By Elisabeth Braw, for CEPA

Russian malign influence campaigns and those of other hostile states have tested Western patience for years. Now, some countries may criminalize it.

Norway is proposing pioneering action with a law that would ban cooperation with foreign countries’ intelligence agencies for the purpose of influencing public opinion at home. It’s a gutsy move by the Norwegians: proving contacts with hostile intelligence agencies is likely to be a tall order, but it’s far better than no action.

“We know that foreign countries are constantly using new methods to damage fundamental interests in Norway that have been difficult to protect society from,” the Minister of Justice and Emergency Preparedness, Emilie Enger Mehl, said on January 12.

She’s right. Especially since Russia and China became more assertive and contemptuous of other countries’ sovereignty about a decade ago. Since then, they’ve adroitly exploited Western societies’ openness for their own malign purposes.

Russia, especially, has cleverly fed falsehoods into the public debate, and both countries make regular use of agents of influence. “We know that authoritarian states can try to influence us to serve their own interests. Such states can, for example, spread fake news to weaken people’s trust in the press, public authorities, or other important social institutions,” Mehl said.

Outside Europe, Australia is a case study for the travails associated with malign influence. Among other cases, a Chinese billionaire managed to get then-Senator Sam Dastyari to speak on China’s behalf. In an apparent quid pro quo, the billionaire, Huang Xiangmo, paid legal bills Dastyari had previously accumulated. It later transpired that Chinese money was the biggest foreign source of income for both Australia’s two major political parties.

Russian influence in the UK was detailed in a 2020 House of Commons report, which showed it had secured extensive influence within elite circles.

How many agents of influence, established individuals who shape the public debate on behalf of Russia, China, or other hostile countries, are there? We don’t know. But we do know that agents of influence act with impunity, because spreading another country’s talking points is not illegal.

Spreading disinformation manufactured by troll farms in Russia or elsewhere is not illegal either. Until now, liberal democracies haven’t found a way to tackle malign influence while protecting their citizens’ right to free speech.

In 2018, Australia introduced a legislative amendment that made it illegal to engage in “covert and deceptive or threatening activities by persons intending to interfere with Australia’s democratic systems and processes” and to support “the intelligence activities of a foreign government”. But Australia and other countries have struggled to keep the full range of hostile influence activities at bay.

Norway’s legislation won’t do that either. But it’s a brave legislative step, and the law — when passed by parliament — will at least tackle parts of the malign-influence scourge. The government’s bill proposes making it illegal to “contribute on behalf of, or by agreement with, a foreign intelligence actor in activities that have the purpose of influencing decisions or the formation of public opinion, and which may harm significant societal interests.”

The idea was first proposed by the previous government, but that effort received significant pushback in the consultation stage because, its critics alleged, it threatened to imperil free-speech rights. Since this more narrowly focused bill criminalizes only the spreading of malign influence in consultation with foreign intelligence agencies, most hostile influencers will get away with their activities.

Indeed, any agents of influence and others who currently cooperate with foreign intelligence agencies to influence the Norwegian public debate will shift their contacts so that any involvement by foreign intelligence agencies will be untraceable.

Still, the Norwegian move matters because it signals to hostile governments that liberal democracies won’t be paralyzed by the challenges posed by malign influence. The combination of an open society on the one hand and malign influence on the other will always be difficult to manage.

Indeed, that’s why hostile states expend so much effort on disinformation, agents of influence, and the dissemination of falsehoods by malcontents here at home: they know that as liberal democracies committed to freedom of speech, we struggle mightily to do anything about it. Making it illegal to share falsehoods is, in fact, almost impossible, since it would clash with our cherished freedom of speech.

But criminalizing influence efforts, even partially, is nonetheless an important step. Starting on the legislative path is a key first measure; legislation can be amended or redrawn at a later date in the light of experience.

It is also important to increase society’s resilience to these efforts. If the public is trained in how to verify information, the dissemination of disinformation would become much harder.

Finland excels at teaching information literacy in its primary and secondary schools and indeed considers the skill a “civic competence”. Western countries need similar training for adults too.

And they should educate people of all ages, perhaps through interviews with expert officials, about the other ways in which hostile states spread malign influence. The first step is taking action, even if it won’t bring instant results. Credit to Norway.

Elisabeth Braw is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.