Canada needs to do more to combat disinformation in upcoming election: ex-justice minister
'Canada is not immune from this kind of malign foreign meddling,' Allan Rock says
Canada needs to do more to combat foreign "malign" interference in the upcoming federal election by cracking down on social media giants, says former justice minister Allan Rock.
Simply reporting disinformation and hoping social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, will regulate themselves and take it down "has not worked" in the past, Rock pointed out.
"Their obligations are to their shareholders to increase value, not to the Canadian public," he told The Current's guest host Megan Williams.
Rock's warning comes on the heels of a joint-investigation by the Toronto Star and BuzzFeed News, which uncovered earlier this week that Canada's intelligence community has identified "covert and overt" attempts by foreign actors to directly influence the October election.
"The message is really very clear: Canada is not immune from this kind of malign foreign meddling," said Rock, noting the objective of foreign powers — such as China, Russia and Iran — is to incite chaos and disrupt democracy.
To discuss the report, he joined Williams from New York City. Here is part of their conversation.
What do you make of this news report that reveals both CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment — Canada's cyber defence agency — are sounding the alarm about election meddling?
Well, we've been getting these messages consistently now for some time from CSIS and other security intelligence sources. And the message is really very clear: Canada is not immune from this kind of malign foreign meddling.
Indeed there are some foreign states with an axe to grind, motivated to do us harm, and they include Russia and China and Iran.
And by the way, it's not just during elections. It's a vulnerability of our democracy. Generally, it's just heightened during the election period.
And I suppose much more dangerous during election periods, as well.
Now, when we talk about covert and overt attempts to influence the election, can you give me some examples of what that looks like?
Well, there are a number of concerns.
There's the hacking and leaking of emails and other information. We saw this in 2016 with the Democratic National Committee's emails being leaked.
There's disinformation. You know, it's possible to put information out there that might look credible on its face and mislead the voter: a political leader has a criminal record, or is addicted to opioids, or as the case may be.
There are now deepfakes, so-called. Those are videos that are prepared through artificial intelligence to make it look exactly like the person in real life. And then one puts words in their mouth that are shocking and discredit the speaker.
But there's also more subtle methods, like manipulating the so-called popularity indices on social media — the false "likes." And that'll give the impression that a particular extreme view is more broadly held than it is.
And, of course, foreign actors also depend on the extreme elements in Canada to retweet or recirculate the information they're putting out there.
And if I can mention just one last vulnerability, I was in Copenhagen last week for a meeting of the commission, and one of the top concerns expressed around the table was that there could be a cyber attack on election day.
Can you imagine if on election day in the United States the power went out completely in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, some of the swing states — the chaos that would cause?
Imagine it in Canada — in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver — had a complete power failure on election day so that issues arose? Who won? Should there be a do over? Imagine the partisan argument. Imagine the chaos that would be caused.
I don't see a lot of evidence that the foreign actors are trying to favour particular candidates. Their objective is really to cause chaos ... and disrupt democracy.- Allan Rock
Now CSIS says that in the past they've seen specifically targeting here in Canada of the Diaspora communities. Tell me a bit about that.
I think it's another example of trying to undermine social cohesion, stir up controversy, inflame controversies that are already out there, broaden cleavages in society.
So if you were to go into a Diaspora community where certain topics are particularly controversial, whether it's immigration or whether it's abortion or gun control or whatever, the issue may be it's sort of easy pickings...
If you stir up those feelings, you can undermine social cohesion, and you can also, perhaps, steer the Diaspora in favour of or against a preferred candidate.
I don't see a lot of evidence that the foreign actors are trying to favour particular candidates. Their objective is really to cause chaos ... and disrupt democracy.
What's Canada doing?
So, if in the middle of the election it becomes apparent to the security services that there is disruption going on, or disinformation with a real threat to undermine the legitimacy of the outcome, then there's a panel or a protocol group of senior officials — not politicians — who decide whether to go public with that.
That's very courageous; first time it's been done.
As to what remains to be done, it's how to deal with social media platforms. Simply asking them to do the right thing has not worked. And why should it? Their obligations are to their shareholders to increase value, not to the Canadian public.
So, little more legal oversight on non-sites like Facebook, and that kind of thing?
Well it's not that easy because there is freedom of expression and Canadians don't want the government deciding what's true and what's not. We have to respect the charter guaranteed freedoms of information.
But there are things that can be regulated without getting into being the truth police.
Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.
Written by Amara McLaughlin with files from CBC News. Produced by Idella Sturino. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.