OTTAWA — Canada on Wednesday created a special task force to fight disinformation and foreign meddling in upcoming elections, after cyberattacks and interference in US and European ballots.
The government also earmarked funding to teach voters how to identify malicious online posts.
The move comes ahead of parliamentary polls in October where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party will seek to hold on to its majority.
"What we’re announcing today is a plan to protect the integrity of Canada’s 2019 federal election," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a press conference, flanked by Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan and Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.
The CAN$7 million (US$5.3 million) will be spent on workshops and public awareness campaigns to increase Canadians’ online literacy and warn about tactics used to deceive voters.
A new task force that includes Canada’s federal police, foreign ministry, electronic eavesdropping agency and spy agency will also analyze social media activity and disrupt attacks.
Senior officials would be required to inform party leaders and the public during an election campaign of specific threats or attacks, as well as coordinate responses with allies.
At a meeting in June in Quebec, the Group of Seven industrialised nations created a working group to protect liberal democracies from foreign interference in the wake of Russian attacks during the 2016 US election and tampering in other countries.
Gould noted that Twitter, Google and Facebook have been used to spread disinformation.
She has been meeting with executives from social media companies, seeking commitments from them to implement strict safeguards against abuse of their platforms, similar to those adopted in the European Union.
"We see that the social media companies, while they are starting to take some responsibility, they still have a ways to go," she said.
Attacks on democracy increasing
A government briefing document said Ottawa "expects these companies to take concrete actions to help safeguard this fall’s election," including maintaining a registry of partisan advertising during pre-election and election periods.
Defence Minister Sajjan said "cyberthreat activity against democratic processes is increasing around the world."
At the press conference, Goodale pointed to sophisticated attempts to sway elections in other countries in 2017 such as France where bots were used to slander President Emmanuel Macron, and Germany where seven of the 10 most-shared articles about Chancellor Angela Merkel on Facebook were false.
"The Americans were obviously affected in 2016," he added.
Meddling, Goodale outlined, may include the "old fashioned" theft of sensitive information by foreign spies or providing illegal funds to campaigns, or coercing a diaspora.
But increasingly, he said "social media have been used to falsely slander elected officials. Trolls and bots are dispatched to stoke anxiety, even hysteria around sensitive issues. Fake news masquerades as legitimate information."
Governments have always tried to shape public opinion and policy in other countries to advance their own interests, and as long as that is done openly, legally and transparently it’s fine, Goodale said.
"But when that type of activity becomes covert or clandestine, when it consists of lies and disinformation aimed at misleading people, destabilising the economy or society or manipulating the democratic process, a bright red line gets crossed," he concluded.
A senior official was pressed about how security officials will differentiate between partisan campaign bluster and malicious disinformation.
"Democratic debate is rough and tumble," the official said. "The line will be very generous for political parties. (The new measures) are not intended to catch political parties or referee the election, (but rather) cases of covert and malicious actions probably from overseas in Canadian elections." — AFP