Q&A: Russian trolls may be a factor in heated Canadian pipeline debate

Russian trolls could be a factor in determining the outcome of current pipeline debates in Canada, says an expert on ethical hacking and network security. "It could influence it greatly," said John Zabiuk of Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Expert on ethical hacking says trolls can stir trouble by targeting people's emotions

Russian internet trolls, using social media like Facebook and Twitter, could be a factor in determining the outcome of current pipeline debates in Canada, says John Zabiuk, an expert on ethical hacking and network security at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Russian trolls could be a factor in the acrimonious pipeline debates occurring in Canada and the United States, says an expert on ethical hacking and network security.

"It could influence it greatly," said John Zabiuk of Edmonton's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

"Already there is a wide rift of the knowledge that people have with regard to these projects," he said.

"What that really means to the general person who doesn't know a lot, all they're doing is following what they see on Facebook or what they see on Twitter? That's definitely going to influence them, and that is probably the majority of people."

Zabiuk made the comments following reports that Russians trolls aren't just meddling in U.S. elections, but are also trying to manipulate Canadian opinions on their energy sector and the prime minister.

A House of Representatives committee review of thousands of accounts linked to a Russian troll factory found more than 9,000 posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram about pipelines and fracking, including an unspecified number about the Canada-U.S. Keystone XL pipeline.

CBC News spoke to Zabiuk about targeted trolling, how it works and their capacity for causing trouble.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Debate over the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline has been heated, both online and in public. Zabiuk says trolls try to stir debate using misinformation. (CBC)

What did the Russian trolls do to Canadian oil companies and to Prime Minister Trudeau online?

Well, basically what they're doing is they are setting up fake accounts and they're going on Twitter with these accounts, or on Facebook, and essentially they're making inflammatory comments or comments that are designed to elicit an emotional response from other people. They will come up with all kinds of statements that are just going to elicit some kind of response from people. And that's really what the whole idea behind trolling is.

How does that kind of manipulation of social media affect the debate about oil development and pipelines in Canada?

It affects it hugely because it's the general populace who vote in our governments. So if the general populace all of a sudden sees the government is trying to deceive them — rightfully or not — if they see them as trying to deceive them, that's going to sway the way they vote. Now, if they vote for a different government that isn't oil friendly, then obviously that's going to affect the pipelines and how that proceeds.

Could this kind of manipulation be a factor in the outcome of the current pipeline debates in Canada over the Trans Mountain expansion, or Keystone XL in the U.S.?

It could influence it greatly. Already there is a wide rift of the knowledge that people have with regard to these projects. Some people know quite a bit about them but the majority of people really don't understand the nuances and the fact that a lot of these pipelines are already there, that they are just being expanded. So what that really means to the general person who doesn't know a lot, all they're doing is following what they see on Facebook or what they see on Twitter? That's definitely going to influence them and that is probably the majority of people.

What, if anything, does an industry group or even a politician do to combat this?

There's not a lot you can do other than making sure that you verify what you're reading. Don't just believe everything you read online is essentially what it comes down to. Because it's on the internet does not make it true.

How does this kind of social media manipulation spur people on to make a choice to protest or even cast a ballot?

We share so much information on these social platforms, like Facebook. And where the real danger comes in is the analytics that can be gathered on people that can individually target them as to what pulls their heartstrings. So if you can target the trolling message to the specific segments of the population based on what their common interests are, that's where it becomes really powerful and has the potential to cause a lot of havoc, both on the political scene on the corporate scene.

How much could this data mining and profiling affect policy and financial decisions on big projects or businesses?

Let's face it, everybody is on Facebook or the majority of people are on Facebook. So if you can target people with Facebook accounts with disinformation about something that they are really interested in or take to heart, that can impact the way that they vote, it can impact the way that they shop. We're already seeing that with the recent shooting in the United States where MEC is dropping certain lines of products because they are produced by companies that also produce firearms and supplies. So there's a direct correlation between the types of messages that can go out that will impact the way companies do business.

With files from Canadian Press