WASHINGTON—The same Russian online troll farm that meddled in the American presidential election has also taken swipes at Canadian targets, including oil infrastructure and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Evidence is embedded in data made publicly available through investigations in the United States, where congressional probes have been examining Russian information campaigns following the 2016 presidential election.
One report from a Republican-led committee in the House of Representatives released this month said the St. Petersburg troll factory, members of which now face criminal charges in the U.S., posted online about energy roughly half as often as it did about American presidential politics.
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The committee would not release the raw data allowing a search for all Canada-specific messages. But The Canadian Press did find a few dozen anti-Keystone tweets in an unrelated data set, provided by Twitter to a U.S. congressional committee looking into meddling in the 2016 election.
They included retweets of news headlines, references to oil spills and links to blog posts like one titled: “Uh oh! Progressive fans of Justin Trudeau might be in for MAJOR buzzkill (Hint: Keystone, Trump, OMG!)”
That same file included dozens of messages about Trudeau, mostly retweets, frequently related to the prime minister’s views on refugees, Muslims or his much-criticized flattery of deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Messages about Canada represented a minuscule percentage of the overall volume of data released by U.S. lawmakers. To put it into perspective, there were more than 203,000 tweets in the data provided by Twitter for the congressional 2016 election probe, and less than 150 mentioned Trudeau or Keystone XL.
But things like Canadian oil are a natural target, said one analyst on Russian information campaigns.
“I wouldn’t be surprised (if they’re going after Canadian oil),” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. State Department official who co-ordinated sanctions policy for the U.S. government until 2017.
“You will find the Russians getting into all kinds of issues, deliberately stirring up debate, and trying to spin it in a malicious fashion. … Of course it is ironic the Russians would use environmental arguments, for which they have no patience at home, to hurt energy infrastructure abroad.”
Fried is the co-author of another just-released report in Washington.
His report was funded by NATO, the governments of the U.K. and Sweden, and released by the Atlantic Council think tank under the title, “Democratic Defense Against Disinformation.”
It recommends solutions for modern information warfare, including how best to combat the thousands of accounts impersonating westerners to spread rumours, falsehoods and facts chosen to hit specific targets.
It’s time for the democratic world to stop marvelling at the new phenomenon of online disinformation and start co-operating on solutions, he said.
The report begins by defining three types of online warfare:
- Propaganda. These are real news stories, selected to advance pro-Russian, anti-Western narratives. The report lists media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik as examples. Russia calls this an unfair slur, describing those outlets as government-owned, like the BBC and CBC. This report rejects that comparison: “They are arms of the Russian state no more independent than Pravda was during the Soviet period.”
- Social-media infiltration. Examples include anonymous accounts that spread 2016 disinformation about a Democrat-run pedophilia ring in a pizzeria, suggested Hillary Clinton was near death and urged minorities not to vote. The U.S. has charged 13 Russians in connection with those campaigns.
- Hacking. Online break-and-enters, where someone’s emails are stolen and distributed. It happened to Democrats in 2016, and to France’s Emmanuel Macron, just before France’s last election. A central question of the U.S. Mueller probe is who did the hacking in 2016, and who co-ordinated the release of stolen emails.
The paper’s central recommendation is that the West hew to its own stated democratic ideals — instead of fighting fire with fire, to douse it with what the report authors call the firehose of facts.
“Truth through transparency,” is how Fried describes it.
“If Canada believes that the debate about energy infrastructure is being skewed by Russian bots, or the St. Petersburg troll farm … the best way to combat that is to expose it.”
The report urges three groups to get involved.
It calls on governments to label outlets like Russia Today, which is now registered as a foreign agent in the U.S. It urges governments to create a point of contact for social-media companies, who currently don’t know where to discuss regulatory issues. And it suggests new transparency laws about who is paying for an online ad.
The paper also recommends funding for research on foreign trolling, and for bot-monitoring groups.
Third is the private sector: Stories from Russia Today should be labelled as coming from a registered foreign agent, says the paper. It recommends aggressive action to shut down impostors, more fact-checking of hoax accounts and information on who paid for an ad.
Finally, it suggests a new international public-private partnership called the Counter-Disinformation Coalition. It would involve governments, internet providers, traditional and new media, and have them constantly evaluating best practices.
“We are not arguing for a heavy regulatory hand,” said report co-author Alina Polyakova.
A U.S. State Department official said at the report launch that the solution isn’t creating troll farms in Western capitals.
“The solution to this problem is going to look nothing like the problem itself,” said Jonathan Henick, the department’s deputy director of the Global Engagement Center.
“We’re going to need to be much more creative … and it’s not going to look like troll farms — I promise you that.”