Did you hear about the Canadian commandos who slipped into the Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine in 2016? The commandos were targeting the new Republic which, with the help of Russia, was seeking independence. It was a surgical strike to incapacitate the breakaway region.
While it was widely circulated on social media, it’s not true. An English translation of the story was shared over 3,000 times on Facebook alone. A similar story blew up on pro-Russia websites this last May. The new iteration, which spread even more widely, suggested that three Canadian soldiers were killed after their car hit a land mine while they were being escorted by the Ukrainian military (Walrus magazine, December, 2018).
It’s part of Russia’s disinformation campaign to discredit the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and sow general discontent and division -a sophisticated drive in which lies are mixed with truth.
It works. Russia’s Internet Research Agency managed to affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election. It microtargeted Facebook ads to stir up conflict in an appeal to patriotism, honour, inequality, race, nationality, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Russia’s propaganda is not dogmatic; it’s an attempt to destabilize Western governments. Moscow is in for the long game –discontent leading to civil unrest and the disintegration of democracies. It’s Putin’s revenge for the collapse of the USSR and economic sanctions against Russia from Western nations including Canada.
The Internet Research Agency is always looking for wedge issues and none is more volatile than immigration. The UN Compact on Migration has recently become a focal point with Prime Minister Trudeau supporting it and Opposition leader Andrew Scheer against it.
Scheer recently rose in the House of Commons recently and stated that signing the compact would mean that “foreign entities” would be able to dictate Canadian immigration policies.
While Scheer’s comments are not true, it does play into Russia’s disinformation campaign. The pact’s preamble states explicitly that it “reaffirms the sovereign right of states to determine their national migration policy,” meaning governments will not sign away their rights to design their migration policies by signing onto the pact. Former Conservative immigration minister Chris Alexander has called Scheer’s comments “factually incorrect.”
Scheer is nervously looking over his shoulder at Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada and worries about them stealing right-wing votes.
Inspired by the “Yellow Vest” protests in France and fueled by Social media, demonstrations have spread across Canada. In Calgary one protester yelled through a megaphone: “They hate our country and they hate our way of life,” to cheers and whistles, not specifying who “they” are.
Professor Fenwick McKelvey at Concordia University has studied social-media manipulation. He believes there are plenty of other domestic pressure points Russian bots could exploit. “You’ve got language, Indigenous issues,” he says.
When you see how effective Russian was in the 2016 U.S. election, it’s not a stretch to think to see how Bernier could ride a wave of political instability. Immigration fears, Alberta’s anger on one side of pipelines and Indigenous conflict on the other, Right-wing governments in Quebec and Ontario -all provide fertile ground.
McKelvey says Canada is vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, if it isn’t happening already. If the thought of Prime Minister Bernier seems improbable, so did President Trump.