The Walrus - - HACKING YOUR VOTE - justin ling is a Toronto-based jour­nal­ist who cov­ers pol­i­tics, se­cu­rity, and de­fence.

A mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary project ex­plor­ing hu­man im­pact on the Earth, by world-renowned pho­tog­ra­pher Edward Bur­tyn­sky, and award-win­ning film­mak­ers Jen­nifer Baich­wal, and Ni­cholas de Pencier

Com­ple­men­tary exhibitions now on view at the Art Gallery of On­tario un­til Jan­uary 6 and the Na­tional Gallery of Canada un­til Fe­bru­ary 24.

in the high Arctic. But once you un­der­stand how the Krem­lin has op­er­ated the world over to ad­vance its po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests, you re­al­ize that it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily need a friend in 24 Sus­sex Drive. Russian agents can plant fake sto­ries, leak dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion on can­di­dates, and play up ar­ti­fi­cial crises or ide­o­log­i­cal di­vides with­out an ex­pan­sive po­lit­i­cal ap­pa­ra­tus. We know that Moscow has used its em­bassy to push sto­ries to the Cana­dian me­dia with an aim to weaken our gov­ern­ment. We also know that Moscow has tried to dis­tort our so­cial-me­dia land­scape to ob­fus­cate its com­plic­ity in war crimes. With the next elec­tion less than a year away, the worry isn’t that Canada has barely be­gun to guard against the threat. The worry is that it may al­ready be too late.

In a white cube-like build­ing, be­hind high walls of the same colour, which sits just across the river from down­town Riga, Latvia, is a ma­jor front in the fight against Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion. The digs are plain and can make it hard to fig­ure out who, ex­actly, works here. There are a few mil­i­tary in­signias around, and while some­one oc­ca­sion­ally emerges from a door in army garb, most peo­ple walk­ing through the halls wear civil­ian clothes. This is the home of the NATO Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence, a group launched in 2014 to look into ev­ery­thing from on­line neo-nazi ex­trem­ism to the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants’ dig­i­tal net­work. Putin’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea that same year so­lid­i­fied Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion as one of Strat­com’s pri­or­i­ties, and to­day, its staff of re­searchers and an­a­lysts de­vote a great deal of re­sources to the on­line tac­tics, or­ga­ni­za­tions, and out­lets linked to Putin’s ef­forts to desta­bi­lize the for­mer Soviet re­publics. On the third floor, for in­stance, a dig­i­tal-foren­sics lab stud­ies the ef­fects of robotrolling — the use of so­cial­me­dia bots to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion and pro­pa­ganda, a tac­tic Rus­sia uses to feed an­tiNATO nar­ra­tives to lo­cal pop­u­la­tions. This spring and summer, Strat­com found that bots were re­spon­si­ble for 49 per­cent of all Russian-lan­guage Twit­ter ac­tiv­ity about NATO’S pres­ence in the Baltics and Poland. To put it an­other way: were a Russian speaker to search Twit­ter for news about NATO in that re­gion, half of all tweets they saw would have been cre­ated by au­to­mated ac­counts. These bots typ­i­cally op­er­ate in sync with, and are con­trolled by, agen­cies with ties to Russian in­tel­li­gence. The most no­to­ri­ous of these troll farms is the Saint Peters­burg– based In­ter­net Re­search Agency, a group in­dicted by the US Jus­tice Depart­ment for its role in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that brought Trump to power. Bots have be­come preva­lent on so­cial me­dia for a sim­ple rea­son: they are one of the most ef­fi­cient ways to spread lies. They are fast and, when paired with blogs and web­sites, can gen­er­ate the per­cep­tion that an idea, or a story, is ubiq­ui­tous — which can cre­ate pit­falls for NATO troops. In 2017, Lithua­ni­ans were sub­jected to a hor­ri­fy­ing tale: Ger­man sol­diers had sex­u­ally as­saulted a fif­teen-yearold girl who had been liv­ing in foster care in a small town near a NATO base. The fake story started life as an email sent to Lithua­nian politi­cians and me­dia work­ers be­fore spread­ing on­line. Russian op­er­a­tives