People gather around trucks near the Ontario legislature in Toronto to protest COVID-19 mandates on February 5, 2022.
Russian-sponsored disinformation is trying to exploit one of Canada’s most divisive issues to shape opinions here about its invasion of Ukraine, says a top Global Affairs Canada expert on the topic.
Using troll farms that post on Facebook and other social media sites, the campaigns often target the minority of Canadians opposed to COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine mandates, and others deeply distrustful of government, said Philippe-André Rodriguez, deputy director of the department’s Centre for International Digital Policy.
The goal is to seed doubt about the official Canadian narrative around Moscow’s war against Ukraine, he said during a recent webinar organized by an Oxford University alumni group.
“Russia seems to go back to groups that are predisposed to agree with some of its positions, or at least with the idea that Canada should disengage from whatever is happening in Ukraine,” said Rodriguez.
“That could be communities that already have a high level of distrust for the Canadian government (such as) having links with anti-vax communities,” he said. “(Russian operatives) are targeting these kinds of communities and making these links, saying the government is lying about COVID-19 and that they’re lying at the same time when it comes to Ukraine…. We’ve seen that quite a bit.”
Rodriguez also said Russian disinformation is being amplified by social media sites’ algorithms, which may require some kind of government intervention to counter.
The threat … is persistent, it is growing
One outside expert said the official’s comments were a rare example of the government publicly accusing the Kremlin of such tactics, though Moscow’s disinformation efforts have been well-documented for years.
“The government has been very, very reluctant to attribute these messages to any state actor,” said Marcus Kolga, head of the group DisinfoWatch. “I guess it took a war to find the courage to speak out publicly and identify the Russian government.”
“The threat … is not going away any time soon It is persistent, it is growing, so we really need to be taking it a little more seriously.”
In his hour-long presentation, Rodriguez made a distinction between misleading statements issued by Russian politicians and pro-Kremlin media, and disinformation. He defined the latter as covert attempts to undermine faith in liberal democracy and institutions and to artificially intensify divisions in society.
Much of the effort since the war started has been aimed at the global south, raising questions about why the West is helping Ukraine and not some other countries and playing up themes of Western imperialism, he said.
For Western audiences like Canada, disinformation agents in Russia infiltrate online forums on sites like Facebook and Reddit, often using troll farms, he said. One such operation — the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg — reportedly employs hundreds of workers who operate thousands of social-media accounts.
“It’s not that difficult,” said Rodriguez. “The barrier of entry and the price to do it is extremely low.”
Kolga said the agency operates to this day, pumping out narratives dictated by the Russian government. But he said that sort of information warfare works hand in glove with the more overt, blatant propaganda disseminated by Russia on the war. And that messaging is being repeated by Canadian groups that had until recently focused on opposing COVID lockdowns and vaccine mandates, he said.
They include The Line Canada, which organizes regular anti-lockdown protests in the Toronto area, including one that saw trucks snarl the city’s mid-town in February. Along with notices about demonstrations, calls for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resign and attacks on COVID vaccines, The Line’s Facebook page has recently echoed Russian disinformation on the war, repeating false claims that Ukraine has a “hijacked Nazi government,” is involved in biological warfare and “burned Russians alive.”
The page urges visitors to watch videos of speeches by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, saying “this is not the narrative you will hear from the fake news.”
Rodriguez said the problem of disinformation in social media is being exacerbated by algorithms designed to feed users with material that will keep them on the sites longer, resulting in an echo chamber effect of similar content.
“The business model itself plays to the objectives of the Russias of the world.”
The answer is not to censor that content, but one day possibly intervene to counter the algorithms, he said.
Kolga said that kind of regulation should be viewed as a last-ditch option. In the meantime, the government ought to follow the lead of countries like Taiwan, where non-governmental groups and the government work with social media companies to lessen the impact of a barrage of disinformation from China.
When a disinformation “attack” occurs, Facebook often throttles those Chinese posts so they don’t appear on the top of timelines, said the DisinfoWatch director.
But Kolga said Ottawa’s information-warfare defence is fractured in comparison, split between government “silos” — with separate initiatives at Global Affairs, Heritage Canada and the Privy Council Office — that tend to ignore civil-society groups like his.