Send in the trolls: Canada braces for an online disinformation assault on COVID-19

As if health worries, self-quarantines, market meltdowns, store shelves stripped bare and cancelled vacations were not enough already for Canadians to cope with, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be unleashing an online army of trolls.

'Russia lies on an industrial scale,' says Ukrainian ambassador

A bus depot employee disinfects a bus in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Late last month, dozens of protesters in a Ukrainian town attacked buses carrying evacuees from the COVID-19 zone in China - apparently spurred on by an email hoax. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

As if health worries, self-quarantines, market meltdowns, store shelves stripped bare and cancelled vacations were not enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed another menace: an online army of trolls.

While Canada gears up to battle the spread of COVID-19, it's also bracing for a second, less tangible fight against a wave of disinformation that the country's top military commander warns is already being assembled in cyberspace.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the country's chief of the defence staff, said he's seen indications recently that Canada's adversaries intend to exploit the uncertainty, confusion and fear that many people feel after a week marked by swift and extraordinary developments in the global pandemic crisis.

Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance says he's "seen signs" of online disinformation efforts seeking to sow panic over COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Much of his assessment is based on what's circulating in the classified realm, but his message to the public is clear: get ready for some noise.

"I can't really talk about it, but yes, I have seen signs" of campaigns designed to discredit the country's institutional response to COVID-19, Vance told CBC News.

"There is absolutely going to be efforts on the part of state-sponsored and non-state sponsored [actors] to try and make every step we take as a government, and indeed as allies, look bad."

The United Kingdom's National Health Service is already fighting that disinformation war, working with Twitter to suspend false accounts — some of which have been posing as hospitals — and ripping down inaccurate information about the number of virus cases.

On Tuesday, the NHS launched a specific initiative to push back against COVID-19 misinformation.

Canada's National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians warned in its annual report released Thursday that Russia and China remain the adversaries most likely to attempt to interfere with and discredit institutions in this country.

An inoculation against panic

Vance said he was not prepared to name names on Friday, but suggested that paying attention to — and trusting — Canada's elected leaders and government officials is the best inoculation against a viral disinformation campaign.

"There will be adversaries, not necessarily military adversaries, but adversaries of all types wanting to put others in a position where they don't look like they're responding well, or they're not dealing with it, to sow a lack of confidence in the population," he said.

"I look to the minister of health and public health officials, including my surgeon general. And I think consuming information from trusted, recognized media, as well as government officials who know what they're talking about, is the best way to avoid the disinformation."

His remarks came two days after a Washington-based think-tank released a report that concluded a Moscow-backed disinformation campaign was behind COVID-19 protests in Ukraine related to the repatriation of Ukrainians citizens who had been Wuhan, China, the location of the original outbreak.

The Kremlin's fingerprints

"The campaign's tactics, timing and nature all point toward Kremlin involvement," said the report by analyst George Barros.

"The campaign's false information increased distrust of the Ukrainian government, caused protests in at least five different towns and forced the resignation of a Ukrainian governor."

The report highlights how the Ukrainian government dropped the ball in terms of keeping the public adequately informed about decisions and safety measures related to the quarantine of the evacuees.

Still, the U.S. State Department warned last month Russia was behind thousands of social media accounts that have been spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and its origins.

Defence analyst Dave Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said that, after the experiences of the past week, nerves are pretty frayed within the government and among the general public.

"If there was somebody who wanted to do Canada or its interests harm, they would choose this moment to act," said Perry.

Perry said the government's full attention appears to be focused on managing the social, economic and political effects of the pandemic.

He said he is concerned about the potential for cyber attacks which could further disrupt already stressed public services.

Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, would not comment on Friday about the protests that rocked his country last month — but he did say Canadians should be on guard in the coming days and weeks.

"We should recognize the fact Russia lies on an industrial scale, and Russia has become quite successful in disinformation, especially in societies that rely on free speech," he said.

"By now we have quite a good understanding of how this works. They specifically look for topics and subjects which can easily polarize opinions, which can divide the society, which are inflammatory by themselves."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.