had, it ap­pears, tried to adapt a pre­vi­ously suc­cess­ful dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign from 2016—to­day re­ferred to as the “Lisa case” — which dom­i­nated head­lines in Ger­many for weeks. It fea­tured a miss­ing thir­teen-year-old Russian Ger­man girl who Russian TV re­ported had been raped by mi­grants. The story was ul­ti­mately dis­proved but not be­fore spark­ing protests and a diplo­matic row be­tween Ger­many and Rus­sia. The newer NATO ru­mour never took hold, though it did play into the Krem­lin­pro­moted stereo­type of NATO sol­diers as sex­ual de­viants. Canada had its own turn with this stereo­type when a whis­per cam­paign be­gan on­line about how the coun­try’s de­ploy­ment in Latvia that same year was headed by for­mer colonel Rus­sell Wil­liams, the con­victed mur­derer and rapist cur­rently in a max­i­mum­se­cu­rity pri­son in Que­bec. Mil­i­tary of­fi­cials from Canada have thus far been able to get ahead of such dam­ag­ing fab­ri­ca­tions and to avoid giv­ing Krem­lin-friendly out­lets fod­der. Moscow is hun­gry to ex­ploit news of NATO sol­diers be­hav­ing badly, be­cause spread­ing those sto­ries has a clear out­come: weak­en­ing sup­port for the mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment. “A sin­gle in­ci­dent with a drunk sol­dier can de­stroy your strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions,” said Jā­nis Garisons, the state sec­re­tary for the Latvia Min­istry of De­fence. NATO’S Canadaled bat­tle group in Latvia has its own Face­book page that por­trays its troops as friendly al­lies, play­ing hockey in civil­ian clothes and ven­tur­ing out into the com­mu­nity. But the Cana­dian mil­i­tary’s suc­cess in coun­ter­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion hasn’t stopped Rus­sia from try­ing to skew and shift the de­bate around NATO pres­ence. Gen­eral Petr Pavel, chair of the NATO Mil­i­tary Com­mit­tee, told me last year that his team has al­ready seen an uptick in ac­tiv­ity from Russian agents since NATO ar­rived in Latvia. “They in­creased their in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion, they in­creased their mon­i­tor­ing of the elec­tronic en­vi­ron­ment, and we ob­served a num­ber of at­tempts to hack mo­bile phones and the net­works,” Pavel said. The fake story about Wil­liams is an ex­am­ple not just of the nar­ra­tives Moscow favours but of the dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture it uses to de­ploy those nar­ra­tives. In Riga, I sat down with Mār­tiņš Kaprāns, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Latvia who fo­cuses on Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion. He ex­plains that the lines of at­tack and in­nu­endo — which can range from very so­phis­ti­cated to clumsy and ham fisted — are based on a cen­tral ques­tion: “Do they have a po­ten­tial of vi­ral­ity?” If a par­tic­u­lar story, con­spir­acy the­ory, or idea catches on, then the oper­a­tion be­gins fir­ing on all fronts, from the dizzy­ing net­work of “weird, mar­ginal” blogs to Russian state-backed news sites and broad­cast­ers like Sput­nik and Rus­sia To­day, more com­monly known as RT. Even Russian for­eign min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov might weigh in. Sud­denly, a news story that be­gins deep in the Russian Fed­er­a­tion takes hold right here, in Canada. Take the White Hel­mets, a group of rag­tag Syr­ian medics who op­er­ate largely be­hind rebel lines to treat those in­jured in vi­o­lence, such as in­dis­crim­i­nate

bomb­ings by Pres­i­dent Bashar alAs­sad’s mil­i­tary, re­lated to the war in Syria. As in­ter­na­tional out­rage mounted over the Syr­ian air force’s use of chem­i­cal weapons on its own pop­u­la­tion, Rus­sia — which has un­abashedly propped up As­sad — used the White Hel­mets as a con­ve­nient scape­goat. The Russian gov­ern­ment, me­dia, and even the so­cial­me­dia ac­counts of its em­bassies have pushed the false no­tion that the White Hel­mets ei­ther staged the chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks or at­tempted a cover-up for the rebels ac­tu­ally re­spon­si­ble for them. Those claims aren’t backed by cred­i­ble ev­i­dence (a joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the