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Opinion A storm of misinformation is coming. Our federal election could be at risk

Eric Jardine is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the co-author of Look Who’s Watching: Surveillance, Treachery and Trust Online

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made headlines recently when she proclaimed that foreign interference in Canada’s coming federal election was “very likely,” and that there had “probably already been efforts by malign foreign actors to disrupt our democracy."

Ms. Freeland is not wrong, nor is she being alarmist. If Canada’s election avoids the meddling and campaigns of disinformation experienced by the United States in the 2016 presidential election and Britain during the Brexit campaign, it will be because we have a small population and are of marginal power in comparison to the United States and Britain – not because we are special or somehow immune.

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Indeed, to think that there is something unique about Canada or Canadians that would make us more resilient to disruptive foreign influence operations would be a grave mistake. Canadians are just as prone as our U.S. and British friends to being swayed by malicious interference and the poisoning of our democratic processes by disinformation.

The lessons of other Western countries loom large. While perhaps narrowly correct to say that Russia preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, the real objectives of these operations are often not as clear-cut as trying to elect a particular person or secure a specific referendum outcome.

The reality is that many foreign actors are playing a long game of relative standing: If major Western countries falter, that has the potential to raise the status, power and prestige of those who initiate malicious influence operations, such as Russia. Sowing chaos and watching societies such as the United States, Britain and, potentially, Canada become increasingly divided is quite likely the overarching goal of many foreign propagandists and disinformation operatives, and their backers.

If simple chaos is your goal, the key to most successful influence operations isn’t taking a side nor is it generating grievance or distrust out of thin air. No, the trick behind successful influence operations is to find existing sore points and to push on them hard. If you really want to wreak havoc, you don’t even need to pick a side. Foreign influencers can simply try to increase the distance between individuals, groups and institutions along various spectra – political left versus right, culturally conservative versus culturally woke – until trust breaks and chaos ensues.

Canada, for all its achievements as a functioning multicultural society and liberal democracy, has sore points galore. The linguistic and cultural rift between Quebec and the rest of Canada would be an easy target, as too would sentiments of western alienation, immigration and refugee policies, and environmental issues.

The list goes on and on. The point is that Canada has societal tensions, just like any other country. The emergent downside of the internet and web-based platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is that these sore points can be targeted from anywhere, at scale, with increasing rapidity and, unfortunately, believability as artificial-intelligence-based “deep fake” videos take fake news to the next level.

In recognizing the clear potential for social tensions to be weaponized, Canada, like other democracies, is facing one of the largest freedom-of-speech debates in recent memory. Countries the world over are turning to Google and social-media companies to restrict the content on their platforms in order to prevent extremism and political manipulation. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s recent statement calling for social-media platforms to police their content or face the ill will of society and government is just the latest example.

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A storm is coming. Canada needs to be ready. Unfortunately, comparatively simple steps such as restricting information via online platforms have been shown to be fairly ineffective, as evidenced by Facebook’s inadequate response to the live-streamed mosque attacks in New Zealand.

This is a crisis of information, but underlying are crises of politics, identity and society. Canadians need to have a frank conversation about what it means to be Canadian. We need to talk openly about what we want our politics to look like, what issues we consider socially relevant and how we want to confront the myriad other challenges.

There’s no question that Canada’s election will be in the crosshairs of foreign operators. The only question is, will we be ready?

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