Researchers found that on Twitter, members of Canada’s far left joined those on the far right in embracing pro-Russian messages created by a two-year Russian influence campaign.
By Ian Austen
April 1, 2023
The New York Times
While the torrent of leaks about possible interference by China in Canadian politics seems to have ebbed, the uproar over them continues and the federal government presented a budget this week containing some measures it hopes will deal with such meddling.
The budget sets aside 13.5 million Canadian dollars to establish a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office, and it will give the Royal Canadian Mounted Police 50 million dollars to counter harassment of Canadian immigrants by their authoritarian home countries.
To educate the public about foreign influence campaigns that target Canada, a group of researchers published a detailed examination of one such campaign this week: a Russian effort to use Twitter to mould Canadian public opinion about its invasion of Ukraine.The research held some surprises for its authors — pro-Russian messages were being promoted not only by far-right groups who openly expressed approval of Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin, but were also spread by far-left groups.
The researchers analyzed Twitter data from the year preceding the invasion and for the year following it. From that, they determined that about 90 Twitter accounts — most of them based in Canada, and all run by real users, not bots — were responsible for driving a pro-Moscow line that was retweeted or liked by about 200,000 other accounts during those two years.
As they anticipated, the majority 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 Mr. 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 less based on favoring Mr. Putin than on opposing war and NATO, but they echoed far-right phrases like “NATO is responsible for the war.”
The unintended result, the report said, is that the “political far left and far right have found common ground: undermining public support for Canadian financial, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.”
“What was interesting is that the far left played a much more prominent role,” BrianMcQuinn, a professor at the University of Regina and the co-director of its Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Data and Conflict, told me. “In Canada, that had not been identified before.”
The paper was also written by researchers at Digital Public Square, a group in Toronto that works on improving online privacy, civility and political engagement, as well as the
University of Maryland College of Information Studies. The work was partly funded by the governments of Canada and the United States.
The influence campaign adapted many of its messages for a Canadian audience with posts like “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 who is of Ukrainian heritage, is fluent in the language and once lived in Ukraine, was a particular target. (In her other capacity as finance minister, Ms.Freeland introduced the budget containing the measures to counter foreign interference.)
The data analysis showed, Professor McQuinn said, that in the three months before the invasion, there was basically a doubling of tweets promoting a Russian narrative aimed at Canada. “You can see the premeditated preparation for the actual invasion and then kind of a continuing increase every month ever since,” he said.
Polls show that support for helping Ukraine remains strong in Canada. So I asked Professor McQuinn if Moscow’s campaign was a waste of time and money.
“This wouldn’t matter if the narratives were not being picked up by literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians,” Professor McQuinn said.
The 90 accounts that comprised the Russia-aligned Twitter network had more followers, engagement with other social media users and produced more material than all the federal members of Parliament and more than all of 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 core 90 accounts for years. “It would be interesting to know what 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 firm conduct a survey about Russian influence and disinformation campaigns. Among other things, a quarter of its respondents 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 claim.
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 that the only truly effective solution is teaching people how 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 have this become a cornerstone of education for kids.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and hasreported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him onTwitter at @ianrausten.