Stemming the VIRUS: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation

By Marcus Kolga, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald- Laurier Institute’s Centre for Advancing Canada’s Interests Abroad

A Macdonald-Laurier Institute Publication, January 2019.

Executive Summary

Truth is a mere nuisance in today’s world of Kremlin propaganda. In the course of its conflict against Ukraine, Russian state news has boldly fabricated facts and evidence to support its positions, including fake interviews and even images. During the 2013-2014 Euromaidan uprisings in Ukraine, Russian television broadcast interviews with people who were secretly actors, alleging that Ukrainian “fascists” had committed atrocities, including the crucifixion of a child by Ukrainian forces. In the case of the 2014 downing of a civilian aircraft, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, UK investigative collective Bellingcat discovered that Kremlin agents manufactured evidence to cover up Russian state involvement in the crime.

Canada has also been the victim of disinformation. Recent Kremlin disinformation about the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) in Latvia provides a raw example of the crudeness of disinformation campaigns. In the Latvian case, the CAF was targeted by local Kremlin-controlled Russian language media to turn local public opinion against the mission. In one case, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s appearance, including his turban, was exploited by pro-Kremlin media to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments. And another Russian speaking outlet used photos of convicted murderer Russell Williams to promote a negative story that Canadian soldiers were promoting homosexuality in Latvia.

Perhaps most worrisome is the Kremlin’s demonstrated ability to interfere in democratic elections. Election outcomes are not the primary focus of this warfare, but a measure of the overall success of the Kremlin’s disinformation and active measures campaigns. The rot and decay of both our democracy and the trust we have in our media, leaders and allies is what Putin seeks to cultivate and grow.

As Canada approaches the 2019 federal elections, the government must pay closer attention to disinformation and influence campaigns that target Canadian media, decision-makers, civil society, and other groups. Ottawa should develop a Communications and Digital Democracy Strategy that brings together key Ministries – including National Defence, Public Safety, Global Affairs, and Democratic Institutions, as well as Canadian intelligence agencies – to actively monitor and develop measures to safeguard Canadian democracy against manipulation by disinformation, foreign intelligence active measures, cyber attacks, and influence campaigns.

A dedicated office, the National Centre for Strategic Communications and Digital Democracy, should be created and tasked with five primary activities:


1. Monitor, detect, and identify disinformation and influence campaigns via:

• media monitoring;
• mapping out proxy groups and organizations; • analytics development; and
• monitoring and detecting cyber threats.

2. Develop strategies to combat and disarm disinformation and influence campaigns:

• implement a national media literacy campaign for decision-makers, media, civil society, and the public;

• work with cable providers to ensure television-based propaganda platforms, like RT, are only available on a stand-alone basis and not bundled with basic cable packages;

• regulate propaganda programming with ratings and warnings;

• advocate for major search engines to add conspiracy theory and disinformation platforms to their restricted search;

• enhance the capacities of and empower positive third-party messengers;

• rapidly develop content to respond to and dispel disinformation to media, NGOs, and other groups in multiple languages;

• cooperate with international partners where disinformation about Canada emerges; and

• promote the development of transparent domestic media channels that challenge state-sponsored media.

3. Increase cyber literacy and security awareness, for personal, corporate, and political use.

4. Work with social media and other tech companies to:

• curb the spread of disinformation using their networks;

• identify troll and bot accounts;

• ensure that the privacy of users is protected;

• identify companies and individuals whose user information has been stolen and used to inappropriately target them with propaganda; and

• open dialogues with other jurisdictions and governments that are working on strengthening privacy and coordination with social media firms, including Australia, where the Assistance and Access Bill is being debated.

5. Expand existing and develop new international partnerships with various domestic and international organizations to help carry out monitoring, detection, and counter-disinformation activities, such as:

• domestic civil society groups including ethnic community and religious leaders;

• Canadian and allied intelligence gathering organizations;

• international civil society groups, including think tanks and academic organizations;

• supranational groups such as NATO and the EU; and

• international allied governments including the US State Department and the UK government.

When developing strategies and policies to combat foreign disinformation, governments must do so with the fundamental understanding that it is our democracy that is being targeted for subversion. The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government, media institutions, and each other. Canada’s response must therefore be robust and take into account all sources and methods of how foreign information warfare and democratic interference are conducted. Most importantly, we must be prepared for a very long fight.

Read the full report here.

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