While Canada is not immune from the political unrest witnessed in the United States, we may still minimize the risk by developing a comprehensive strategy to address information warfare and foreign interference, writes Marcus Kolga in the Toronto Star.
By Marcus Kolga, January 12, 2020
Last week, Canadians watched in horror as a violent mob smashed their way into the U.S. Capitol — never believing that the same could one day happen in Ottawa. During and after the riot, they shared amusing social media memes of a map of Canada being sawed away from America and joked about Canada paying for their own wall with the U.S.
We would be wise to check that smugness.
Growing discontent among Canadians in various regions is being stoked by malign foreign actors who amplify disinformation and conspiracy theories on both the far-left and far-right. Left unaddressed, trust in our democratic institutions will erode and lead to a deeply polarized society not unlike what we are seeing in the United States and some European countries over recent years.
The warning signs are clear.
Extremist groups, conspiracy theorists and fringe media platforms have taken advantage of the fear and frustration brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic to attract new followers. Their blunt-force rhetoric satiates emotions that have been stripped raw by the pandemic, promoting anger at elected officials, media and ultimately each other.
As Canadians desperately seek to come to terms with the devastating psychological and financial effects of COVID-19, conspiracy movements offer simple explanations — regardless of factualness — and an outlet for their anxiety and rage.
Wild anti-government conspiracy theories have been shared on tens of thousands of Twitter accounts, accusing Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau of being traitors, who have used COVID-19 to assist Germany save the New World Order, for example.
Supporters of the Western Canadian separatist movement, WEXIT, have shared memes that include a group of camouflaged militiamen carrying assault rifles asking, “Wonder how many people would actually answer the call to step up and take our rights and freedoms back …. The time to fight is coming sooner than later.”
QAnon, the popular and dangerously divisive U.S. conspiracy theory movement, also has a following in Canada. The group had infamously claimed in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlour.
Now QAnon flags have been spotted flying at several Canadian COVID antimask rallies. One of the leaders of the Washington riot, pictured in fur and a horned hat, identified himself as a QAnon “shaman.”
Compounding all of this are malign foreign actors, including the Russian and Chinese governments and their supporters, who amplify these polarizing narratives and inject their own disinformation to further pollute our information environment.
As the EU warned in March of last year, the Kremlin’s goal over the past 10 months has been “to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”
As bad as this might be, it gets worse when elected officials, like President Trump, repeat and amplify false claims and conspiracy theories.
In Canada, an Ontario MPP recently claimed that Canada is converting COVID quarantine sites into internment camps and has also attended several antimask rallies, undermining the efforts of federal and provincial health officials. Such irresponsible behaviour, based on cynical political calculations, lend legitimacy to the seditious narratives that empower those who seek to destabilize our society.
The trajectory is painfully clear.
The defence of our democracy requires a long-term, whole-of-society strategy that includes the co-ordinated participation of governments, civil society and media in order to build long-term resilience against this threat — something our governments have failed to do.
We should begin with our children, by providing them Scandinavian-style early digital media education to provide them with the tools to critically assess the information they consume.
Elected officials, their staff and civil servants should be provided ongoing training on digital media literacy and the detection of foreign influence operations. We should learn from our allies, like Taiwan, who have successfully detected and defended against disinformation attacks.
The events of the past week underscore social media’s role in the breakdown of our social cohesion. While a last-minute ban on Donald Trump’s account by Facebook and Twitter was wise, it represents but a tiny bandage on a gaping existential wound that is killing Western democracy.
All of the social media giants, including Google, continue to facilitate and enable foreign state disinformation and conspiracy theorists by providing them platforms, audiences and even revenue streams.
While Canada is not immune from the political unrest witnessed in the United States, we may still minimize the risk by developing a comprehensive strategy to address information warfare and foreign interference.
Marcus Kolga is the director of DisinfoWatch.org and is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad.