OTTAWA—Welcome to the age of “total information warfare.”
A startling new report released by Canada’s spy agency suggests Western democracies are facing a wide range of threats from disinformation and propaganda campaigns.
The culprits range from a 20-something in Kosovo pushing out “fake news” to make a quick buck, to hyper-partisans trying to influence domestic politics, to sophisticated influence campaigns from hostile nations trying to exploit existing divisions in Western society.
But the report points to a common thread: the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to publish disinformation at a time when traditional journalism’s authority is under threat.
“Increases in data transmission capacity coupled with a shift toward programmatic advertising have resulted in a precipitous decrease in the ability of traditional journalism to mediate the quality of public information,” the report, compiled by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, stated.
“Conventional journalism has been partially displaced by a torrent of data from an infinite number of originators. Within that torrent is a current of lies and distortions that threatens the integrity of public discourse, debate and democracy.”
A spokesperson for CSIS said that the report was the result of a day-long workshop the agency held with outside academics, and doesn’t necessarily represent the agency’s official views.
But the report shares some of the conclusions made by CSIS’s sister agency, the Communications Security Establishment, in a public report last year. CSE determined that it was “very likely” that groups will attempt to influence the 2019 election.
What’s not clear is who those groups will be.
The CSIS-released report warned against focusing too closely on campaigns by hostile nations, like the Kremlin-backed influence operations in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, or the deployment of fake social media “bots” accounts to influence the Brexit vote.
“The problem of disinformation cannot simply be attributed to … deliberate actions of government-funded trolls,” the report reads.
University of Ottawa researcher Elizabeth Dubois said while social media companies like Facebook have been forced to grapple with the issue of election interference by players like Russia, comparatively little attention has been paid to independent actors domestically who may want to influence a political race.
“One, Canada is not the U.S. in terms of power and in terms of who is going to be interested in manipulating our election results,” Dubois said.
“(But) what nobody is focused on, that I can see so far, is how these social media companies might help us deal with (domestic) third parties … It’s never been as easy for a third party to make an advertisement and get it out to a wide portion of the public.”
“Figuring out how we deal with that, I think, is even messier than how we deal with foreign interference,” Dubois added.
The Canadian government has been grappling with this issue since early 2017, as the evidence of Russian meddling in the U.S. election continued to mount. CSE has offered support to all parties as they prepare for the 2019 election, in the hopes that Canada can avoid the types of hacks and influence campaigns seen in the U.S., France, and the U.K.
The Star reported earlier this month that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned a senior Facebook executive the company needs to fix its “fake news” problem or face tighter regulation. Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, speaking recently with CBC, said she wanted “robust” steps from social media companies to combat the issue within six months.
But briefing notes prepared for Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, obtained by the Canadian Press, warned there was little the government could do even if it identified “fake news” intended to derail an election.
The memo suggested that a government flagging “fake news” could backfire and result in readers believing the stories more forcefully and sharing them more widely.
The report released by CSIS concluded there are things governments can do to combat disinformation, including promoting digital and news literacy initiatives, or confronting producers and purveyors of disinformation.
“Finally, those who are involved in the study of disinformation, who publicly confront the issue and the state and non-state actors engaged in the activity, need to keep in mind that there are no passive observers,” the report states.
“There are no front lines – the war is total – and there is no neutrality.”