Two researchers at McGill University say a disinformation campaign against a Conservative Party candidate during the 2021 election race is a disturbing demonstration of how propaganda tactics could be used by hostile foreign actors to interfere with Canada’s political system.
And they suggest a countermeasure to discourage future disinformation efforts would be a public registry to track foreign influence that is similar to the very mechanism that former B.C. MP Kenny Chiu was attacked during the election campaign for proposing.
During the 2021 federal election campaign Mr. Chiu’s proposal was condemned on Chinese-language social media, alleging his plan would “suppress the Chinese community” in Canada. The comments were disseminated on apps and websites widely used by some Canadians of Chinese origin, who make up approximately half of his riding’s population.
What is alarming is “these tactics could be deployed against any group in an information and psychological warfare campaign,” the authors say. “In short it has high potential for interference in Canada’s electoral process by foreign state actors and thus severely threatens the country’s liberal democracy.”
Writing this month in Policy Options, a publication of Canada’s Institute for Research on Public Policy, Sze-Fung Lee and Benjamin Fung say Canada needs to better protect itself from disinformation campaigns that could damage this country’s electoral process. Ms. Lee and Mr. Fung are experts on information warfare. Ms. Lee is a research assistant in the School of Information Studies at Montreal’s McGill University, where Mr. Fung is a professor and Canada Research Chair in data mining for cybersecurity.
Mr. Chiu, a Canadian who was born in Hong Kong, was elected as the member of Parliament for the federal riding of Steveston-Richmond East in B.C’s Lower Mainland in 2019 but was defeated in the 2021 election. Data from the 2016 census indicate the ethnic origin of the riding’s population is close to 50 per cent Chinese.
The Conservative Party believes Mr. Chiu’s defeat was linked to the propaganda campaign against him, but foreign affairs critic Michael Chong acknowledges the evidence is so far inconclusive.
This disinformation effort against Mr. Chiu was recently documented by the Atlantic Council think tank’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), in a November report.
DFRLab analyzed anonymous articles circulating on Chinese language apps and websites such as WeChat and Weibo, both heavily used by some Canadians of Chinese origin, that misrepresented a private member’s bill Mr. Chiu had tabled in 2021.
The Foreign Influence Registry Act he proposed was an effort inspired by similar Australian legislation to combat foreign interference that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other bodies have warned is a growing problem in Canada. It called for a registry where people working on behalf of foreign governments or corporations would have to file notice when they are trying to influence public policy, contracts or legislation in Canada. It exempted diplomats.
In late 2018, Australia enacted a “Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme” to track work being done by foreign governments and foreign state-owned enterprises as well as individuals or political organizations affiliated with countries. The United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) has been in effect since 1938 and a similar registry has been under consideration in Britain.
The election campaign attack on Mr. Chiu painted his registry proposal as an effort to target all people of Chinese origin in Canada. “Once this act becomes law, all individuals or groups connected with China may be considered as spokespersons of the Chinese government and will be required to register specially,” one article on WeChat alleged.
It said after this bill became law, “activities related to associations in mainland China, as well as normal Sino-Canadian economic, cultural and technological exchanges,” would “be suppressed” and “have a profound negative impact on the Chinese community.”
The anonymous attacks also called Mr. Chiu “anti-China” because he had been an outspoken critic of Beijing’s crackdown on dissent and protest in Hong Kong and because he had backed a motion condemning the Chinese government’s repression in Xinjiang.
Ms. Lee and Mr. Fung said disinformation is widespread throughout social media in diaspora Chinese communities and that a language barrier sometimes prevents Chinese immigrants from verifying what they read by crosschecking it with other Western media.
They said it’s very difficult to prove who was behind the disinformation but say it’s “logical to infer whoever was responsible for disseminating the fake news had a clear motive in reshaping the narratives in favour of Beijing’s interests.”
The solution, the McGill academics say, is to expose the sources of influence on the public debate in Canada. They say a useful countermeasure would be a mechanism similar to what Mr. Chiu and the Conservative Party advocated, and which was proposed by Alliance Canada Hong Kong, an umbrella group of Canadian human-rights activists. This registry as outlined by the group would be paired with a public commission to enforce compliance with the registry.
SENIOR PARLIAMENTARY REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, January 7, 2022