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A Convoy Revved by Foreign Actors Spreading Lies

‘The pandemic proved a huge opportunity for Russian propaganda,’ says one expert.

Andrew Nikiforuk 21 Feb

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Most Canadians probably think that the right-wing U.S. Fox News network has dominated global coverage of Canada’s so-called “Freedom Convoy.”

But they’d be wrong.

Russia Today, or RT, a state-owned agency set up by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 with an annual budget of $400 million, has offered nearly twice as many articles: some 1,200 stories.

RT’s editor-in-chief has alternately described the agency as an unofficial “soft power” branch of the Russian Defence Ministry and as an “info weapon.”

U.S. historian Timothy Snyder has written that RT “wished to convey that all media lied, but that only RT was honest by not pretending to be truthful.”

With access to seven million Canadian households plus French-language TV from Quebec, RT has been serving up a steady diet of anti-vaccine and anti-mask articles since the beginning of the pandemic as part of long-standing propaganda campaign to destabilize democracies by dividing their citizens.

During the Ottawa occupation, it offered one toxic editorial by Sputnik France (another Russian state agency) that described the Canadian state as “dictatorship” and the “first iteration of a Chinese-style social credit regime in the western world.”

Such messages spread like spores. At a press conference on Saturday, trucker convoy organizer Tom Marazzo told reporters his movement was not anti-government. But he quoted, perhaps unknowingly, a line from the Russian editorial: “The only plan that they [the government] have is violence and the institution of a Chinese-style social credit score system.”

In fact, prominent supporters of the Ottawa occupation like Ontario MPP Randy Hillier have urged Canadians to trust Russian state media over established news outlets in their own country.

So what’s going here?

Nothing good, say cyber security and disinformation experts.

They have warned for years that disinformation campaigns directed by foreign actors in Russia, China and Iran could dangerously pollute democracies and polarize debate with low-cost campaigns on the internet.

“The pandemic provided a huge opportunity for Russia propaganda,” said Marcus Kolga, director of DisinfoWatch, a project of the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. “It is fuelling the movement we are now seeing in downtown Ottawa, and it is scary stuff.”

Kolga told The Tyee that Russian state media has aggressively published conspiracy theories and anti-lockdown/anti-vaccination narratives over the last year. The disinformation is all geared to legitimize movements or radical groups that can inflame and twist protests. The aim is to harness public anxiety and fan it towards chaos and even sedition.

Kolga is the author of two reports on Russian disinformation in Canada. In a 2019 report, he warned that the Kremlin aims to “exacerbate existing divides, subvert international institutions and help create a world where its own form of corrupt authoritarianism flourishes” with incessant disinformation.

Kremlin information warfare, he added, “may truly feature the characteristics of a virus — infecting and then replicating itself independently within western societies with the goal of subverting and turning us against each other. This can be seen with extremist groups of the left and right borrowing tactically from the Kremlin playbook.”

Algorithms that ‘reward anger’

Russia has already used COVID disinformation to destabilize Canadian missions overseas.

In December, government defence scientist Matthew Lauder documented how Russian disinformation sought to undermine Canada’s NATO mission in Latvia by spreading lies that Canadian troops were spreading the coronavirus to the local population. The scientists noted that the Russian government was clearly targeting extreme groups to spread these lies and had “demonstrated a clear capacity, capability and desire to generate disruptive effects, in particular by amplifying and exploiting uncertainty and anxiety regarding the pandemic.”

As detailed in Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom, Russia’s foreign policy has a perverse propaganda focus. Because it can’t make its fragile oligarchy stronger (a third of Russia’s hospitals have no running water), the Russian leadership focuses on making competing democracies weaker or more like Russia: a brutal kleptocracy dependent on disinformation campaigns both at home and abroad.

David Shipley, a cybersecurity expert and chief executive officer of Beauceron Security, adds that disinformation doesn’t create new divisions, but it powerfully exploits and widens existing tensions and genuine discontent with a mix of conspiracy theories and emotionally tailored messages.

