reports under the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation that ‘Twitter, however, provides little specific information and no targeted data in relation to its commitments’ (p. 34). (The European Commissioner for Internal Market announced in May 2023 that Twitter had pulled out of the disinformation code, but he noted that the Digital Services Act would impose mandatory obligations from 25 August 2023.)


The report’s foreword notes the need for ‘urgent action to ensure Australia stays ahead of the threat’. In this respect, Australian National Audit Office ‘audit insights’ on the Rapid implementation of Australian Government initiatives, and Implementation of recommendations, are useful resources to consider in relation to some key risks that may affect the successful delivery of the outcomes envisaged by the committee.

One key area in which attention may need to be focused is the creation of an implementation framework. The creation of an implementation strategy and framework against which effective governance arrangements can be established, monitored and tracked will also be important to ensuring the successful implementation of the recommendations.


Annex – full list of recommendations

Chapter 8 of the committee’s report outlines all 17 recommendations in the form of a detailed discussion of the background, followed by specific recommendations for action by the Australian Government. The below table contains the text of each recommendation, together with the relevant paragraph and page numbers, and the page numbers on which the associated discussion can be found.




Paragraphs 8.43–44 (p. 149); discussion (pp. 145–149)

Require all large social media platforms operating in Australia to meet a minimum set of transparency requirements, enforceable with fines. Any platform which repeatedly fails to meet the transparency requirements could, as a last resort, be banned by the Minister for Home Affairs via a disallowable instrument, which must be reviewed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Requirements should include, at minimum, that all large social media platforms:

  • must have an Australian presence
  • must proactively label state affiliated media
  • must be transparent about any content they censor or account takedowns on their platform
  • must disclose any government directions they receive about content on their platform, subject to national security considerations
  • must disclose cyber-enabled foreign interference activity, including transnational repression and surveillance originating from foreign authoritarian governments
  • must disclose any takedowns of coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB) networks, and report how and when the platform identified those CIB networks
  • must disclose any instances where a platform removes or takes adverse action against an elected official’s account
  • must disclose any changes to their platform’s data collection practices or security protection policies as soon as reasonably practicable
  • must make their platform open to independent cyber analysts and researchers to examine cyber-enabled foreign interference activities
  • must disclose which countries they have employees operating in who could access Australian data and keep auditable logs of any instance of Australian data being transmitted, stored or accessed offshore
  • must maintain a public library of advertisements on their platform.


Paragraph 8.61 (p. 154); discussion (pp. 150–154)

Should the United States Government force ByteDance to divest its stake in TikTok, the Australian Government review this arrangement and consider the appropriateness of ensuring TikTok Australia is also separated from its ByteDance parent company.


Paragraphs 8.69–70 (p. 156); discussion (pp. 154–156)

Extend, via policy or appropriate legislation, directives issued under the Protective Security Policy Framework regarding the banning of specific applications (e.g. TikTok) on all government contractors’ devices who have access to Australian government data.

The Minister for Home Affairs should review the application of the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018, to allow applications banned under the Protective Security Policy Framework to be banned on work-issued devices of entities designated of Systems of National Significance.


Paragraph 8.71 (p. 156); discussion (pp. 154–156)

Consider extending the Protective Security Policy Framework directive banning TikTok on federal government devices to WeChat, given it poses similar data security and foreign interference risks.


Paragraph 8.72 (p. 156); discussion (pp. 154–156)

Continue to audit the security risks posed by the use of all other social media platforms on government-issued devices within the Australian Public Service, and issue general guidance regarding device security, and if necessary, further directions under the Protective Security Policy Framework.


Paragraph 8.74 (p. 157); discussion (pp. 154–156)

Establish a national security technology office within the Department of Home Affairs to map existing exposure to high-risk vendors such as TikTok, WeChat and any similar apps that might emerge in the future. It should recommend mitigations to address the risks of installing these applications, and where necessary, ban them from being installed on government devices.


Paragraph 8.80 (p. 158); discussion (pp. 157–158)

Designate an entity with lead responsibility for whole-of-government efforts to counter cyber-enabled foreign interference, with appropriate interdepartmental support and collaboration, resources, authorities and a strong public outreach mandate.


Paragraph 8.82 (p. 158); discussion (p. 158)

Address countering cyber-enabled foreign interference as part of the 2023–2030 Australian Cyber Security Strategy.


Paragraph 8.85 (p. 159); discussion (p. 159)

Clarify that Magnitsky-style cyber sanctions in the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011 can be used to target cyber-enabled foreign interference actors, via legislative amendment if necessary, and ensure it has appropriate, trusted frameworks for public attribution.


Paragraph 8.90 (p. 160); discussion (pp. 159–160)

Refer the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for review, with particular reference to the Act’s effectiveness in addressing cyber-enabled foreign interference.


Paragraph 8.94 (p. 160); discussion (pp. 160–161)

Investigate options to identify, prevent and disrupt artificial intelligence (AI)-generated disinformation and foreign interference campaigns, in addition to the Government’s Safe and Responsible AI in Australia consultation process.


Paragraph 8.97 (p. 161); discussion (p. 161)

Establish a program of vetting appropriate personnel in trusted social media platforms with relevant clearances to ensure there is a point of contact who can receive threat intelligence briefings.


Paragraph 8.107 (p. 163); discussion (pp. 162–163)

Build capacity to counter social media interference campaigns by supporting independent research.


Paragraph 8.120 (p. 165); discussion (pp. 163–165)

Ensure that law enforcement agencies, and other relevant bodies such as the eSafety Commissioner, work with social media platforms to increase public awareness of transnational repression.


Paragraph 8.124 (p. 166); discussion (p. 166)

Empower citizens and organisations to make informed, risk-based decisions about their own social media use by publishing plain-language education and guidance material and regular reports and risk advisories on commonly used social media platforms, ensuring this material is accessible for non-English speaking citizens. Specific focus should be on protecting communities and local groups which are common targets of foreign interference and provide pre-emptive information and resources.


Paragraph 8.130 (p. 167); discussion (pp. 166–167)

Support independent and professional foreign-language journalism by supporting journalism training and similar programs, thereby expanding the sources of uncensored news for diaspora communities to learn about issues such as human rights abuses inside their country of origin.


Paragraph 8.137 (p. 168); discussion (p. 168)

Promote the digital literacy and the infrastructure of developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region that are the targets of malicious information operations by foreign authoritarian states.



[1].    The committee’s opening assertion appears to draw from the Department of Home Affairs’ submission (p. 9) and the 2022 ASIO threat assessment (p. 21), both of which contain similar language concerning espionage and interference.


[2].    The discussions of the various pieces of legislation can be found in the report as follows: the Criminal Code Act 1995 (p. 51), the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 (pp. 52–53), the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 (p. 53), Online Safety Act 2021 (p. 53), and Privacy Act 1988 (p. 54).

[3].    ByteDance, which owns both CapCut and TikTok, is facing a lawsuit in the US that alleges CapCut’s ‘privacy practices … violate federal and state laws’.


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