UN and the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons found the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­ble for three chlo­rine-gas at­tacks be­tween 2014 and 2015). Yet they were re­peated by Steve Doocy, co­host of Fox & Friends on April 12 of this year. Here at home, in July, Con­ser­va­tive im­mi­gra­tion critic Michelle Rem­pel pushed back on Ot­tawa’s plan to of­fer refugee sta­tus to White Hel­mets look­ing to flee to Canada and ques­tioned whether the se­cu­rity screen­ing was ad­e­quate. A Cana­dian politi­cian with such an im­por­tant port­fo­lio should per­haps be more mind­ful about mak­ing com­ments that feed into dam­ag­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Yet a big rea­son con­cerns about the White Hel­mets feel nor­mal is be­cause doubts about their true in­ten­tions have be­come per­va­sive on­line. And for that, credit is due partly to a Cana­dian web­site. A Google search for White Hel­mets turns up plenty of web­sites ped­dling sketchy re­search. Among them is Con­sor­tium News, which writes about the medics’ com­plic­ity in rebel-staged chlo­rine-gas at­tacks against civil­ians. The posts on Con­sor­tium News look con­vinc­ing and come com­plete with links, sources, and ci­ta­tions. One of those links will take you to the Cen­tre for Re­search on Glob­al­iza­tion, which has pub­lished ar­ti­cles ty­ing White Hel­mets to ter­ror­ism. On its face, the Cen­tre for Re­search on Glob­al­iza­tion looks le­git­i­mate; it bills it­self as “an in­de­pen­dent re­search and me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Mon­treal.” Yet the web­site serves as a clear­ing house for pro­pa­ganda, bizarre al­ter­na­tive facts, and out­right fic­tion. Vis­i­tors are told 9/11 was an in­side job and that the US mil­i­tary ma­nip­u­lates the weather to cause earthquakes and hur­ri­canes. The Cen­tre for Re­search on Glob­al­iza­tion is run by Michel Chos­su­dovsky, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa and a fre­quent guest on Russian state-run me­dia. Chos­su­dovsky’s site has gar­nered enough pro­file, re­ported the Globe and Mail in 2017, to face scru­tiny from NATO’S Strat­com. The re­search cen­tre con­cluded that, by part­ner­ing with other web­sites, the con­spir­acy site could raise the Google rank­ings of its sto­ries and “cre­ate the il­lu­sion of mul­ti­source ver­i­fi­ca­tion.” Along with Con­sor­tium News, Chos­su­dovsky’s site links to the Strate­gic Cul­ture Foun­da­tion, a site — reg­is­tered in Moscow and de­signed to look like a think tank — rife with con­spir­acy the­o­ries. All three sites fre­quently cross-post one an­other’s ar­ti­cles or cite them ap­prov­ingly as au­then­tic jour­nal­ism. This troika is no­table for an­other rea­son: it as­sisted in one of the most brazen Cana­dian ex­am­ples of Russian med­dling to date.

To wit­ness mosco w’s dis­in­for­ma­tion ma­chine in ac­tion, you have to study the co­or­di­nated ef­fort to un­der­mine one of Moscow’s harsh­est crit­ics on the world stage, Chrys­tia Free­land. When she was sworn in as min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs on Jan­uary 10, 2017, af­ter a cabi­net shuf­fle, the change in po­lit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture was no­tice­able. Free­land re­placed Stéphane Dion just as he had been try­ing to sell the prime min­is­ter on a diplo­matic re­set with Moscow. But while Dion was ad­vanc­ing his case on Rus­sia, par­lia­men­tar­i­ans were in­tro­duc­ing the Mag­nit­sky Act. As drafted, the leg­is­la­tion would per­mit Canada to im­pose sanc­tions on any for­eign of­fi­cial em­broiled in cor­rup­tion and hu­man rights abuses. The act, how­ever, was specif­i­cally in­tended for the oli­garchs run­ning Putin’s gov­ern­ment. Bill Brow­der, an Amer­i­can-born fi­nancier, led the cru­sade to have the leg­is­la­tion adopted world­wide (the law is named for his for­mer lawyer who was beaten to death in 2009 while in cus­tody af­ter be­ing ar­rested for un­cov­er­ing ex­ten­sive fraud by Russian of­fi­cials). Brow­der lob­bied Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the lead up to the 2015 elec­tion but was sur­prised to learn that Dion, upon en­ter­ing cabi­net, had no plans to fol­low through on the