Marcus Kolga breaks down how foreign influence operations are spreading disinformation and jeopardizing our democracy


April 17, 2023

Toronto Life


Human rights activist Marcus Kolga co-authored a new report about how Russian bots and foreign influence operations are spreading disinformation and jeopardizing democracy in Canada.

Canadian and American researchers have found that pro-Russian Twitter accounts have been manipulating Canadian social media users to weaken support for Ukraine. Their study, which analyzed two years of Twitter activity—including the period leading up to Russia’s assault on Ukraine last February—has uncovered how Canadians across the political spectrum are receiving and sharing the Kremlin’s disinformation narratives. “We’re all exposed to this threat, and ultimately, the integrity of our democracy and our understanding of the world around us is at stake,” says Marcus Kolga, a Toronto-based journalist and researcher who worked on the report. Here, Kolga—the founder of DisinfoWatch and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute—unpacks the concerning implications of these findings and explains how Canadians can protect themselves from disinformation.

Your study explores Russia’s covert attempts to diminish Canadian public support for Ukraine. Surely, this can’t be the first time the Kremlin has tried to influence public opinion in Canada.

No, this is definitely not new. The Soviet Union has been working toward manipulating Canadians since the 1940s. In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, defected to the West and revealed extensive influence operations that implicated dozens of Canadian academics and journalists as well as a member of Parliament. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, those “information operations” subsided. But, after Vladimir Putin became Russian president for the first time, in 2000, they re-intensified. In particular, we’ve seen a concerted operation over the past 14 months or so to turn Canadians against Ukraine.

How did you figure out that this current Russian information operation was going on?

As part of my advocacy work to shed light on Russian human rights abuses, I’ve analyzed Russian state media narratives for the past 15 years. One of the ways I’ve done that is by monitoring several hundred pro-Russian Twitter accounts that amplified those same disinformation narratives over and over again. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, I took the most common narratives from a core group of about 90 Twitter accounts to researchers at the University of Regina, the University of Maryland and Stanford University.

They plugged them into a network analysis program and found that those narratives have been reverberating in an ecosystem of 200,000 Canadian Twitter accounts. This ecosystem is composed of average Canadians—some of whom might only have a couple of hundred followers—who retweet or like the tweets containing the disinformation narratives. Since the start of the war, the members of this ecosystem have exposed those narratives to millions of other Canadians.

Who runs these 90 pro-Russian accounts? Are they automated bots or real people?

To the best of our knowledge, those accounts are all actual humans, and they’re mostly geolocated in Canada or elsewhere in North America. But they may be “sock-puppet accounts”: they can have Canadian locations but may be controlled by someone in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

What are the common narratives that these pro-Russian accounts are spreading?

They’re carefully designed to nullify our support for Ukraine. One example is the claim that Western sanctions on Russia are the reason for recent global inflation. Other narratives revolve around NATO being responsible for the war or Russia being solely motivated by the objective of de-Nazifying Ukraine, both of which are ridiculous distortions of reality.

In your study, you mention that those pro-Russian narratives often blend half-truths with the blatant lies. What’s a particularly egregious example of that?

The narrative that Ukraine is corrupt, with the implication being that our aid isn’t going to the people who need it. To make sure they gain a certain amount of stickiness, those narratives often have a grain of truth somewhere within them. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had well-documented problems with corruption. Russian information operations use that fact to suggest that Western aid being sent to Ukraine is going into a corrupt black hole. For example, Russian state media has claimed that the arms Canada is sending to Ukraine are being sold off on the black market. This is false. This narrative also completely disregards the reality that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of tackling corruption and that he’s taken steps to eject government officials involved in corrupt practices.

Beyond Canada, is Russia conducting similar operations elsewhere in the world?

Absolutely. They’re doing it in the United States and in several European countries with governments that support Ukraine.

Human rights activist Marcus Kolga co-authored a new report about how Russian bots and foreign influence operations are spreading disinformation and jeopardizing democracy in Canada.

What were some of your main takeaways from the study?

Some might assume that the Canadian far-right is the only part of our society that’s vulnerable, but we found that pro-Russian narratives are being picked up and amplified by Canadians on the far-left and the far-right. This reveals to me that this is not a partisan issue—it is a threat to the

entire political spectrum. The second most important thing our study discovered was that Russian disinformation activity on Twitter doubled in intensity during the two months leading up to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Does that refute Putin’s repeated denials that the Ukraine invasion was planned in advance?

There’s no doubt about it. Along with a build-up of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, the intensification of Russian information operations right before the invasion clearly indicates that Putin knew exactly what he was going to do months beforehand.

At the very least, the information operation has worked in spreading those pro-Russian narratives. But is it actually succeeding in eroding public support?

There are some signs that it’s working in Canada, but the evidence is clearer in the United States. Recent polls have indicated that American Republican voters are much less supportive of Ukraine today than they were a year or so ago. Is that solely because of Russian disinformation? It’s hard to say for sure, but what we do know is that far-right media outlets in the United States are parroting many of the pro-Russian narratives, and that will definitely affect how Americans vote in the near future. However, in Estonia, another Russian-targeted country, the leading far-right party’s anti-Ukrainian narratives in its recent platform were roundly rejected by most voters.

If the Kremlin succeeds at diminishing Canadian public support, how will that affect Ukraine’s ability to fight back against Russia?

The main concern is that reduced public support in Canada—and other Western countries—will lead to an erosion of financial aid and lethal defensive aid as well as an end to the sanctions that hold Putin and his kleptocrats to account. Without that aid, it will be very difficult for Ukraine to win this war.

What can we do to tackle foreign influence campaigns like this one?

Everyone has a role to play in cleaning up our information environment. The long-term path to resilience is making sure there is an ongoing regular dialogue with all of the relevant stakeholders: not just all political parties in Parliament as well as relevant government agencies and departments but also civil society, mainstream media and social media. An encouraging sign on that front is that Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs jointly hosted the launch of this study in Ottawa earlier this month.

Are there any tangible actions our government can take to protect its citizens from disinformation and foreign interference?

Now more than ever, the long-term resiliency of a society is dependent on everyone having basic digital media literacy skills. We need to ensure that future generations of Canadians are inoculated from disinformation by receiving proper digital media literacy education from an early age. This will also help make critical thinking a natural part of younger Canadians’ cognitive processes. We will require leadership from all levels of government on this front, but we don’t have to start from scratch: the Finnish government has been effectively deploying

digital media literacy education for years. For example, a Finnish eighth grade student taking science will learn about how someone with an agenda may try to manipulate the scientific process to their own ends. Unsurprisingly, Finland is currently one of the most resilient societies against disinformation.

What about individual Canadians?

Canadians need to limit their consumption of information on social media platforms like Facebook. But, if you do consume information and it provokes an emotional response, you need to take a step back and process it before immediately liking or sharing it. If it’s from an unfamiliar source, you’re probably better off leaving it alone. However, if you’re really concerned about a news story, it’s worth running that story through a Google search and checking to see if other media outlets are reporting it.

Otherwise, I’m always asked about a silver bullet in tackling disinformation campaigns like this, and the simple answer is getting a newspaper subscription. Our mainstream media publications are staffed by professionals who have been trained to report verified facts, not rumours or hunches. Trusting in professional journalism is really our way back to a world where facts lead the way.


Ali Amad is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.