By David Akin
February 25, 2023
When it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one factor influencing Canadians’ attitudes toward the conflict is the ability to get reliable information. In the age of social media and online misinformation, this is easier said than done. As David Akin reports, Global News has obtained internal federal polling, showing the Prime Minister’s Office is taking interest in how disinformation campaigns are impacting views of the war.
More than two-thirds of Canadians say disinformation campaigns about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made an impact on their ability to sort through true and false information about the conflict, according to internal federal government polling obtained by Global News.
Questions about disinformation and Ukraine were part of the Privy Council’s weekly polling program in October. That polling data was recently released to Global News under federal access-to-information laws.
The polling program is supervised and often directed by officials in the prime minister’s office and the results are circulated among the country’s most senior decision makers, including the prime minister, his top aides, cabinet and every deputy minister.
Two months after polling Canadians on the impact of disinformation, Global Affairs Canada unveiled the most visible program so far in the government’s campaign against Russian disinformation: A website which fact-checks bogus Russian claims about the conflict.
On Friday in Toronto, while marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would do more to combat disinformation.
“We will continue to support brave journalists who are telling the truth, who are sharing actual news and facts around the world,” Trudeau said. “We will continue to ensure that there is no place for the lies that Putin is sharing.”
But James Bezan, a Conservative MP from Manitoba with Ukrainian ancestors, said the Trudeau government has been slow to counter Russian propaganda and could take more aggressive action against disinformation, including by removing Russian diplomats from Canada.
“I don’t know how much more that this government needs to hear and see, to continue to sit back on its hands rather than being aggressive with those that are propagating this disinformation and foreign interference here in Canada,” Bezan said.
“So if there is direct links, as I believe there is, to the Russian embassy, as well as their diplomatic missions across the country, then there needs to be concrete action taken by the government.”
In the October poll commissioned by the Privy Council Office, 37 per cent of respondents said disinformation was having a “major impact” on Canadians’ ability to distinguish between true and false information about the war in Ukraine; 35 per cent said disinformation was having a “minor impact.’
“This disinformation campaign is undermining our own democracy,” Bezan said. “And this disinformation campaign is hurting Western support.”
In the poll, just 17 per cent said disinformation efforts were having no impact.
“I hope that the government looks at these numbers and can clearly see that this is a significant problem and that even Canadians — regular Canadians — are recognizing it as such,” said Marcus Kolga, the executive director of DisinfoWatch, a think tank which tracks Russian disinformation campaigns.
“The disinformation that Russia is promoting, amplifying on social media and on their state media platforms is directly intended to erode Western and Canadian public support for Ukraine.”
Throughout 2022, the PCO’s weekly polling program included plenty of questions about Ukraine and the federal government’s response to the war.
In early March, shortly after the invasion, 41 per cent of Canadians said the government should do more in response to Russia’s invasion. By October, that number had dropped to 34 per cent.
The PCO polling program also found that views about the Trudeau government’s response to the crisis remained fairly steady through the year, with 41 per cent saying the government was on the ‘right track’ with its response to Ukraine in early March and 44 per cent saying the same thing in early December, the most recent date for which the internal polling has been obtained by Global News.
The PCO polls 1,000 Canadians almost every week via cell phones and land-lines using live agents. The raw polling data obtained by Global News does not provide any information about margins of error but the pollster does collect demographic information such as age, gender and education levels to be able to weight the data so that it reflects the makeup of Canada’s population.