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Experts on misinformation, including the former head of Canada’s spy agency, are urging Canadians to be more aware of the consequences when they share news online without checking that it’s authentic.

Panelists at an Ottawa conference on online misinformation said that while foreign actors such as Russia and China are working to polarize political debates and spread false information, Canadians need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the role they play on social media.

“The biggest and most important thing we can do is to use our brains," said Richard Fadden, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and a former national-security adviser to the Prime Minister. Specifically, Mr. Fadden said Canadians should make the effort to seek out reliable sources of information and different perspectives.

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“This is exactly what Russia and China want to have happen in Western countries. They want us to be more divided. They want us to be polarized. They want us to start doubting our institutions," he said. In the context of the current political debate, Mr. Fadden said, Canadians are becoming polarized on issues such as climate change and immigration, and he urged political leaders to be cautious in managing those divisions.

Canada’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has issued two reports warning it is very likely Canadian voters will encounter foreign cyberinterference ahead of, and during, the 2019 federal election campaign.

In January, the federal government announced the creation of a Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, which is chaired by CSE and also includes CSIS, the RCMP and Global Affairs Canada.

In its most recent update, CSE said in July that the agency had not yet come across any specific cyberthreats targeting the 2019 federal election.

Two other panelists at Thursday’s conference, which was organized by Canada 2020, said international studies show baby boomers are more likely to spread false information online than younger Canadians.

Elizabeth Dubois, assistant professor of communications at the University of Ottawa, said the focus on foreign interference in Canadian politics can distract from Canadians being largely responsible for spreading questionable information to their friends and family.

She said a culture shift in which politicians and others are regularly called out if they share dubious material online would help improve the situation.

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“We need the spread of misinformation to be socially unacceptable," she said.

Throughout the year, designated officials with the main political parties have been receiving classified security briefings about potential foreign interference. The briefings likely include advice to parties about securing their websites and databases in order to reduce the risk of hacks and privacy breaches.

Canada’s spy agency outlined the types of potential threats that could affect the election campaign.

“Foreign threat actors, most notably hostile states and state-sponsored actors, are targeting Canada’s democratic institutions and processes,” CSIS stated in a report to Parliament this year. “While Canada’s electoral system is strong, threat actors have sought to target its politicians, political parties, elections, and its media outlets in order to manipulate the Canadian public and interfere with Canada’s democracy.”

Ryan Foreman, a spokesman for the CSE, said the task force on election threats continues to share intelligence with senior government officials. He noted in an e-mail that a panel of deputy ministers is in place to determine whether any of the information would require the government to issue a public alert during the campaign.

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