Don’t believe the pro-Kremlin propaganda in Canadian social media, including claims that arrested U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich is actually a spy
Apr 05, 2023
The last anyone heard from Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich before his arrest was last Wednesday. He’d just arrived at a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, an 1,800-kilometre drive from Moscow, east of the Ural Mountains. A colleague had texted him, wishing him luck. “I’ll let you know how it goes,” Gershkovich responded.
That afternoon, a report appeared on the messaging service Telegram that Russian state security agents had gone to the restaurant and taken someone away. The next day Russia’s state news agency confirmed that the 31-year-old Gershkovich had been detained by the Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, on charges that he was a spy gathering “state secret” information for the United States about “the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex.”
Gershkovich was taken to Moscow where a court ordered that he be held in custody until a court appearance May 29. His prospects are not good. Espionage trials in Russia are held in secret, and rarely result in acquittals. Gershkovich is being detained in the grim, 140-year-old Lefortovo Prison, which also houses the veteran U.S. Marine Paul Whelan who’s serving a 16-year sentence on a spying conviction from 2020.
Gershkovich had been working on a story about public attitudes concerning Russian supreme leader Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the FSB is said to have been concerned that Gershkovich was taking too close an interest in the state-approved mercenary army known as the Wagner Group, which is associated with atrocities in Syria and Libya. In the war against Ukraine, the Wagner Group has recruited prisoners, offering bounties and pardons in exchange for their services as soldiers for hire.
The White House calls the FSB’s espionage allegations against Gershkovich outrageous and ridiculous.
The same day Gershkovich was picked up in Yekaterinburg, an in-depth analysis of Russian propaganda in Canada was being released in Ottawa at a press conference attended by Liberal MP John McKay, Conservative Shadow Minister for National Defence James Bezan, and the New Democratic Party foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson.
Published by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Data and Conflict at the University of Regina, the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland and the Toronto-based Digital Public Square organization, the study sheds a disturbing light on the diffusion of pro-Kremlin
propaganda in Canadian social-media networks, on both the “left” and the “right” of the political spectrum.
Titled Enemy of My Enemy, the report exposes the way polemics, propaganda lines and falsehoods of the kind associated with the fringes of the Green Party, the NDP and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party are often indistinguishable from one another, permeating a social-media ecosystem of perhaps 200,000 Twitter accounts.
Among the Kremlin-friendly propaganda lines: Canadian foreign policy has been captured by the Ukrainian-Canadian community; Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an understandable response to NATO provocations; Canada’s sanctions are causing inflation, global food shortages and rising fuel costs; and Russia’s invasion is really just a proxy war between Washington and Moscow that Canada should have nothing to do with.
“Eventually we’re going to need to have some kind of discussion about these new groupings that are emerging,” study co-author Marcus Kolga told me. “The old labels of left and right, the old political compass, doesn’t really apply to this. It’s a kind of politics that is truly illiberal.”
It’s a peculiarity marked by a confluence of an extremist worldview uniting the far-right tendencies associated with Donald Trump — which defy conventional “conservative” values — with such nominally leftish groupuscules as the “Canada Files” website and the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War. Among the most prominent pro-Putin apologists in the western world are the Canadian pseudo-journalists Aaron Maté, Yves Engler and Eva Bartlett. They congregate around “news” platforms such as the Greyzone and the Kremlin’s RT News and related digital operations, and routinely run interference for Syrian mass murderer Bashar Assad. And yet they purport to be “progressive.”
In tandem with the eclipse of conventional journalism and the forced retreat of legacy news organizations from increasingly aggressive police states like China and Russia, the void is being filled with digital propaganda that creeps into mainstream debates. Last July, the Toronto Metropolitan University’s Social Media Lab encountered an odd signal in the disinformation data they were studying that suggests pro-Kremlin propaganda is less successful among liberal-left Canadians than among right-leaning Canadians.
“Our analysis shows that left-leaning Canadians are consistently less likely to believe in pro-Kremlin propaganda overall, as compared to Canadians who hold mixed or right-leaning views. Conversely, those who hold right-leaning ideologies are more likely to believe in pro-Kremlin propaganda overall, as compared to Canadians who hold mixed or left-leaning views.”
Said Kolga: “If you’re going to look at which side of the political spectrum has been supporting these authoritarians and making excuses for them, a large number of them claim to be on the left. But the far left has been working with Moscow since Stalin’s days, so it would be ridiculous to be surprised by this.”
In the meantime, Russian journalists continue their work at a constant risk to their lives and liberty. Most western journalists pulled out of Russia after Putin launched his full-on invasion of Ukraine last February. By all accounts, Gershkovich, from a family of Russian Jews who fled the
Soviet Union for the United States, genuinely loves Russia. His curiosity has taken him from the bistros of Moscow to the furthest reaches of the Russian Far East.
Since Gershkovich’s arrest and imprisonment, the Wall Street Journal has dropped its paywall on all of his stories. And now that Passover week has begun, the paper’s deputy bureau chief for the Middle East, Shayndi Raice, has launched a campaign urging Jews to leave a seat open for Gershkovich at their Seder meals — a throwback to a custom from the days of Jewish captivity in Russia during Joseph Stalin’s rule. Passover marks the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery. “As you celebrate freedom,” said Raice, “join us in demanding freedom for Evan.”
Terry Glavin is an author and a journalist.