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A Russian flag with coat of arms is seen next to the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower in Moscow on March 15, 2023.MAXIM SHEMETOV/Reuters

Pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts are “weaponizing” social-media users on the far right and far left of the political spectrum in Canada to undermine support for Ukraine, a new study by Canadian and American researchers says.

The report, Enemy of My Enemy, studied two years of Twitter activity, including the lead-up to Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, military assault on Ukraine, and traced how accounts aligned with President Vladimir Putin’s messaging disseminated pro-Kremlin narratives in Canadian Twitter discussions.

It was published Wednesday by the University of Regina’s Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Data and Conflict as well as the University of Maryland College of Information Studies and the not-for-profit Digital Public Square in Toronto. Funding for this work includes money from the Canadian and U.S. governments.

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The study tracked Russian information-warfare campaigns that it said were tailored to Canadian audiences on Twitter and what it called the “supportive ecosystems of accounts” that retweeted these messages. By 2023, it said, this included about 200,000 Twitter accounts that shared these messages with millions of Canadian users.

The underlying themes of the Kremlin-aligned messages include such ideas as: “Canada’s foreign policy is controlled by Ukrainian Canadians,” “Canadian sanctions are responsible for inflation and rising energy costs,” “Ukraine is corrupt and doesn’t deserve our support,” “NATO is responsible for the war” and Russia is “de-Nazifying Ukraine.”

The Canadian government has to date provided Ukraine with more than $8-billion in financial, military and humanitarian support to help Kyiv push back Russia’s military assault.

“International assistance is essential to Ukraine’s survival. Putin recognizes this vulnerability and actively seeks to undermine support for Ukraine among Western democracies,” the report said.

The authors point to public polling in Canada as evidence that some Canadians “remain vulnerable to foreign-information warfare.” A fall 2022 poll of 2,048 Canadians conducted by Nanos Research for Digital Public Square found that 36 per cent of respondents either believed that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was responsible for the war in Ukraine or were unsure, the report said.

The poll said at least 25 per cent of respondents were unsure or unable to identify Russian disinformation narratives, “suggesting some Canadians remain vulnerable to foreign-information warfare.”

The report said it found a core group of about 90 pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts that had an “outsized influence” among Canadian Twitter users. It said accounts that appeared aligned with far-right and far-left views engaged the most with these accounts. The report said even unwittingly, the “political far left and far right have found common ground: undermining public support for Canadian financial, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.”

The report said far-right communities “have increasingly aligned with Vladimir Putin’s anti-globalist, xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric,” while the “far left has historically aligned with Moscow’s anti-Western and anti-NATO propaganda since the earliest days of the Cold War.”

The report said these communities “are among Canada’s most active online” and “together, they represent a potent strategy for the Russian government to intensify its attack against Canadian support for Ukraine.”

Its authors call for the Canadian government to take more steps to help combat Russian influence operations in Canada, including establishment of a parliamentary committee to fight disinformation campaigns, which would include all parties and experts from civil society and the media.

They are also urging Ottawa to boost efforts to keep federal and provincial elected officials informed of the extent of Russian influence operations in Canada and the various strategies at work. This would include regular briefings to ensure politicians do not inadvertently amplify or “normalize pro-Russian narratives.”

One of the most consistent targets of pro-Kremlin Twitter attacks is Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent and has been suggested as a possible candidate for NATO’s next secretary-general.