The House

'Digital mercenaries': MPs describe their clashes with disinformation campaigns

The explosion of misleading and false information online in recent years will be difficult for governments to regulate on their own, say MPs who have themselves been targets of disinformation campaigns.

'The people that I meet now ... simply don't believe anything, they don't believe media' — MP Charlie Angus

People participate in a demonstration in Montreal protesting measures implemented by the Quebec government to help stop the spread of COVID-19 on December 20, 2020. One protester holds a sign referring to the 'Great Reset' conspiracy theory. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The explosion of misleading and false information online in recent years will be difficult for governments to regulate on their own, say MPs who have themselves been targets of disinformation campaigns.

"Can we actually regulate this? My gut instinct is no," said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who took part in a panel discussion airing this weekend on CBC's The House with Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi and Charlie Angus of the NDP.

Rempel Garner said both the technology driving disinformation and the business models that make it pay are adapting far more quickly than governments can move.

"We're in a completely different universe," Angus added. "We have to accept that what we consider disinformation is ordinary people who are now opting out and creating, spreading and amplifying sometimes very toxic content because they think that is where reality is."

The COVID-19 pandemic, the enforced isolation during lockdowns and now Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine — they've all contributed to a flood of conspiracy theories and false information spreading online.

Angus said people are turning away from traditional media sources to embrace what he calls "digital mercenaries" and bot farms that feed the appetite of audiences looking to reinforce their views of the world.

It's a breeding ground for disinformation campaigns on everything from the safety of COVID-19 vaccines to the reasons behind Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Just this week, the Russian embassy in Canada released a statement accusing NATO allies of an "unprecedented wave of lies, fake news, distorted and fabricated facts aimed at discrediting our actions."

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When asked by interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen during question period, Justin Trudeau did not say whether Canada is planning to expel the Russian ambassador.

That prompted calls from opposition MPs for the government to expel the Russian ambassador, Oleg Stepanov. It also earned a very undiplomatic rebuke from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference.

"We understand that the ambassador in Ottawa is a mouthpiece for Putin, is saying the same kinds of the things that are Russian propaganda and disinformation," Trudeau said.

Governments around the world are struggling to blunt the impact of online sites that spread disinformation to receptive audiences — sometimes with tragic results.

In Washington, D.C. a man opened fired in a pizzeria after reading fake news articles that claimed the restaurant was a front for a child abuse ring.

A man breaks down next to the caskets of three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting during funeral services at the Maurice Richard Arena Thursday, February 2, 2017 in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)

The 2017 killings at a mosque in Quebec City led to the circulation on social media of false news about who was responsible.

Rempel Garner, Angus and Naqvi described their own experiences with disinformation. Rempel Garner said she was accosted at a restaurant by a man who believed she was part of the so-called "Great Reset" conspiracy, which links the World Economic Forum to a supposed clandestine plan to establish a global totalitarian government.

"I've fallen down this rabbit hole of being accused of being part of the World Economic Forum conspiracy," said Angus. "Recently, I've received death threats.

"I have a stalker that I'm dealing with in court [who], as far as I can tell, seems to be having some kind of QAnon conspiracy. But if you take the extreme potential of violence aside, the people that I meet now who simply don't believe anything, they don't believe media ...

"People have just opted out of the normal connections that we have with each other that ground us, whether we agree politically or not."

A group of anti-mask protesters — one holding a QAnon sign — meet in Calgary on Sept. 27, 2020. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Naqvi's experience dates back years, to when he was Ontario's attorney general.

"If you believed social media back then, you thought I was trying to bring Shariah law to Ontario," he said. "It was there and it was being pushed because I am of Muslim faith [and] that, somehow, that is what I would be working towards now that I was responsible for justice."

Isolation makes people vulnerable, says Angus

Personal experiences aside, all three MPs say it is now far easier to spread disinformation to people who want to believe it — and the disinformation itself is toxic.

Angus said he believes the isolation forced on people by the pandemic is leading them to websites that employ sensational headlines to draw in users, and algorithms that continue to direct stories to them to reinforce their beliefs.

"We're living in these individually curated, distorted funhouse mirrors that Facebook or YouTube create through the algorithm," he told The House.

"So if you click on one thing that's maybe a little, you know, questioning of vaccines, it's a hop, skip and a jump before you're being fed heavy, heavy conspiracy. That's how the Facebook algorithms work."

A protester carries a defaced United Nations flag at a rally against COVID-19 restrictions at Queen's Park in Toronto on Feb. 5, 2022. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

So if legislation isn't the answer, what can governments and politicians do to break through the disinformation noise?

"Education, education, education," said Naqvi. "This is about digital literacy, making sure people know where the information is coming from, putting them in charge of the information they consume, not the other way around."

Angus said previous parliamentary committees have looked at forcing social media companies to be more transparent and accountable for how they design their algorithms.

In combatting disinformation, is the solution legislation or education? Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner and NDP MP Charlie Angus join the program to discuss.

Anonymity fuels disinformation, says Rempel Garner

Rempel Garner said she also believes Canadians need to know who's behind the accounts they follow — so they can determine whether what they're hearing is coming from a real person or a bot.

"I think the anonymization of information also distorts perception, so I'd like to see something where you don't have to present your name online but, to interact or post content, you should have to verify your identity," she said.

All three MPs said they worry that Canadians are becoming increasingly rigid in their views, making it easier to manipulate them.

"Every Canadian has a responsibility to really critically think about this, because conspiracy theories have a massive impact on public policy, the health and safety of Canadians and our democracy," Rempel Garner said.

In a democracy, people disagree. Politicians can offer different views of the future of the country, or how to respond to a crisis. But the MPs agree that those arguments have to be based on facts.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc

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