By Marcus Kolga, July 9, 2019
Since 2004, there has been clear evidence of Kremlin disruption and meddling in the democratic political processes of at least 30 countries around the world, including Canada. Canadian intelligence services and the government have repeatedly warned about the ongoing threat of Russian government efforts to undermine Canadian democracy, our elections and society.
Russia’s weaponization of information and propaganda warfare are not new phenomena. Tactics used today were developed in the early days of the Soviet Union and were reapplied with zeal by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Among the Kremlin’s first targets were Russia’s closest neighbors in the Baltic Sea region and other nations formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, but it has since expanded to include most western democracies.
The Kremlin manipulates public perceptions by poisoning information environments with a constant barrage of false narratives. Information is intentionally distorted to fit regime narratives, and further validated by pro-regime experts and amplified by an army of online trolls and other individuals aligned with the regime and its agents. Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the freedoms that define us as liberal democracies to launch an all-out assault on our cognitive understanding of the world in an effort to weaken and undermine our democratic systems.
It is also important to note that the Kremlin is not the exclusive source of threats to Canada’s democracy and elections. Iran and China are among those states that represent threats. In April 2019, for example, an allegedly forged letter on Prime Minister Trudeau’s letterhead and bearing his signature conveyed congratulations to a mysterious new Tibetan organization that seems to promote pro-Beijing views about Tibet. Liberal MP Arif Virani alerted constituents on Facebook, writing that he was “alarmed to learn that the ‘letter of support’ from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the newly created ‘Tibetan Association of Canada’ is a forgery.”
Elections are an immediate target for these malign foreign states, and their outcomes often reflect, in the worst case, the success of foreign malign actors; and in the best case, our success in trying to defend our democracy.
The cost of engaging in information warfare is remarkably low, while its destructive yield is extremely high. Groups who profit from disinformation through advertising revenue, including those who help fund propaganda and conspiracy theory websites by placing ads on them, must be held to account and be regulated into doing so if they are unable or unwilling to do so voluntarily. Politicians, policy-makers, academics and former diplomats who speak on behalf of malign foreign regimes must face a cost for allowing themselves to be used as proxies or “useful idiots” in western media and society. This includes identifying them and their foreign interests, so that the public can put their views and analysis into the proper, and critical, context.
While the Kremlin may not have an obvious champion in the October 2019 federal election, attempts to amplify narratives that threaten to divide Canadians, such as those which promote anti-immigration, anti-globalism, anti-pipeline on both the right and left, will likely intensify. Similarly, the ongoing targeting of critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime – MPs, candidates, ethnic groups, NGOs and prominent activists – will likely escalate, as Russia seeks to discredit them and their positions.
The Kremlin’s no-holds-barred attitude to information warfare has demonstrated that any issue that offers an opportunity to undermine western society is seized upon and exploited to divide us. This includes the anti-vaxx campaign, which has been actively promoted and amplified by Kremlin trolls and has contributed to the emerging international health crisis.
Proxy groups that have been organized to promote and advance pro-Kremlin positions represent a serious threat to Canada’s democratic processes. At a recent European Union (EU) flag raising ceremony at the Ontario provincial legislature in Toronto, members of a Kremlin-supported diaspora organization “Russkie Mir” posed with an EU flag in an attempt to portray themselves as part of the official EU ceremony. On social media they claimed to have successfully influenced a provincial legislator into removing the Ukrainian Holodomor from a genocide recognition bill.
The same group organizes the Kremlin’s historical propaganda event, The Immortal Regiment, which annually glorifies the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. They have also been caught making the false claim in Russian state media that 8000 people attended the annual neo-Stalinist rally, giving the impression of widespread support that is then used in Kremlin propaganda. Yet members of Toronto’s local Russian-language media have said that realistically no more than 200-300 attended.
Unlike in many European countries, Canada lacks a significant far-right party that is aligned with the Kremlin or with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. However, marginal parties like the extreme left-wing Communist Party of Canada do share positions that often align with the Kremlin on foreign policy, including support for some of the most repressive regimes on earth, including in North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and the former Gaddafi regime in Libya, and for Putin’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian Crimea. Emerging far-right populist parties often share similar views and should be viewed with equal skepticism.
The Canadian government has introduced several measures aimed at countering the threat of foreign disinformation. Most important has been the establishment of a Critical Election Incident Public Protocol, which brings together relevant senior public servants to form a group that will decide which disinformation attacks pose a disruptive threat to the upcoming federal election. In addition, the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force has been formed by the heads of Canada’s security agencies and Global Affairs to monitor disinformation and “improve awareness.” How this will be achieved, however, has not yet been publicly disclosed.
The hope that social media platforms self-regulate and hold publishers of disinformation accountable is quickly fading. The heads of the three major platforms failed to attend a recent joint parliamentary international Grand Committee hearing on disinformation in May. And the Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, has expressed frustration with their resistance to cooperate with the government.
There is little doubt that these platforms will require some form of government regulation in efforts to hold them accountable for information that’s being published. This should include the requirement of all users of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google to clearly verify and prove their identity. It should also require these platforms to remove proven false information, especially those known as “Deep Fakes,” in which new technologies are used to create videos that portray individuals saying and doing things they never said or did. A recent, crudely produced video featuring US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which was slowed down to make her seem inebriated and confused, was not removed by Facebook or Twitter, despite giving a clearly manufactured false impression of her.
Bill C-59 will give Canadian intelligence agencies new cyber capabilities to counter cyber threats. Ottawa should ensure that foreign malign actors are made aware of these capabilities, and Canada’s willingness to use them in efforts to deter them.
In June 2018, the G7 had agreed to a Rapid Response Mechanism that would identify, prevent and respond to threats to G7 democracies. This is an effective tool that keeps G7 members informed of disinformation threats and should be expanded to include Canada’s NATO partners and other allies. Information warfare threats that target Canadians should also be made public on a regular basis, much like the EU vs. Disinfo website that exposes Kremlin disinformation efforts; the website is run by the European External Action Service East StratComm Task Force, which was set up by the EU in 2015. Such a tool would increase media and public awareness of such efforts and would contribute to greater long-term resilience against them.
Finally, the Canadian government must ensure that any efforts include the ongoing input and active participation of all major political parties. This includes informing them of all threats and promoting robust cyber security protocols for national campaigns as well as the teams who run local campaigns.
Canada’s upcoming election will be targeted by foreign malign actors who will use disinformation and other active measures to polarize our national debate in an effort to create deep and perhaps permanent tears in the fabric of our society and to subvert our democracy. The threat will target all political parties equally – and we must ensure that our political leaders, candidates, the media and most importantly, voters, are well prepared and aware in advance of the federal elections.
Marcus Kolga is a human rights advocate and an expert at Russian disinformation. He is a senior fellow at Macdonald-Laurier Institute.