Canadian voters have a duty to think critically about the news they consume as foreign interference threats loom over the coming federal election, a leading NATO researcher says.
Janis Sarts, the director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, says Canadians have to avoid knee-jerk reactions to avoid succumbing to malevolent foreign actors who want to tamper with their election.
“When you consume information, think about it. Don’t fall for emotions and instinctive reactions. Think about it,” Sarts said in an interview Thursday.
“There is more room for increasing awareness within the society. But I think there is an understanding across different sectors of Canadian society that the risk is there, and something has to be done about it.”
Sarts was joining top officials from the NATO communications centre and a group of European journalists in Ottawa this week as part of the federal government’s efforts to “to increase the resilience of Canadian society against hostile foreign interference,” he said. Sarts is a Latvian cybersecurity expert, a former No. 2 in that country’s defence ministry.
The visiting journalists have lots of experience with “information warfare” and “disinformation campaigns,” Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told a panel discussion with them that was sponsored by the government.
Prior to the discussion, Gould invoked the Chatham House Rule, which prevents publication of any information that could identify the panellists taking part in the discussion. The rule is named after the British think-tank where it was created to encourage open discussion and information sharing.
Gould said it was being invoked for a very specific reason: “Because it’s about ensuring the protection of the panellists here, and they can speak freely and openly about their experiences.”
Foreign meddling can rear its head in the months leading up to an election, and journalists have an essential role to play in explaining issues to citizens, said Gould.
Journalists have a greater role to play in elections “when tensions are heightened and when information is flowing quickly, and particularly in this new world we live in, where what happens online, happens so quickly.”
The panel was told that Russian foreign electoral meddling — including in the 2016 U.S. presidential race that brought Donald Trump to power, as well as numerous European elections — is a full-fledged military operation that has a strong civilian component.
Most notably, that includes RT, the Russian television network that is an organ of the Kremlin and has propagated conspiracy theories following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the downing of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014, the panellists said.
Last month, Gould said the federal government isn’t getting enough help from the world’s biggest social-media companies — including Google and Facebook — in its efforts to head off foreign interference.
A report circulated Thursday by the NATO communications centre was critical of efforts by Google, Twitter and Facebook to take more responsibility for their content.
“The platforms themselves have not taken any meaningful steps to get ahead of the problem and address the underlying structures that incentivize the malicious use of social media — whether for economic gain or political influence,” it says.
‘Room for improvement’
The NATO communications centre, headquartered in Riga, Latvia, was established in 2014 to combat Russian misinformation after its annexation of Crimea.
It is one of three NATO research organizations, separate from its military command, that aim to counter Russian cyber warfare, along with the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats based in Finland, and NATO’s cyber defence centre in Estonia.
Sarts said that while the Canadian government seems well prepared, “it’s still five months to go. There’s still room for improvement.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a technology conference in Paris today that Canada intends to introduce a new digital charter to combat hate speech, misinformation and online electoral interference.
Trudeau said he’s confident the framework his government is proposing will restore the faith of citizens while holding platforms accountable.