We need to stop Russia's cyber and disinformation campaign now

 

This week, the so-called “Five Eyes” security group – Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada – met to talk about cyber attacks, mostly from Russia. The U.S. and U.K. also issued a warning that Russia has been heavily involved in cyber and disinformation attacks.

It can no longer be ignored that Canada is one target of Kremlin disinformation aimed at subverting our democracy and alliances.

The expulsion of four Russian agents was a good first step in defending Canadian democracy against Vladimir Putin’s attempts to eviscerate it. But a comprehensive strategy is required if we hope to avoid the experience of the U.S., U.K., Estonia, Ukraine, France, Spain and Germany over the past years.

The global leadership Canada assumed when it adopted Magnitsky human rights sanctions legislation last fall has helped boost Canada’s reputation among our allies, while drawing the ire of repressive regimes, including Russia.

Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) recently confirmed that the 2015 federal election campaign was targeted by foreign adversaries and that it is very likely  attempts will be made “to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election.”

The damage caused by disinformation may not be physical or immediately visible. It is much worse, designed to turn Canadians against each other and surreptitiously infuse our democratic society with a decay that slowly breaks down our foreign alliances, confidence in our government and eventually the bonds that hold our nation together.

It is not too late for Canada to avoid the most apocalyptic outcomes if we take serious steps to counter it now. We must first recognize that the theatres of information warfare expand well beyond the realm of cyber, and that such campaigns threaten not just our elections, but our entire democratic system. As such, efforts to defend it require an approach that begins with an understanding of the nature and complexity of the Kremlin’s disinformation operations.

The core of Canada’s strategy to counter disinformation must include four key principles: identification and monitoring, countermeasures, public literacy and accountability.

• A permanent unit that communicates and coordinates between the ministries of Public Safety, Global Affairs, the Department of Defence and Democratic Institutions must be created to identify false narratives and actively monitor their dissemination in concert with our allies. This includes stories manufactured to discredit our soldiers operating in foreign theatres designed to undermine their cohesion and support for their missions. Fabrications that underpin destructive conjecture and inference have been attempted in order to damage the reputations of Canadian leaders on both sides of the House of Commons.

By monitoring the sources of disinformation and catching false narratives before they spread to mainstream media, we can inoculate Canadian democracy against these destructive agents before they cause damage similar to that inflicted on other western nations. This does not mean engaging in censorship or the development of counter-propaganda, but using facts and truth to defend against manipulation.

• Many Canadian ethnic communities consume their news and information from state-owned media made available by Canadian cable TV operators and the internet. Russian and Chinese state-owned media are known to manufacture facts that support their narratives and political objectives. By increasing support for Canadian domestic diversity programming and independent media, we can provide credible, third-language Canadian news alternatives to state-owned media, through broadcasters such as OMNI.

A national media literacy strategy must also be developed to help Canadians identify propaganda and disinformation. Understanding news sources and the importance of verified facts is critical. Awareness within government and media of when state-sponsored organizations and actors attempt to influence issues and narratives is a critical component of information warfare defence.

• Finally, foreign governments and disinformation pedlars need to be held accountable for their actions. Canada can use targeted Magnitsky sanctions against foreign propagandists to prohibit their travel to Canada. We can also ensure that foreign propaganda broadcast on Canadian cable systems is identified as such – like warnings for films that contain foul language and violence – and that license owners whose media broadcast foreign disinformation and hate speech, are fined.

Expelling foreign agents who engage in disinformation to undermine Canadian democracy is a good start. But a comprehensive national counter-disinformation strategy must be developed immediately to defend our institutions, elections and society against foreign powers that seek to subvert it.

Marcus Kolga is a documentary filmmaker, human rights activist, disinformation and sanctions expert. He is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute Centre for Advancing Canadian Interests Abroad.

 

Marcus Kolga, The Ottawa Citizen, April 2018