Are foreign “adversaries” trying to use social media to interfere in Canadian elections?
The Communications Security Establishment says it’s “very likely” they are. But in a report released this week, the electronic spy agency fails to adequately answer key questions, including:
l Who these adversaries are.
l Why they would bother targeting Canadian elections.
l What, if any, difference such targeting might make.
Since Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, the idea of foreign meddling has been used to explain all kinds of unpalatable election results.
The Russians were blamed for Trump’s win. They’ve also been blamed for Britain’s 2016 referendum decision to quit the European Union and the 2018 Italian election that put right-wing populists in power.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that Canada would want to get in on the game. If Australia is important enough for foreign “state actors” to target (as they reportedly did this year), then surely Canada must be as well.
The problem is that the CSE presents little evidence. It says 50 per cent of the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that held national elections last year faced cybersecurity threats.
But it doesn’t say where this information comes from. Nor does it say how many countries in the 34-member OECD held elections last year. Two? Twenty?
For Canada, the evidence presented is anecdotal and unrelated to elections. The CSE cites a 2017 newspaper report that quotes a Latvian colonel who says a Russian-controlled website made much of the fact that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan wears a turban.
The motive, it seems, was to appeal to “latent xenophobia in Eastern Europe.”
The CSE also cites a 2018 magazine report detailing how “pro-Russian websites” had spread false news about the behaviour of Canadian troops in Ukraine.
And it cites an unattributed report that a Russian agency disseminated the falsehood that Canadian Football League players had refused to stand for Canada’s national anthem.
All of this is fascinating and quite possibly true. It is in Russia’s interest to get NATO troops out of Ukraine and the Baltic states. An appeal to latent xenophobia here might help.
But why is it in the interest of Russia — or indeed, any foreign state — to try and upend a Canadian election? The CSE report cites the fact that Canada is a member of both the G7 and NATO. But this is a description, rather than an explanation.
According to the report, foreign meddling lets unnamed adversaries try to “sway the ideas and decisions of voters by concentrating on polarizing social and political issues, promoting the popularity of one party over another, or trying to shape the public statements and policy choices of a candidate.”
Which pretty much describes the motives and actions of Canada’s existing political parties.
Who needs the Russians to interfere when we already have Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer labelling Justin Trudeau as “corrupt,” while the Liberal prime minister dismisses his rival as someone who plays footsie with anti-immigrant extremists?
The short-term effect of foreign meddling, the report says, is to distract voters “from important election issues.” But in Canada, such distractions are already tried and true political tactics. Buck-a-beer anyone?
The long-term effect of meddling, the CSE says, is to “weaken confidence” in the country’s political leadership. Maybe. But if that’s the result the Russians want, they need not stir themselves.
As they batter each others’ reputations to smithereens, Canada’s leaders are already accomplishing that aim.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.