Online Foreign Influence

A growing number of states have built and deployed programs dedicated to undertaking online influence as part of their daily business. Adversaries use online influence campaigns to attempt to change civil discourse, policymakers’ choices, government relationships, and the reputation of politicians and countries both nationally and globally. They try to delegitimize the concept of democracy and other values such as human rights and liberty, which may run contrary to their own ideological views. They also try to exacerbate existing friction in democratic societies around various divisive social, political, and economic issues. While online foreign influence activities tend to increase around elections, these ongoing campaigns have broadened in scope since 2018, expanding to react and adapt to current events, shifting their content strategies around trending news stories and popular political issues.

As predicted in NCTA 2018, Canadians have continued to be the subject of online foreign influence activity. For instance, we have observed recent campaigns focus their content around COVID-19 and government responses to the pandemic. Disinformation campaigns have also sought to discredit and criticize Canadian politicians to damage their reputations. However, we assess that relative to some other countries, Canadians are lower-priority targets for online foreign influence activity, though Canada’s position on high-tension geopolitical issues could increase the threat. Crucially, Canada’s media ecosystems are closely intertwined with those of the United States and other allies, which means that when their populations are targeted, Canadians become exposed to online influence as a type of collateral damage.

We assess that Canadians’ exposure to online foreign influence is almost certainly going to continue for the next two years or more, though threat actors will be forced to adapt their activities to the changing policies of Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

STATE-SPONSORED ACTORS SEEKING TO DIVIDE CANADIANS

Analysis of publicly released Twitter data revealed that Russian and Iranian online trolls used fraudulent Twitter accounts to highlight divisions among Canadians by amplifying inflammatory arguments surrounding divisive political issues such as terrorism, climate change, pipeline construction, and policies on immigration and refugees. Many of these tweets reacted to major news events such as the January 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting and the June 2019 approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project.Endnote27

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