Far-Left Canadians Susceptible to Russian Influence Too

While the torrent of leaks about possible Chinese interference in Canadian politics appears to have subsided, the uproar continues and the federal government filed a budget this week contains some measures that it hopes will address such intrusion.

The budget reserves C$13.5 million to establish a National Office Against Foreign Interference, and will give the Royal Canadian Mounted Police C$50 million to counter the harassment of Canadian immigrants by their authoritarian home countries.

To educate the public about foreign influence campaigns targeting Canada, a group of researchers published a detailed examination of one such campaign this week: a Russian effort to use Twitter to shape Canadian public opinion about its invasion of Ukraine. The investigation produced some surprises for its authors: pro-Russian messages were not only promoted by far-right groups that openly endorsed Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin, but were also disseminated by far-left groups.

The researchers analyzed Twitter data from the year before the invasion and the year after. From that, they determined that around 90 Twitter accounts, most of them based in Canada, and all run by real users, not bots, were responsible for pushing a pro-Moscow line that was retweeted or liked by others. 200,000 accounts during those two years. years.

As they anticipated, most of those 90 key accounts (59 percent) belong to members of the far right, including many supporters of last year’s trucker convoys, who have long admired Putin. Less anticipated, however, was the large number of pro-Russian accounts (33 percent) controlled by people the researchers identified as members of the far left. Their messages, the researchers say, were based less on pro-Putin than on opposing the war and NATO, but echoed far-right phrases such as “NATO is responsible for the war.”

The unintended result, according to the report, is that “the political far left and the far right have found common ground: undermining public support for Canadian financial, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.”

“What’s interesting is that the far left played a much bigger role,” said Brian McQuinn, a University of Regina professor and co-director of his Center for Artificial Intelligence, Data and Conflict, told me. “In Canada, that hadn’t been identified before.”

The paper was also authored by researchers from digital public squarea Toronto group that works to improve online privacy, civility and political engagement, as well as the University of Maryland College of Information Studies. The work was funded in part by the governments of Canada and the United States.

The influence campaign tailored many of its messages for a Canadian audience with posts such as “Canada’s foreign policy is controlled by Ukrainian Canadians” and “Canadian sanctions are responsible for inflation and rising energy costs.” Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister of Ukrainian descent, is fluent in the language and once lived in Ukraine, was a particular target. (In her other capacity as finance minister, Ms. Freeland presented the budget containing measures to counter foreign interference.)

Data analysis showed, Professor McQuinn said, that in the three months leading up to the invasion, the number of tweets promoting a Russian narrative targeting Canada had basically doubled. “You can see the premeditated preparation for the actual invasion and then a continuous increase every month since then,” he said.

Polls show that support for helping Ukraine remains strong in Canada. So I asked Professor McQuinn if the Moscow campaign was a waste of time and money.

He did not agree.

“This wouldn’t matter if the narratives weren’t picked up by literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians,” Professor McQuinn said.

The 90 accounts that made up the Russia-aligned Twitter network had more followers, interacted with other social media users, and produced more material than all federal members of Parliament and more than the 20 “most influential” Twitter accounts in Canada, the researchers found. .

“The network is actually one of the most active online communities in Canada,” Professor McQuinn said, noting that researchers in his group have been tracking most of the top 90 accounts for years. “It would be interesting to know how much the Russians actually spend on this, because they seem to be committed to it and they seem to be putting a lot of energy and time into it.”

The researchers also had a polling company conduct a survey on Russian influence and disinformation campaigns. Among other things, a quarter of those polled agreed that NATO started the current fighting in Ukraine or thought that was at least possibly the case, although there is no truth to the statement.

The report has a number of recommendations that its authors believe could allow the government and social media companies to at least mitigate the influence of such online campaigns.

But Professor McQuinn said the only truly effective solution is to teach people to recognize when someone is trying to manipulate them.

“The amount of critical media analysis that the average person has is ultimately the most important piece,” he told me. “We need to talk about how we infuse that throughout middle school and high school and actually make this a cornerstone of kids’ education.”

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  • Prospective asylum seekers trying to enter Canada on Roxham Road on Saturday were disappointed as officials moved quickly to implement the border agreement announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Biden.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa, and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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