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A new reportfrom Alberta-based Sergey Sukhankin, a Research Fellow at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, argues that Russia’s increasing interest in acquiring parts of the arctic owned by Canada is likely fueling their propaganda efforts in the country. He believes these efforts will only grow as Canada’s election begins and the political landscape becomes even more divisive. However, he is optimistic regarding Canadian resilience and unity.
“The Kremlin has a growing interest in dominating the Arctic, where it sees Russia as in competition with Canada,” writes Sukhankin. “This means Canada can anticipate escalations in information warfare, particularly from hacktivists fomenting cyber-attacks.
“Perceived as one of Russia’s chief adversaries in the Arctic region, Canada is a prime target in the information wars, with Russia potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election. Ottawa should be ready for a new surge in cyberattacks, disinformation and propaganda levelled against Canada in the near future.”
Sukhankin believes that Canada has been a major target of Russian propaganda since it deployed its military contingent on the shores of the Baltic Sea, which prompted a slew of new propaganda efforts, “in the guise of cynical comments ridiculing the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and disseminated by pro-Kremlin information outlets.”
According to Sukhankin, two legitimate threats in the disinformation campaign will be trolls and bots. As he explains, trolls play an important role in undermining the legitimacy of all political candidates and are effective in diminishing one’s own image of their country and leaders. The goal is to negatively psychologically impact a nation’s citizens so that they lose faith in their home country. Bots function by mass generating an artificial consensus, making it appear that many people are for are against one event or proposition, while there may be few.
Sukhankin has identified four major themes which are likely to emerge from various Russian media outlets (and proxies) or have already emerged.
Theme 1: Canada as a safe haven of russophobia and (neo)fascism.
Theme 2: Canada as part of the colonial forces in the Baltic Sea region.
The first two themes are obviously meant to appeal to those on the political Left. The goal is to extend colonization narratives to favourably include Russia while simultaneously undermining Canadian patriotism, inspiring protests and possibly pro-Russian activism.
Theme 3: Canada as Washington’s useful satellite.
Theme 4: Canada as a testing ground for the practical implementation of immoral
The latter two themes are clearly meant to appeal to those on the political Right. The third theme also diminishes patriotism by making Right-wing individuals feel like they are governed by politicians who are bought and owned by foreign nations, in this case, the U.S. It is further designed to decrease profitable relations between Canada and its allies.
The fourth theme appeals to the socially-conservative in the country, spurring on a loss of faith in the normative landscape of the country with narratives such as ‘the world is run by pedophiles’ and that the Canadian government is working towards legalizing pedophilia. At the same time, outlets which push this message promote the socially conservative Russian Orthodox Church as an alternative, which has also aided in the propagation of this messaging.
As one can see, both sides of the political spectrum can find validity for their beliefs in the form of Russian propaganda; thus, both sides are vulnerable to such propaganda’s influence.
“[Modern Russian propaganda] is carefully designed to appeal to the full political spectrum and it focuses on undermining Western institutions rather than promoting Soviet ones,” writes Sukhankin. “While this disinformation campaign sticks to simplistic narratives, its structure is anything but simple. Not limiting itself to cyber- and information components, the campaign is also composed of psychological operations, public affairs, military threats, strategic communications, bribery and corruption.”
One problem which often arises, which Sukhankin points out, is that calling Russian propaganda “fake news” often bolsters Russian propaganda. This is because saying that all Russian news is a lie is false. When people hear that blanket condemnation and then see something from Russia Insight or RT that is true, people lose faith in their own institution’s ability to accurately disseminate information. The narrative is broken, and people become more open to the idea that most of what these outlets publish are true.
In his final thoughts, Sukhankin warns that it is likely that we will see various outlets stir up a number of sensitive issues, such as Islamophobia or the Francophone population and its rights. While he says the main targets of such information will be those of Russian-decent, it is likely the reach will be much greater and that this will lead to an even more divisive campaign season.