Domestic tricksters are the biggest threat to our elections

The federal government says it wants to protect Canadian elections from foreign interference. Fine.

But events in the U.S. suggest that foreign villains, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, are not the real threat. That honour, it seems, still belongs to domestic tricksters.

The idea of Russian meddling consumes western politics. It is used to explain Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It is blamed for the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and for Britain’s 2016 decision to exit the European Union.

When Canada expelled four Russian diplomats in April, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the decision resulted in part from Russia’s attempts “to interfere in our democracy.”

Moscow’s sin then was to publicize the uncontested fact – also reported in the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail – that Freeland’s maternal grandfather had been a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called this an attempt by “Russian propagandists” to smear Freeland.

All of which is to point out that the term foreign meddling can cover quite a bit of ground – from reporting on things that are true to inventing fake news.

It’s worth remembering that the main U.S. allegation levelled against Russia is that it obtained and disseminated through WikiLeaks emails from the 2016 Democratic National Committee.

These emails detailed, among other things, the DNC’s attempts to sabotage challenger Bernie Sanders’ bid for the party’s nomination.

That raises the question: Whose meddling was worse? The DNC’s for trying to stack the deck in favour of establishment candidate Hillary Clinton? Or Russia’s for allegedly publicizing the fact?

There is a fake-news element to the meddling charges. Russia is also accused of trying to whip up divisive sentiments in the U.S. through false reports on social media.

While this may be true, I’m not sure why the Kremlin would bother. Social media trolls are already doing this job for free.

Last month, the Toronto Star ran an intriguing piece from the Washington Post about American fake-news entrepreneur Christopher Blair. He makes a living from inventing outrageous stories about political figures and then posting them online.

Blair told the Post that he does so to point out how gullible Donald Trump supporters are. But he also earns up to $15,000 a month in ad revenue from his endeavours.

Mainstream political parties are not far behind. In December, the New York Times reported on an “experiment” conducted by Democratic Party operatives during the 2017 Alabama Senate race. The operatives created fake Russian-sounding Twitter accounts and then had them voice support for Republican candidate Roy Moore – in the hope that Alabamans would think him a Moscow stooge.

In January, the Times reported on another Democratic fake-news attempt to influence the Alabama election. In this one, operatives created a fake Facebook page to suggest that Baptist teetotallers in favour of a statewide alcohol ban were backing Moore. The idea here was to discredit Moore among moderate Republicans.

In the end, Moore, who was also accused of sexual assault, lost narrowly.

None of this means that Putin isn’t trying to influence Canadian elections. Perhaps he is.

But political scientist Micah Zenko, writing in the magazine Foreign Policy, points out there is nothing new about foreign interference in elections.

He cites one study that calculates that the U.S. meddled in 81 of 938 elections between 1946 and 2000, while Moscow meddled 36 times.

Second, he says, the most important sources of disinformation in American elections have always been domestic.

So it is in Canada.

The real problem at election time is not that foreign actors attempt to spread disinformation. It is that domestic ones do.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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