Lib­er­als’ cam­paign com­mit­ment to adopt the act. Brow­der told me he be­lieves Dion was try­ing to “quash it by stealth” and went so far as to call the for­mer min­is­ter, who is now am­bas­sador to Ger­many, a “craven ap­peaser of Rus­sia.” Ac­cord­ing to a book by aformer pol­icy ad­viser to Dion, it was in part his per­sis­tence in push­ing the gov­ern­ment to­ward re-en­gag­ing with Moscow that “ir­ri­tated” Trudeau and has­tened Dion’s exit. (Dion could not be reached for com­ment.) Dion’s re­place­ment — Free­land — is well known to the Rus­sians. In fact, Free­land has been sanc­tioned by the Putin regime and barred from even en­ter­ing Rus­sia. It isn’t just that Free­land has Ukrainian her­itage—she is also a for­mer jour­nal­ist and even worked with Brow­der to ex­pose cor­rup­tion in Russian com­pa­nies. With Free­land in the for­eign-min­is­ter job, pas­sage of the Mag­nit­sky Act took on new ur­gency. “Putin was ex­plicit about how much he hated the Mag­nit­sky Act,” Brow­der said. “Re­peal­ing the Mag­nit­sky Act was his sin­gle most im­por­tant for­eign­pol­icy pri­or­ity.” The day af­ter Free­land was sworn in, Kir­ill Kalinin, the press sec­re­tary for the Russian Fed­er­a­tion’s em­bassy in Ot­tawa, used the of­fi­cial em­bassy Twit­ter ac­count to send me a mes­sage. Kalinin and I had al­ways been friendly; he of­ten con­tacted jour­nal­ists in Ot­tawa with tips and sug­ges­tions for sto­ries. “Look at this link,” the mes­sage be­gan. It was a col­lec­tion of re­search about a Sec­ond World War–era Ukrainian news­pa­per called Krakivski Visti. The point of the re­search was plain: Free­land’s grand­fa­ther Michael Cho­miak had been the ed­i­tor-in-chief of Krakivski Visti. Estab­lished in 1940 un­der Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, the news­pa­per rep­re­sented Ukraine’s best chance at its own in­de­pen­dent press within the con­fines of an op­pres­sive wartime re­al­ity. How­ever, the pa­per was grad­u­ally com­pelled by

its Nazi cen­sors to pub­lish in­creas­ingly anti-semitic ed­i­to­ri­als. I was far from sold that a story about Cho­miak’s ties to the Ger­mans had any pub­lic in­ter­est. Free­land hadn’t tried to hide her fam­ily’s past — she had helped edit an aca­demic pa­per on it — and re­lit­i­gat­ing Sec­ond World War sins for po­lit­i­cal ends felt, at best, un­pro­duc­tive. Even if we were to pub­li­cize Cho­miak’s shame­ful com­plic­ity with the Nazi oc­cu­piers, it mir­rored noth­ing in Free­land’s own life and ca­reer. Af­ter I passed on the story, de­tails from it be­gan pop­ping up across the in­ter­net. No­tably, on the Cen­tre for Re­search on Glob­al­iza­tion, Con­sor­tium News, and the Strate­gic Cul­ture Foun­da­tion, as well as on an ar­ray of blogs, other web­sites, and so­cial-me­dia ac­counts. Some of those voices were will­ing tools of the Russian state, but oth­ers were merely down­stream re­cip­i­ents of its nar­ra­tives. The ac­count about Free­land’s grand­fa­ther not only ex­posed the spi­der­web of plat­forms that play host to Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion but also raised a vex­ing ques­tion about whether a coun­try like Canada can si­lence its own cit­i­zens when they pro­mote the weaponized sto­ries pushed by a for­eign power. As it hap­pened, I wasn’t the only jour­nal­ist that Kalinin had been speak­ing to. Two months af­ter Kalinin pitched me, Globe and Mail Ot­tawa bureau chief Robert Fife asked Free­land at a press con­fer­ence whether Rus­sia was try­ing to smear and dis­credit her by spread­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion about her grand­fa­ther. Sud­denly, Michael Cho­miak had gone main­stream. On March 7, 2017, two days af­ter the Globe pub­lished its piece on the Cho­miak af­fair, Te­lesur — the Latin Amer­i­can broad­caster con­sid­ered by crit­ics a pro­pa­ganda mouth­piece for the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment, which re­mains an ally of Rus­sia — re­ported that the orig­i­nal in­for­ma­tion about Cho­miak’s Nazis ties came from am­a­teur re­searchers with the Com­mu­nist Party of Canada who had dredged it up from pro­vin­cial ar­chives in Al­berta. In fact, the in­for­ma­tion had al­ready been pub­lished, in the late nineties, by