Is Canada's democracy ready for a dire new age of weaponized news?

Democracies around the world now have to contend with the threat of 'political warfare,' a collection of cybercrime tactics and weaponized fake news designed to cripple representative systems. Canada may not be prepared.

Election hacking is only half of the problem

Experts say Canada may be taking steps to protect its elections from foreign interference, but it may not be prepared for the effect of weaponized 'fake news'. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

In the military world, the concept has been distilled down to a two-letter term: PW.

Political warfare.

The phrase is not new. It has long been used — in the pejorative sense — to describe the day-to-day grinding of legislative gears in Ottawa, Washington and beyond.

In today's world, particularly in the military, it has a more menacing aspect due to its role in the 'Gerasimov Doctrine', named for the Russian general who penned it.

Never heard of it?

You saw it in action — in both Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In both cases, cyber attacks were combined with a sophisticated social media disinformation campaign to sow distrust and instability in another nation.

Political warfare is what the Liberal government fears most as it considers security arrangements for the 2019 federal election. We saw that fear given fiscal form in the recent federal budget.

Political warfare by other means

A significant amount of money — $750 million — is being spent to reinforce the weak spots and the long-neglected holes in Canada's cyber defences.

It will, according to experts, deliver tangible security gains to prevent hacking across federal departments and deter cybercriminals.

What the money will not do is address the flip side of the political warfare coin: the selective use of hacked data and the pervasive weaponization of so-called "fake news."

Canadians are more cynical about politics. A critically`thinking, educated public helps.- John Turnbull, former military electronic warfare specialist.

"It is one thing for information to be well-protected," said John Turnbull, a former Canadian military electronic warfare specialist. "The use of Facebook has nothing to do with cyber defence. It is how public information is being disseminated, used and shaped. That's got nothing to do with cyber defence."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reportedly delivered a warning to Facebook's chief operating officer last fall. The message was simple: either the media company fixes its fake news problem or it will be subject to tighter federal regulation.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould said pretty much the same thing in a recent interview with CBC News.

If the federal government doesn't see something substantive in the next six months, then "we need to take action," she said.

The problem, however, is much broader than social media.

A news industry in collapse

The business model that sustained the "real" news industry for generations has been under assault for over 20 years — but the collapse has been moving at an accelerated pace since the financial meltdown of 2008.

Newsrooms have slashed budgets and staff. Fewer journalists means fewer fact-checkers keeping tabs both on institutions and the flood of fake news online.

"Genuine journalism must now compete with content that mimics it and dresses deceit in a cloak of credibility, while society must adapt to a world in which fact and falsehood are increasingly difficult to tell apart," said an exhaustive report by Canada's Public Policy Forum entitled The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age.

"An information market polluted this way puts the very notion of credibility at risk."

Most of the forum's recommendations went nowhere. The federal budget will pump $50 million into local journalism, but supporters in the industry say it comes nowhere near to what the Canadian media needs to fully adapt to the digital age.

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The Liberals promised $10 million a year over the next five years to support local journalism in under-served areas and committed the government to looking at new models to enable private donations and philanthropic support for non-profit journalism and local news.

In defending their position on the media, Trudeau and his ministers have pointed to the government's investments in CBC News.

But many studies, particularly in the U.S., have noted that the weakened state of so-called traditional media is a danger to democracy that must be recognized.

"First and foremost, the leadership of the United States must acknowledge that political warfare strategies are being implemented by regional powers, including Russia, that seek to shift the current balance of geopolitical power in their favor," said an analysis written in June 2015 by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

"The most dangerous consequence of refusing to acknowledge the proliferation of PW, however, will be increasingly provocative, foreign [political warfare] programs designed to erode U.S. national interests throughout the world."

Turnbull said Canada is not on the United States' level in geopolitical terms — and it's hard to gauge how badly other nations might want to disrupt our democracy.

Sophisticated Canadians

Another striking difference, he said, is the apparent sophistication of Canadian voters compared to Americans.

"I don't think we're as vulnerable as the U.S.," said Turnbull. "Canadians are more cynical about politics. A critically thinking, educated public helps. A little bit of critical thinking [and] you would be immune to all of this."

Canada also has fewer cultural and economic faultlines that can be exploited by a political warfare campaign.

That doesn't mean, however, that the federal government can stand back. Political parties need to be prepared for and alert to the threat of hacking. And they have to be forthcoming with security services, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Turnbull said politicians themselves may be Canada's best weapon against enemies striving to turn information into a tool to topple democracy.

"No one understands information warfare better than politicians," he said.

"An election is nothing more than information war over ideas. Politicians are masters at it. They understand the value of spin."


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.