The European Union’s head of combating foreign interference in communications says explosive allegations about Beijing’s meddling in elections can be an opportunity to improve Canadians’ understanding of disinformation and media literacy.
“The most important is awareness raising; this is the absolute top priority,” said Lutz Guellner, the EU foreign ministry’s head of strategic communications, in an interview last week.
“This discussion in the public is absolutely crucial.”
Guellner was speaking during a visit to Ottawa last month as part of the G7 rapid response mechanism, a working group launched at a 2018 summit in Quebec, to counter threats to democracy.
The initiative specifically relates to foreign information manipulation, which means intentional disinformation originating from a foreign country, as part of a state’s broader strategy to interfere in domestic issues.
“Our Canadian colleagues have taken this already for years very seriously. They’ve built a very good infrastructure to keep the G7 in this field together, as it’s become more and more important.”
The effort took on more urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
“It is not so much that we see quantitatively much more (propaganda), but that we see new tactics, new techniques, new procedures being deployed,” he said.
In particular, Guellner said adversaries are cloning websites, through doctored screenshots or by creating website addresses that resemble the sites they are imitating, but with a slightly different address and fake information.
“That is a very good way to reach an audience that is unknowingly exposed to this content.”
In addition, countries have been using their embassies abroad to put out messaging that host countries have tried to suppress.
Last week, the investigative news site Bellingcat revealed that a video purporting to show Ukrainian soldiers harassing a Russian-speaking woman had been filmed within Russian-controlled territory.
The video was posted on social media by Russia’s embassy in the U.K., which Guellner says is part of a trend or Russian embassies posting content that wouldn’t get through traditional channels, such as videos from the channel RT that countries have banned for spreading falsehoods.
He said the social media of Chinese embassies have sometimes echoed the storylines Moscow is trying to advance, but on a selective basis.
The goal, in the case of Russia, is to disavow people of the notion of objective truth, to sow chaos and mistrust in institutions such as media outlets.
“Disinformation is not just about transporting fake news … there can be also these effects to mislead, in the end to distract and to undermine trust,” he said.
“It’s not only the point of view of the Kremlin, it’s also about undermining trust in the in the entire system, in media, in what are the sources that you can trust.”
Europeans have met the challenge through three main techniques.
The first is resilience-building, such as funding media, fact-checking organizations and education initiatives, particularly on how to spot common tactics in how these narratives get amplified.
In Brussels, the EUvsDisinfo campaign publishes daily content that fact-checks Russian messaging, and gives a platform for non-governmental groups to share ways to test claims that show up in disinformation campaigns.
That involves more frequent messaging than Global Affairs Canada occasionally fact-checking information put out by Kremlin-affiliated media, which Russia’s embassy in Ottawa often responds to with its own allegations of fake news.
The EU’s second main plank, regulation, involves giving tech giants a duty to mitigate the risk of disinformation and detect campaigns coming from abroad, without having governments decade what is and isn’t fact.
“Our struggle is to find the balance, between our very, very important value of keeping free speech — of not touching it, of not compromising it in whatever form or shape — but not falling into the trap that our openness and the protection of freedom of speech does not become the problem,” Guellner said.
The third is diplomatic engagement, by working with like-minded countries to compare the phenomenon and what tools are working. Guellner said his visit to Ottawa touched on everything from artificial intelligence to the security implications of information manipulation in regions like Africa.
“We have not yet brought all these different strands together,” Guellner said of the three approaches.
“There is not one measure that will address it. You need to think big and broad; it’s not very sexy.”
Guellner said Ottawa is doing a lot to research trends and co-operate with partner countries, but he said more could be done to inform the public.
“I wouldn’t say Canada’s behind; definitely not,” he said.
“We feel very close with Canada’s position because we have always wanted to find a good balance, between protecting freedom of speech and at the same time, to do something that really has an impact.”
Guellner said the most important thing for Canada is to have an informed population who understands disinformation techniques and methods, the actors behind it, and the nuance that disinformation is often more about context than flat-out inaccuracies.
Media literacy groups like MediaSmarts have tried to raise this issue, such as through testimony to MPs studying foreign interference. However, those committee appearances have been largely overshadowed by immediate concerns over what activities foreign diplomats have been up to in Canada.
Guellner said public awareness is particularly important amid weekly allegations of Beijing meddling in Canadian elections, and Ottawa accusing Russia and Iran of attempting to do so.
“Every public debate is, in a way, sharpening or at least increasing awareness,” he said.
“It is an issue of security for our societies, for our democracies.”