Foreign actors tried to influence Canadian election talk, but did they succeed?
TORONTO — Despite concerns of foreign interference and disinformation, a growing epidemic of toxic political dialogue found in online echo chambers should have been at the top of Canada’s concerns going into the federal election, analysts say.
As the dust settles on Parliament Hill, research suggests that foreign-controlled bot networks tapped into growing partisanship in Canada’s online conversations, taking advantage of those dead set in their political beliefs.
“It doesn’t seem that there is a political agenda. Whether it’s bots or people, they’re engaging the ‘useful idiots’ who sit around on social media and regurgitate anything that fits their social or political agenda,” Marshall Gunter, CEO of Datametrex, said during a phone interview with CTVNews.ca earlier this month.
Prior to the election, Canada’s electronic spy agency issued a stark warning about the potential for foreign cyber interference.
The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) said it was “highly likely” that interference in Canada’s democratic process would be done using tactics similar to those used against other countries, including the amplification of polarizing political issues.
Gunter and his team believe foreign actors not only attempted to do so — they succeeded.
“It starts with a wave and turns into a tsunami,” Gunter said, referencing how foreign bad actors work to disrupt political spheres online. “That’s their way of interfering.”
Using machine-learning based technology called Nexalogy, designed to follow and analyze online narratives, Datametrex recently published a report investigating issues related to the election.
The report, in collaboration with Defence Research and Development Canada, found evidence of Russian bots meddling in Twitter discussions on political wedge issues in Canada, including ethical issues, pipelines, and climate change.
But that meddling did not seem to fit a political agenda, such as having a particular candidate elected over another. Instead researchers say its intention was focused on boosting extreme viewpoints and creating further polarization among groups with similar political views.
“Within Canada, the focus is more about distracting the population,” reads the report obtained by CTVNews.ca.
“Upsetting well-established democracies by increasing the divisions between citizens with opposing views is an effective method; while the people of that country are busy ‘fighting’ each other, Russia is able to move with greater freedom with less scrutiny.”
The report was presented to NATO in mid-October.
Although the data analyzed in the report was gathered between June and August, months before the election was officially called, Datametrex president Jeff Stevens said that his team has continued to collect and analyze Twitter conversations related to Canadian politics, including “Wexit,” flagging similar suspicious activity.
This isn’t the first allegation of foreign actors amplifying Canadian political conversations.
In September, analysis of about 34,000 tweets from approximately 4,896 accounts by researcher Marc Owen Jones revealed that 15 per cent of accounts using the hashtag #TrudeauMustGo were ones that primarily identified with U.S. right-wing politics.
Those accounts also showed evidence of spam or bot-like activity.
Speaking to CTVNews.ca in October, Jones said he continued to see this type of activity on Canadian political hashtags despite Twitter downplaying the concerns, saying its investigations found no “substantial bot activity amplifying the cited hashtag.”
When asked about both reports, a government spokesperson told CTVNews.ca by email that the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel — designed to respond to threats to the democratic process — did not observe any activities that “met the threshold for public announcement or affected Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.”
Not everyone is buying the idea of foreign entities meddling in our political discourse.
“Partisanship is the real pernicious force here in the Canadian online discourse,” Taylor Owen, digital media professor, said during an interview on the Attention Control podcast in October.
“It determines who you follow, it determines the language you use, the type of policy you support. It dissuades you from being able to be fact-checked. It really is the variable that causes a lot of the problems that we’ve flagged.”
Owen, director of the Digital Democracy project, spent the course of the election looking at instances of disinformation and interference.
He says his team did not find any evidence of foreign actors driving conversations on Canadian issues.
“One of the things we really saw in our projects is real echo chambers in online debate where partisans were really just talking to each other,” Owen said.
“We didn’t see a lot of what we call formal disinformation campaigns, foreign or domestic.”
Owen suggests that banning foreign ad spending as part of bill C-76 likely decreased the potential for large-scale foreign interference attempts.
Either way, researchers on both sides agree that Canadians are becoming more divided.
“I don’t think this content affected the vote, what it did is degraded the public discourse. It entrenched partisanship and further confirmed their biases,” said Owen.