Free­land’s un­cle in two sep­a­rate aca­demic ar­ti­cles. But what­ever the ori­gin of the ma­te­rial, and how­ever it wound up in Kalinin’s pos­ses­sion, the in­tent was ob­vi­ous. The Russian em­bassy wanted to hob­ble Free­land, mere days af­ter her ap­point­ment. Of course, the smear cam­paign didn’t work. On Oc­to­ber 4, 2017, the Mag­nit­sky Act passed unan­i­mously through the House of Commons. Push­ing the Cho­miak story from the Russian em­bassy would even­tu­ally have con­se­quences. In March 2018, London col­lected in­tel­li­gence that iden­ti­fied Moscow as al­most cer­tainly re­spon­si­ble, or com­plicit, in the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of a for­mer Russian spy in Sal­is­bury us­ing a highly toxic nerve agent, which later killed one Bri­tish cit­i­zen. Eu­ro­pean Union and NATO coun­tries, in­clud­ing the US, car­ried out the mass ex­pul­sion of over 100 Russian diplo­mats in sol­i­dar­ity with the UK. Free­land an­nounced that Canada would be ex­pelling four em­bassy of­fi­cials in Ot­tawa and Mon­treal “who have been iden­ti­fied as in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers or in­di­vid­u­als who have used their diplo­matic sta­tus to un­der­mine Canada’s se­cu­rity or in­ter­fere in our democ­racy.” Among them was Kalinin. Both the pub­lic and the me­dia judge Russian tac­tics ac­cord­ing to a suc­ces­sor-fail met­ric. The ef­fort to in­stall Trump into the White House was deemed in­ten­tional be­cause it was suc­cess­ful. The at­tempt to kneecap Free­land out of the gate was deemed ei­ther nonex­is­tent or mar­ginal be­cause it failed. But in­for­ma­tion war­fare doesn’t make progress sim­ply by notch­ing wins. It’s a re­lent­less, man­i­fold psy­cho­log­i­cal cam­paign de­signed to make al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties ap­pear le­git­i­mate. As such, Putin is play­ing a long game, one of desta­bi­liza­tion rather than dom­i­na­tion. Us­ing Free­land’s fam­ily his­tory against her not only forced Canada to con­front its sor­did de­tails—the Cho­miak story ap­peared in a num­ber of le­git­i­mate news out­lets, in­clud­ing the Washington Post — but al­lowed pro-putin blog­gers and so­cial-me­dia groups to bol­ster their claims that the min­is­ter sup­ported far­right Ukrainian groups, ac­cu­sa­tions that have re­mained in­cred­i­bly re­silient on­line, de­spite hav­ing lit­tle ba­sis. (One ar­ti­cle pub­lished by the Strate­gic Cul­ture Foun­da­tion this past Septem­ber calls Cho­miak “the most no­to­ri­ous of the Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors who im­mi­grated to Canada” and Free­land “a well-known Rus­so­phobe.” It was penned by Univer­sity of Mon­treal pro­fes­sor Michael Jabara Car­ley, who has also ap­peared in in­ter­views on Sput­nik News and RT.) The on­go­ing af­ter­life of the Free­land at­tack, in other words, show­cases a skill at which Moscow has proved it­self in­creas­ingly adept: stok­ing con­tro­versy. Moscow has learned it can of­ten find more suc­cess mix­ing its lies in with am­ple amounts of truth, se­lec­tively told, to trick the al­ready sus­cep­ti­ble. When the In­ter­net Re­search Agency launched its ef­forts to sway the con­ver­sa­tion in the 2016 US elec­tion, it mi­cro­tar­geted Face­book ads, us­ing them to ap­peal to so­cial-me­dia users’ pa­tri­o­tism, pride, frus­tra­tion, race, na­tion­al­ity, and sex­u­al­ity. In their ef­forts to play up di­vi­sions in the coun­try, and feed mis­in­for­ma­tion to a cap­tive au­di­ence, agents showed a sur­pris­ingly nu­anced grasp of US pol­i­tics. But their cul­tural com­pe­ten­cies do not end at the Amer­i­can bor­der. Some of the ads they de­ployed dur­ing the US elec­tion also con­tain Cana­dian con­tent that re­veals a cer­tain fa­mil­iar­ity with our po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Ac­cord­ing to ex­am­ples ob­tained by the Cana­dian Press, Russian trolls stoked the di­vi­sive de­bate around the Key­stone XL pipe­line and retweeted mes­sages tar­get­ing Trudeau’s poli­cies on refugees and his sup­port for Cana­dian Mus­lims. There was no spe­cific pol­icy out­come in mind —Rus­sia doesn’t seem to care if pipe­lines get built or if refugees ar­rive — but the in­tent was to in­flame ten­sions.

