On 17 January, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report written by Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation. Kolga claimed that, ‘The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government and institutions.’
Kolga’s report went on to list a whole series of individuals, organizations and publications which he believes are assisting the Kremlin in its dastardly plan. This blog was featured in a graphic titled ‘Illustration of a disinformation campaign’. Irrussianality was grouped with the likes of InfoWars as a ‘Pro-Kremlin, Conspiracy Theory, Extremist Platform’, and depicted as a conduit through which ‘False narratives’ generated by the Russian government are channelled to the ‘general public/voters’. On the next page of the report Kolga then alleged that such ‘platforms’ aimed ‘to generate support for Kremlin positions, discredit critics and opponents by all means available, and sow confusion and turn societies against each other in the West.’
This blog is not a ‘pro-Kremlin, conspiracy theory, extremist platform’, nor does it channel ‘false narratives’ of the Russian government to the Canadian public, nor does it to seek to ‘sow confusion’ or ‘turn societies against each other.’ I contacted the Macdonald-Laurier Institute requesting that it apologise and withdraw the report. Yesterday the Institute admitted that the inclusion of Irrussianality was an ‘error’, withdrew the original version of the report, and published a new version in which this blog is no longer mentioned. The new version also contains the following editor’s note:
Note: The section on “business and civil society” has been revised and clarified. The infographic on p.14, which incorrectly mentioned Irrussianality, has also been corrected.
That may not be the end of the matter, as I understand that various other parties mentioned in the report are demanding further corrections. But for my part, I am satisfied with this retraction. That said, I still consider the report to be a poor piece of work. Beyond attempting to discredit those who don’t share the belief that Russia poses a deadly threat to Western society, literature of this type often ends with policy recommendations which I personally consider rather authoritarian. Kolga’s Stemming the Virus is no exception. As well as proposing that RT and ‘other forms of raw propaganda’ should be available on cable TV only as ‘stand alone channels’ (i.e. not bundled with others), Kolga suggests that they be charged additional taxes, and that ‘viewer warnings must be placed on all foreign propaganda channels to inform unaware viewers of the nature of the information they’re consuming.’
This last recommendation resembles the NewsGuard app which colour-codes websites according to whether it considers them trustworthy (RT gets a red tag – ‘untrustworthy’), except that in Kolga’s scheme it seems that such tags would be legally mandatory. Kolga also suggests that the Canadian government should ‘advocate for major search engines to add conspiracy theory and disinformation platforms … to their restricted search, like pornography sites’, thereby ensuring that they generally don’t turn up when you do a search.
Let’s think about that idea for a moment. Who would do the censoring – i.e. who would decide what’s a ‘conspiracy theory, extremist platform’ that needs tagging and restricting? Even if we accept the idea of censorship – which I have to say I do not – we have to ask: would it be done by people who could be trusted to differentiate between sources which are really ‘fake news’ and sources whose opinions they just happen to dislike? I can’t say that I’m optimistic. In his report, Marcus Kolga originally listed this blog as a ‘pro-Kremlin, conspiracy theory, extremist website’. According to his recommendations, therefore, Irrussianality would be censored, tagged red, and hidden by search engines. If a moderate academic website like this can be labelled in this way, who can possibly consider themselves safe? Anybody who’s not marching in lockstep with the guardians’ narrative is liable to find themselves a target.
We’re told that we need to do this to ‘defend democracy’. I beg to differ.