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Canadians Can Experience Several Means of Foreign Interference: Expert

Allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democracy have dominated discussions on Parliament Hill for the past week, with the prime minister unveiling new measures aimed at investigating what happened in the last two federal elections and several committees studying the issue.

University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young said the government’s role in regulating election interference is “tricky” because of the many forms it can take.

Former public servant Morris Rosenberg cited Young’s work on threats to election campaigns in a report released last week that reviewed the federal protocol for monitoring foreign interference attempts during the 2021 election.

Here’s a look at her breakdown of different types of election interference and how they work.

Digital interference

People looking to interfere in an election could do so by amplifying or suppressing messages on social media, Young said. When that happens on a platform that’s hosted outside of Canada, it can be difficult or impossible for authorities to remove the content.

“I don’t know that it’s possible to use Canadian law to insist that it be taken down, particularly in a timely fashion,” she said.

Foreign governments can use social media platforms to spread misinformation or amplify the campaign of a favoured candidate.

Digital interference can also take the form of real-looking “deepfake” videos, which deliberately manipulate footage to misinform the viewer — so as to give the appearance that a political candidate said something they never did in real life, for example.

Other methods of digital interference include threatening or intimidating voters online, hacking the computers of political parties or candidates, distributing damaging material about a particular party or candidate and spreading disinformation online.

Analog interference

Analog interference often targets candidates financially. That caninclude foreign governments using domestic proxies to give money to permanent residents or non-Canadian citizens, and telling them to direct it to a specific candidate.

“That’s an illegal campaign contribution under our law, but it’s difficult to track,” she said. “It would be very difficult to prove this unless somebody who was the intermediary was willing to testify to that effect.”

That is the form of interference alleged in Global News reporting in recent months, which said Chinese officials in Toronto gave money to a covert network of people tasked with interfering in the 2019 election.

Foreign governments may also threaten or intimidate voters directly or through their loved ones who are outside Canada.

Agents of a foreign state could even run for office.

Analog interference can also happen domestically, including by spreading disinformation through leaflets, posters or word of mouth, vote fraud and threatening or intimidating voters.

Foreign versus domestic interference

Young said there are “lots of questions and murkiness” about where interference originates.

In some instances, someone in Canada could be using a foreign online platform to interfere digitally, she said. “These foreign platforms have become potential vehicles for domestic actors who want to spread some kind of misinformation.”

Young said the best remedy the Canadian government has to combat foreign interference is to give voters information about what is happening in real time.

She said allegations of foreign interference should be taken seriously because it can threaten Canadian sovereignty, but warned about conflating the actions of a foreign government with its people.

“It’s really important to distinguish between the government of China on the one hand, and Canadians of Chinese descent on the other,” she said.

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