If cy­bertrolls am­pli­fied mes­sages ad­vo­cat­ing for Que­bec to se­cede, could it lead to real-world blow­back?

Fen­wick Mckelvey, a pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity (and also a mem­ber of this mag­a­zine’s ed­u­ca­tional re­view com­mit­tee), has spent the last sev­eral years re­search­ing how so­cial­me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion can al­ter de­bates on­line. He also cowrote one of the first pa­pers track­ing the in­flu­ence of bots on Cana­dian pol­i­tics. Mckelvey be­lieves there are plenty of do­mes­tic pres­sure points Russian bots could ex­ploit. “You’ve got lan­guage, In­dige­nous is­sues,” he says. It’s not a stretch to think such emo­tion­ally charged de­bates could be weaponized, Mckelvey adds, be­cause it’s ex­actly what Russian agents did in the 2016 US cam­paign. “The In­ter­net Re­search Agency was look­ing for wedge is­sues. They were look­ing for ways of po­lar­iz­ing.” Rus­sia would have a lot to work with. Start with Que­bec MP Maxime Bernier and the new po­lit­i­cal ven­ture he is lead­ing, the Peo­ple’s Party of Canada. Polls show his up­start fed­eral party, founded largely on the back of his harsh talk on im­mi­gra­tion, is hov­er­ing around 15 per­cent sup­port. If agents be­gan push­ing bor­der­cross­ing fears, they could boost Bernier’s pop­u­lar­ity and up­end the na­tional di­a­logue. If cy­bertrolls am­pli­fied mes­sages ad­vo­cat­ing for Que­bec to se­cede from the coun­try — or, for that mat­ter, Toronto from On­tario — could it lead to real-world sup­port or real-world blow­back? On In­dige­nous is­sues, agents could do what they did in the US with Black Lives Mat­ter — pump money into me­dia ap­peal­ing to le­git­i­mate frus­tra­tions of In­dige­nous peo­ples, then turn around and frighten white Cana­di­ans with racist fears over “an­gry Na­tives.” If a net­work of left-wing blogs that serves as a plat­form for Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda starts ped­dling a con­spir­acy the­ory that Con­ser­va­tive leader An­drew Scheer fudged his taxes — as they tried to do to now French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron — how many peo­ple would take the bait? Mckelvey says Canada is vul­ner­a­ble to this kind of ex­ploita­tion, if it isn’t hap­pen­ing al­ready. “This is part of Rus­sia’s ef­fec­tive­ness. They’re not de­vel­op­ing a coun­ternar­ra­tive. They’re un­der­min­ing the ex­ist­ing nar­ra­tive,” he says. “It’s about spread­ing con­fu­sion.”

