“We judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference related to the 2019 federal election.” So says the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s equivalent to America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, in a report issued on 8 April 2019. In response, the Canadian government has been threatening to regulate social media. As the Chronicle Herald reports:
The world’s major social media companies are not doing enough to help Canada combat potential foreign meddling in this October’s elections and the government might have to regulate them, the cabinet minister in charge of ensuring a fair vote said on Monday.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould spoke shortly after Canada’s electronic signals spy agency said it was very likely that foreign actors will try to meddle in the election.
Gould expects Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to help safeguard the vote by promoting transparency, authenticity, and integrity on their platforms, and said she has been disappointed by the slowness of talks with the companies.
So let’s take a look at this CSE report.
The first thing to note about it is that it’s very short — 24 pages (23 without the very insubstantial footnotes). But if you take out the executive summary and the various explanations of how the report is structured, there are only 16 pages, of which about 80% consists of pictures. The actual text takes only up 3–4 pages, of which only one page discusses the specific Canadian context.
In short, there isn’t much detail in this report. There’s no substance, just some assertions without much by way of supporting evidence or even elucidation of what the assertions mean in practice. It’s very hard to say whether the report’s claims are credible based on what’s in the report, because there isn’t much there.
What are these claims?
First, as Canada is a G7 and NATO member, its political decisions affect the international community more generally. Other states may therefore wish to influence it. Consequently, says CSE, “Foreign adversaries may use cyber tools to target the democratic process to change Canadian election outcomes, policy makers’ choices, governmental relationships with foreign and domestic partners, and Canada’s reputation around the world.” It’s true that they “may” do so, but it’s a leap from may do to will do, especially if what you have in mind is the more malicious forms of influence being discussed. The “will do” claim is decidedly unproven.
In broad terms, states are always trying to influence other states. That’s entirely normal. And it’s obvious that cyber tools will be among those used — for instance, ministries and embassies throughout the world, including those of Canada, regularly use Facebook and Twitter to spread their message. “Digital diplomacy,” therefore, is nothing odd, and if that is all CSE has in mind, there’s no reason to get at all worried by it. States are always trying to influence things such as “policy makers’ choices” and “governmental relationships with foreign and domestic partners.”
More probably, though, CSE has in mind efforts to do these things by more surreptitious means, specifically attempts to change election results. The report mentions that “Cyber threat actors manipulate online information, often on social media using cyber tools, in order to influence voters’ opinions and behaviours.” As with so much of this report, this statement is annoyingly lacking in specifics, but let’s take it as fact that people “manipulate online information,” including during election campaigns. The issue then arises of how much of that is done by foreign actors, and how much by domestic ones.
Unfortunately, CSE ignores this question entirely. If what you’re worried about is that voters are being fed “fake news” and “disinformation,” look no further than your own country’s politicians and their enablers in the media. Brexit, for instance, didn’t happen because of “foreign meddling,” but because of the disinformation spread by pro-Brexit politicians and journalists. None of this is to say that what CSE describes doesn’t and can’t happen, but we need to have a sense of proportion. CSE doesn’t provide any of that.
CSE also notes that political parties and other organizations face hacking threats. This is, of course, true. But cyber security is something that people ought to be paying attention to in any case, regardless of foreigners who might engage in election meddling.
As far as the specific threat to Canada is concerned, CSE says the following:
“Since the 2015 federal election, Canadian political leaders and the Canadian public have been targeted by foreign cyber interference activities. For example:
More than one foreign adversary has manipulated social media using cyber tools to spread false or misleading information relating to Canada on Twitter, likely to polarize Canadians or undermine Canada’s foreign policy goals;
Foreign state-sponsored media have disparaged Canadian cabinet ministers; and
A foreign adversary has manipulated information on social media to amplify and promote viewpoints highly critical of Government of Canada legislation imposing sanctions and banning travel of foreign officials accused of human rights violations.”
No details are provided to substantiate these claims, so we can’t properly evaluate them. Perhaps they are all true, but how significant are they? How much “misleading information” comes from “foreign adversaries”? How influential is it in reality? As for the second and third assertions, they are somewhat laughable. Disparaging cabinet ministers and manipulating information about legislation are hardly the sole prerogatives of foreign governments. They are pretty much the day to day norm of Canadian politics.
Clearly CSE has in mind the story of Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather’s Nazi connections, and the Russian government’s objections to the Magnitsky Act. However, the first story is true, not disinformation, and in any case wasn’t originated by the Russian government but by Australian journalist John Helmer. And of course foreign governments fight back against legislation targeting them with sanctions. Again, that’s just normal. It’s hard to see what the issue is here. But that’s the whole of the evidence that CSE produces to justify the claim that Canada is likely to experience “foreign interference” in its forthcoming election.
In short, it doesn’t add up to much. Of course it is possible that during our forthcoming election campaign people outside Canada will spread messages through social media, some of which will be false, and that various hackers will target Canadian political organizations. It’s right that people should be aware of these possibilities. But there is little to no evidence that they amount to a serious threat to our democratic process.
CSE draws our attention to all sorts of malign activities that foreign actors could do, but all of them could equally be done (and indeed have been done) by domestic actors on a much larger scale. Canadians may remember the “robocall” scandal, for instance, in which the Conservative Party engaged in voter suppression by sending people automated calls telling them that the location of their polling station had changed. The primary sources of electoral manipulation, political divisions, and so on are domestic.
It’s obvious that the primary “foreign adversary” CSE has in mind is Russia. But Russia has nothing to gain from “meddling” in Canadian elections. All the main Canadian political parties are resolutely hostile to the Russian Federation. The Canadian version of the Magnitsky Act passed through the House of Commons unanimously. From a Russian point of view, there’s no difference between Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP, and so no reason to favour one over the other.
Speaking of possible interference in the 2019 Canadian federal election, the CSE report concludes that “it is improbable that this foreign cyber interference will be of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election.” This is the only reference CSE makes to the scale of the threat, which does not support the idea that this is a major problem.
Unfortunately, this conclusion is lost in the media headlines stating that “foreign interference is likely in Canada’s election.” At the same time, the threat is used to justify calls to regulate social media, and in effect introduce some form of censorship. If only genuine purveyors of “disinformation” and “foreign propaganda” were to be caught up in this censorship, one might not be too alarmed. But recent experience has shown that numerous innocent actors have been accused of being foreign “agents of influence,” “proxies,” “Trojan horses,” “extremist conspiracy theorists,” and so on.
It is all too likely that the relatively minor threat of “foreign meddling” will be used not to hinder the spread of “fake news” but to suppress unwelcome information and viewpoints that diverge from the mainstream. The drive to protect Canadian democracy may, therefore, end up having the opposite effect entirely.