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The country’s top civil servant directed bureaucrats to ask Facebook to remove a “false and inflammatory” story about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2019 election campaign, but did not make a similar request of WeChat, which spread false information about Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and MP Kenny Chiu in the 2021 election, the public inquiry into foreign interference heard Friday.

Privy Council Office staffer Allen Sutherland told inquiry lawyers in an in-camera interview that the government agency was worried the false story about Mr. Trudeau could go viral and “risked threatening the integrity of the election.” Mr. Sutherland said, however, false allegations about Conservatives circulating on Chinese-language social-media platform WeChat was viewed differently because it was directed at the Chinese community and not the wider electorate.

A written summary of the interview tabled at the Foreign Interference Commission on Friday showed officials overseeing election integrity were alarmed about an article in the Buffalo Chronicle, a website that runs fake stories. It made false allegations in the 2019 election about an affair Mr. Trudeau supposedly had at a private high school where he was teaching in 2000.

Mr. Sutherland helped set up a special election oversight task force composed of senior civil servants known as the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, or SITE. He said Facebook brought the article to his attention.

“The content might have gained significant attention were it amplified, and therefore risked threatening the integrity of the election. At the direction of then Clerk of the Privy Council Ian Shugart, Mr. Sutherland asked Facebook to remove the article,” the summary said. “Facebook complied.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Erin O'Toole speaks to reporters after appearing as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on April 3.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The summary also dealt with questions put to Mr. Sutherland about allegations circulating on WeChat about Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Chiu during the 2021 election. Articles flagged by the federal election monitoring task force included ones that shared the narrative that Mr. O’Toole “almost wants to break diplomatic relations” with China, as well as Chinese media commentary stating that “Chinese Canadians are scared of the Conservative platform.”

WeChat was not asked to remove the inflammatory allegations against the two Conservatives, Mr. Sutherland said in the interview. The WeChat situation was deemed different than the Buffalo Chronicle article in part because it “it was written in Mandarin [which] meant that the content would only reach the Chinese diaspora.”

“In addition, the Buffalo Chronicle article presented false and inflammatory information directly targeting the Prime Minister’s character, whereas the WeChat postings discussed substantive policy issues, albeit also in an inflammatory manner,” the summary stated.

In testimony at the inquiry Friday, Mr. Sutherland was asked to explain why Mr. Trudeau was treated differently than his Conservative opponents and whether there was less concern about false information affecting ridings where a large number of Chinese-Canadians resided.

The article about Mr. Trudeau was “highly inflammatory and was seen that it might go viral and become a national event,” Mr. Sutherland explained. “I was simply observing that in the case of WeChat, the ability to go viral on a national scale is different.”

“I do not want to leave you with the impression that it was treated with any less seriousness. I am only observing that they had different qualities.”

Mr. O’Toole responded to Mr. Sutherland’s testimony on Friday, saying that WeChat had more than one million users in Canada, far greater than the number of people who would have engaged with the Buffalo Chronicle.

The suggestions that Chinese-language WeChat should be less of a concern for disinformation should be “very concerning,” he said on the social-media site X. “The reality is the opposite. Tens of thousands of Canadians rely on platforms like this because of the language and sense of community created by these channels.”

Gallit Dobner, a member of the elections task force for the 2021 election, told the inquiry there was no hard evidence to determine if the attacks on the Conservatives was at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party because the “online space” in China is “extremely difficult” to get access.

Ms. Dobner said Ottawa doesn’t have a relationship with Tencent, which owns WeChat, like it does with Facebook. “So if we were seeing something strange on the [WeChat] platform, we wouldn’t be able to appeal to them for assistance to find out if there were any foreign state sponsored disinformation.”

Nonetheless Lyall King, the elections task force chair during both the 2019 and 2021 elections, testified that the panel concluded that Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Chiu were targets of online disinformation activities “with an attempt we believe to influence the Canadian-Chinese community” in the last election campaign.

The inquiry heard testimony this week that the elections task force did not share intelligence with Mr. O’Toole’s party outlining Beijing-directed efforts to spread disinformation against the Conservatives over the party’s hawkish campaign platform against China.

Mr. O’Toole told the inquiry his party was targeted by a deluge of disinformation orchestrated by China and its proxies that led to the defeat of as many as nine candidates in the 2021 election. However, he stressed that he does not believe Chinese interference changed the outcome of the vote, which produced a Liberal minority government.

But he said voters in certain ridings were affected by this meddling and that government officials in charge of election integrity knew about it but never issued a warning to the public or the political parties.

Earlier in the week, representatives from the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties, who received national-security clearances to be briefed on foreign interference, said the briefings from the elections task force were very general in nature and not particularly useful.

Mr. King, the task force’s chair, said the sharing of intelligence was a new process and everyone was trying to figure out what secret information should be shared.

“There is a lot more awareness now of what foreign interference is,” he told the inquiry Friday. “What we would have deemed secret back in 2019 in fact would be much more common knowledge and out in the open now.”

He pushed back against testimony against the narrative that civil servants failed to share explicit intelligence about Chinese state interference before or during the 2021 campaign.

“What we would have stated,” Mr. King told the inquiry, both before and during the campaign is “China for us was the most significant threat.”

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