When i sat down with Ka­rina Gould, Canada’s min­is­ter of demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, ear­lier this year, she was very blunt: the gov­ern­ment’s pri­or­ity is to de­fend its com­puter sys­tems from out­side threats. Gould also added that the gov­ern­ment needs to en­sure the in­ter­net it­self doesn’t get lever­aged by for­eign ac­tors to in­flu­ence do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. France, Swe­den, Ger­many, and the UK are just a few of the Eu­ro­pean coun­tries that claim Rus­sia has med­dled in their demo­cratic pro­cesses. (US Democrats on the Se­nate for­eign-re­la­tions com­mit­tee say at least nine­teen coun­tries world­wide have ex­pe­ri­enced such in­ter­fer­ence). The at­tempt to take down Macron dur­ing France’s 2017 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is a prime ex­am­ple. An­tic­i­pat­ing an at­tack from Rus­sia, cam­paign staff pre­pared a hon­ey­trap — in this case, a trove of in­nocu­ous emails laced with fake data. When Russian-linked hack­ers broke into Macron’s email — as ex­pected — they stole the bait doc­u­ments and pub­lished them along with fab­ri­ca­tions of their own. The me­dia re­frained from re­leas­ing the ma­te­rial, and the ef­fort largely back­fired. The re­ported med­dling has spurred Ot­tawa to set aside mil­lions of dol­lars to beef up gov­ern­ment sys­tems and hire se­cu­rity teams to de­tect and thwart at­tacks. As a part of this strat­egy, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Se­cu­rity Es­tab­lish­ment, for the first time in the spy agency’s his­tory, is set to of­fer its as­sis­tance to po­lit­i­cal par­ties to help se­cure their emails and so­cial-me­dia ac­counts and to safeguard their web­sites. CSE will also be work­ing with Elec­tions Canada to strengthen the agency’s de­fences, al­though Canada’s pa­per-and-pen­cil vot­ing sys­tem make any se­ri­ous cy­ber­in­ter­fer­ence dif­fi­cult. Ac­cord­ing to the CSE’S 2017 threatassess­ment re­port, the like­li­hood of any for­eign state tak­ing aim at the Cana­dian elec­tion will de­pend on the geopo­lit­i­cal land­scape and, in a telling line, “on the spec­trum of poli­cies es­poused by Cana­dian fed­eral can­di­dates in 2019.” In other words: if the Russian gov­ern­ment sees some­thing it likes, it may am­plify that mes­sage. If it sees some­thing it doesn’t like, it may sab­o­tage the as­so­ci­ated can­di­date. But there are lim­its to what even the CSE can do. It can of­fer its as­sis­tance to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, but the par­ties are un­der no obli­ga­tion to ac­cept the help. “Are any po­lit­i­cal par­ties get­ting their act to­gether?” Mckelvey asks, re­fer­ring to their cy­ber­se­cu­rity pre­pared­ness. There’s lit­tle ev­i­dence to sug­gest they are, he says, which could make them low-hang­ing fruit for for­eign agents. “I had hoped there would be some dis­clo­sure that Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal par­ties are tak­ing this se­ri­ously.” Elec­tions Canada seems, at least to ade­gree, alert to the prob­lem. The agency is re­port­edly plan­ning to buy what it calls a so­cial-me­dia “lis­ten­ing” tool to mon­i­tor threats that could have an im­pact on the 2019 fed­eral elec­tion. As part of her ef­fort to counter for­eign in­flu­ence, Gould in­tro­duced Bill C-76, also known as the Elec­tions Mod­ern­iza­tion Act, which bans for­eign en­ti­ties from spend­ing money or pub­lish­ing false claims to sway vot­ers and strength­ens ex­ist­ing bans on the use of for­eign money in elec­tion cam­paigns and ad­ver­tis­ing. The bill will, she hopes, dis­cour­age Rus­sia, or which­ever power, from post­ing po­lar­iz­ing ads akin to those de­ployed dur­ing the 2016 US elec­tion. The bill also cod­i­fies elec­tion-re­lated hack­ing as a spe­cific crime. The Elec­tions Mod­ern­iza­tion Act has been gen­er­ally lauded. But, as drafted, it lacks a key mech­a­nism to pre­vent the trans­fer of for­eign money from one third-party group to an­other in or­der to ob­scure the fund’s ori­gins — a weak­ness high­lighted by the chief elec­toral of­fi­cer, Stéphane Per­rault, who over­sees Canada’s elec­tions. In ef­fect, it would be pos­si­ble for Rus­sia, or any other for­eign gov­ern­ment, to fun­nel money through po­lit­i­cal groups who con­duct ad­ver­tis­ing, and it would be nearly im­pos­si­ble to tell. The leg­is­la­tion is still be­ing re­viewed by Par­lia­ment, though Per­rault un­der­lined in April that “time is quickly run­ning out” to ad­dress the is­sue be­fore the next elec­tion. It’s true that Canada’s elec­tion­fi­nance laws, with their strict spend­ing caps and

