Politics

'Inauthentic activity' in Alberta election a possible preview of tactics in the federal campaign, report warns

A government of Canada team says it identified a number of suspicious social media accounts and cases of disinformation in the run-up to the Alberta election — and is warning that similar tactics could be used this fall during the federal campaign.

Spike in inauthentic accounts mainly driven by 'supporters of the United Conservative Party (UCP).'

The government of Canada says it identified a number of inauthentic accounts which spread disinformation online in the run-up to the Alberta election. (Getty Images)

A government of Canada team says it identified a number of suspicious social media accounts and instances of disinformation in the run-up to the Alberta election — and is warning that similar tactics could be used this fall during the federal campaign.

In a new report dropped today, the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) team, housed at Global Affairs Canada, says it identified accounts that demonstrated coordinated "inauthentic behaviour" during the April provincial election, which it says indicates troll or bot activity.

Government officials speaking on background told CBC News there is nothing to suggest the accounts swayed the result of the election, which saw United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney elected premier — but warn the tactics used could suggest what Canadian voters might see between now and Oct. 21.

The RMM report said the suspicious accounts appear to be mainly domestic, not foreign, and the community was mainly driven by "supporters of the United Conservative Party (UCP)."

RRM said another tranche of accounts appears to have been created by supporters of the People's Party of Canada, which is federal.

The government officials took pains to point out that that there is nothing to suggest the parties themselves directed the accounts.

"The decision to undertake this analysis was made independently by officials and without any political involvement," said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Adam Austen.

"RRM Canada conducts research to understand potential foreign threats to Canada. RRM Canada looks at all potential cases of foreign interference, by observing emerging tactics and trends online using open source material."

The UCP issued a statement that afternoon calling the spread of inauthentic troll accounts online "a disturbing trend."

"Albertans spoke loud and clear on Election Day when they elected a United Conservative government with 55 per cent of the popular vote and more than a million votes cast — the largest electoral victory in Alberta history," said spokesperson Christine Myatt.

"The growing number of inauthentic troll accounts online is a disturbing trend but as the report states, there is nothing to suggest that these accounts in any way influenced the results of the election."

Domestic players mimicking foreign players

The RRM team identified accounts tied to lobbying groups that were spreading disinformation online in the run-up to the Alberta election. Officials would not say which groups were involved.

The team also found accounts associated with "known national far-right and hate group actors" using tactics similar to those deployed by "known malign foreign actors," and noted a small group of anonymous accounts trying to amplify an Alberta separatist movement.

Government officials said the domestic accounts are mimicking the online tactics deployed in other cases of foreign interference, such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election — making it hard for observers to identify the players.

However, they were hesitant to give concrete examples for fear the accounts they're trying to monitor will change their tactics.

"The Alberta election provides an example of a situation where there may be evidence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour undertaken by Canadian actors, making the identification of foreign interference more difficult," says the report.

"This behaviour will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish national from foreign interference efforts in the upcoming federal election."

It basically shows that a lot of the misinformation, disinformation efforts are done by Canadians, for Canadians.- Stephanie Carvin, former national security analyst 

Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst who now teaches at Carleton University, said the findings emphasize that not all disinformation campaigns are run out of Russia.

"Not everything in the Alberta election was the result of some kind of Russian troll factory. It basically shows that a lot of the misinformation, disinformation efforts are done by Canadians, for Canadians, probably for a variety of reasons," she said. 

"There are efforts that are basically trying to change the debate, get certain things trending to perhaps have an outcome on the election."

She said the most alarming part of the report is the idea that hate groups are trying to amplify their messages on social media.

"Are these accounts being used to try and attract individuals to a certain message, a certain narrative to try and spread that?" she said.

"That to me is the biggest concern of this report ... not so much the disinformation but the fact that extremists are using it to try and normalize and amplify their positions."

Alberta election chosen for a reason

To draft its report, the team monitored open sources like Twitter.

A source who was briefed on the report said the reason the RRM team picked Alberta rather than P.E.I. (which also had an election this year) is because it feared that Alberta's vital energy industry might be too tempting a target for foreign intelligence or pressure groups.

The source stressed that the activity noted in Alberta's campaign represent the sorts of tactics the intelligence community will be looking for over the next six weeks.

Michele Austin, head of government and public policy for Twitter Canada, said the company is pleased no foreign interference was detected during the campaign.

"We remain steadfast in our fight against inauthentic and malicious behaviour," she told CBC News. 

"Twitter and elections both happen in real time. Twitter will challenge, as per our rules, anything that looks like inauthentic behaviour on (the) platform. This is especially important during elections. And people tend to tweet about it and feel it during elections."

Birthed out of the 2018 G7 summit in Charlevoix, the RRM unit was set up to coordinate efforts between the seven leading industrialized nations to identify, prevent and respond to threats to democracy.

The RRM also plays a role in the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election (SITE) task force, conducting open source research on global trends and data on threats to democracy.

CBC has been requesting the report for weeks. While it's dated May 1, it was posted online Friday.

With files from the CBC's Ashley Burke

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

...

Thank you for subscribing to CBC Newsletters. Discover more CBC Newsletters.

Happy reading!

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.