The blockades and Ottawa’s three-week long occupation, for example, owe much to a large percentage of the population suffering from pandemic fatigue, Shipley told The Tyee.

Add to that stress a catalyst. “We wouldn’t have an Ottawa occupation without those social media algorithms that fed people junk information and reward anger. And we wouldn’t be where we are now if politicians had not used vaccines as a political wedge issue,” he explained.

Disinformation can’t steer a protest, but it can accelerate it like wind filling the sails of discontent.

Shipley added that the heavy machinery occupation of Ottawa “is a rerun of a failed alt-right attempt in the U.S. in 2013. It's not a made-in-Canada-exported-to-the-world story.” The so-called “Truckers to Shut Down America” fizzled out.

When Shipley told the CBC last week that he suspected Russian foreign actors have played a role in disseminating COVID conspiracies and disinformation that helped stoke protest, he was immediately targeted by a right-wing U.S. website called NewsBusters. It instantly categorized his analysis as “a truly bizarre conspiracy theory.”

Yet as both Shipley and Kolga noted, the evidence of Russian tactics is very strong.

Fuelling all sides of divides

First, Russian propaganda has played a critical role in escalating divisions in Europe and North America by fostering conspiracy theories on vaccines, masks and other health measures.

As one recent European report documented, Russian disinformation on COVID-19 exaggerated “the pandemic’s severity to left-leaning audiences” while “understating the threat to right-leaning audiences” with what analysts described as “Russia’s fire hose of falsehoods strategy.”

As western governments resorted to controversial lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID, RT characterized them as a pretext for creating totalitarian states, declaring, “Americans won’t stand for it.” RT also warned of “destructive mass protests” as “western countries that forever preach about the authoritarian impulses of certain foreign states suddenly began to resemble the real autocrats.”

In addition, Russian operatives have sown distrust in vaccines, particularly mRNA vaccines, by spreading falsehoods about side effects to North American and European audiences.

The key message: “Western governments are not to be trusted and are massively incompetent.”

Two years ago Ahmed Al-Rawi, director of SFU’s Disinformation Project, analyzed ads placed on Facebook and Instagram by the Russian Internet Research Agency, or IRA. His conclusion: “The IRA made use of the business model of Facebook and Instagram in an attempt to further divide its targeted audiences and by highlighting mostly negative issues with a potential goal of fuelling political rage.”

He doesn’t think the Canadian media or politicians have taken the threat of engineered information on the internet by foreign players seriously.

The creation of Facebook accounts using fake identities to support and raise money for the trucker convoy also smacks of Russian influence, said Shipley.

In fact the U.S. Congress has already asked Mark Zuckerberg about the many fake Facebook accounts created to support Canadian protesters.

Far-right supporters of the Canadian trucker convoy stole the identity of a Missouri woman and listed her as the creator of three Facebook groups to help drum up support and raise money for the protest last month. An in-depth article published by the Verge documents “How Facebook Twisted Canada’s Trucker Convoy into an International Movement.”

“It is clear significant elements of social media were manipulated. Who, what and where still has to be figured out,” added Shipley.

Russia began to pioneer recent disinformation campaigns first in the Ukraine in 2014 and then the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Among other tricks, Russian Twitter accounts encouraged certain Americans to vote by text — an impossibility which resulted in voter suppression.

Since then Russia operatives have also actively supported right-wing movements and funded white supremacists in Europe to destabilize democracies there. One such Canadian group, Diagolon, has played a role in the Ottawa occupation.

Kolga told The Tyee that Canadian governments need to take the threat of disinformation by foreign actors more seriously. Sweden, for example, recently set up a national psychological warfare defence unit and Canada needs to do something similar.

“Our democracy is in serious trouble. What we are seeing in Ottawa is a product of ignoring the warnings.”

Shipley thinks that CRTC needs to seriously consider the regulation of media companies’ use of algorithms that boost hate and anger.

“They are tearing us apart.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Media

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