low do­na­tion limit, will make it hard for any one en­tity to tilt the scales. But these is­sues are dwarfed by Rus­sia’s abil­ity to bend the zeit­geist to its needs. By ex­ploit­ing the al­go­rithms that run ser­vices like Face­book and Google, Rus­sia can ex­tend its in­flu­ence far be­hind just black­mail­ing one politi­cian or in­fil­trat­ing one gov­ern­ment of­fice. It can fun­da­men­tally al­ter acoun­try’s po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue. So the ques­tion of whether Rus­sia can suc­cess­fully rig an elec­tion is, re­ally, be­side the point. The real worry is how an un­friendly for­eign gov­ern­ment can dis­tort or skew our so­ci­ety. The in­ter­net acts like a house of mir­rors, in which the Krem­lin can shift and move the re­flec­tions to dis­tort and ex­pand its ideas, themes, and nar­ra­tives. It can drop a false­hood— say, that Canada is fund­ing neo-nazis in Ukraine—onto one site. Then an­other web­site picks it up. And an­other. Soon, a net­work of Twit­ter and Face­book ac­counts and pages share the lie. It stretches out, tak­ing on a life of its own. Even the most in­de­pen­dent-minded re­searcher can be for­given for be­ing de­ceived. Af­ter all, we’ve placed an enor­mous amount of trust on the news feeds that have be­come lenses for how we view the world. We trust that those streams of in­for­ma­tion are ac­cu­rate or rep­re­sen­ta­tive to some de­gree — and, even if we don’t, there’s lit­tle we can do, given that the source code that gen­er­ates these feeds is pro­tected by the com­pany. At any mo­ment, you might no­tice a change; per­haps you’ve be­gun to see more sto­ries about a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal can­di­date or a cer­tain scan­dal af­fect­ing the for­eign min­is­ter. Is that uptick in chat­ter in­dica­tive of a re­al­world trend, a real so­ci­etal need to pay at­ten­tion to the is­sue, or is it a dis­tor­tion cre­ated by ac­ci­dent or with mal­ice? How can you know for sure? The sub­terfuge will only get more sin­is­ter. When Ivis­ited Strat­com, re­searchers were study­ing the ad­vent of dig­i­tally ma­nip­u­lated au­dio and video — tech­nol­ogy that could make pub­lic fig­ures say things they’ve never said in real life. Imag­ine a video emerges of Justin Trudeau per­form­ing a Nazi salute. It’s fake, of course, but how many peo­ple could be con­vinced oth­er­wise? So how do we prop­erly de­fend our­selves? Try to de­bunk a pop­u­lar lie and risk vin­di­cat­ing be­liev­ers. Try to ban a web­site and run afoul of free speech. The point is, there isn’t a sim­ple so­lu­tion. When I travelled through Latvia and Ukraine, two coun­tries with a long his­tory of Russian med­dling, ear­lier this year, no­body claimed to have this fig­ured out. No­body held up an ex­am­ple of a pop­u­la­tion im­mune to Russian med­dling. Kiev has tried ban­ning sites in­clud­ing RT and Sput­nik but has seen lit­tle re­turn for the ef­fort. Of­fi­cials there have tried to pro­vide me­dia-lit­er­acy ed­u­ca­tion for cit­i­zens and to shore up cy­ber­se­cu­rity. There have been at­tempts by var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions in Ukraine to fight fake news with real news, rem­i­nis­cent of Ra­dio Free Europe’s work dur­ing the Cold War, and on­go­ing ef­forts to fact-check Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion. But the dis­in­for­ma­tion per­sists. Canada has been lucky. But that luck may well run out. Crit­i­cal think­ing, dig­i­tal vig­i­lance, healthy skep­ti­cism — they can take us so far. Hope­fully, it will be far enough.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.