Right-wing extremists pose a threat to Canadians, says Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
According to a report written by Jennifer Ditchburn, Havlicek briefed an audience made up of civil servants and academics in Ottawa recently on her organization’s research into right-wing, online influence. This research focused specifically on the strategies extremists used to change the course of the 2017 German, and 2018 Italian elections, but she emphasized that the lessons to be drawn from these campaigns need not be limited to Europe.
According to Havlicek, we can expect to see the same divisive themes that have roiled the political space in other countries replicated and amplified here. These themes, broadly speaking, are anti-immigration, anti-climate action, pro-family values and pro-free speech. They are part of a long-range campaign, she says, to dismantle internationalist and progressive gains.
If the strategy is to manipulate the political conversation, the mechanism more often than not is social media. And for those of us clinging to a conviction that Canada is immune to the sort of sinister interference that other countries have experienced, John Grey, co-founder of British Columbia-based Mentionmapp Analytics, has bad news.
Grey examined Canada’s political conversation over a two-year period by tracking popular political hashtags such as #abpoli, #ableg, #bcpoli and #cdnpoli. He found that roughly 25 to 30 percent of accounts invoking these hashtags were suspicious and likely inauthentic.
What signals inauthenticity? Grey told National Observer reporter, Caroline Orr, that the number of tweets, or the rate of tweeting, associated with an individual account are key. For this study, Grey set a benchmark of 72 tweets per day – apparently a common standard. Some of the accounts he looked at exceeded 400 tweets every 24 hours, seven days a week. No human could maintain this level of activity. It’s almost certainly a bot.
The issues that attracted this level of Twitter activity included vaccines and the Kinder Morgan pipeline—divisive issues in the Canadian scene.
Grey didn’t attempt to identify the politics associated with inauthentic activity. Nor did he trace the source. He doesn’t say whether the views being spread were from the right or the left, or whether they came from Russia, the United States of suburban Burnaby, B.C. What he does say is that a few accounts are having an outsized influence in the Twittersphere, which in turn can affect the algorithms that drive content on other platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram. These inauthentic accounts distort our perception of what matters to Canadians. And in some instances, they promote stories that are untrue.
For all that Grey is careful in drawing conclusions from his research, he is clear about its implications. He might be echoing Sasha Havlicek when he tells Orr: “We’re being attacked. Our brains are being hacked.”
Jennifer Ditchburn, “Keeping a Wary Eye on the Transnational Extreme Right During Election 2019,” Policy Options, June 13, 2019. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/06/13/opinion/keeping-wary-eye-transnational-extreme-right-during-election-2019
Caroline Orr, “Non-Human Users Threaten to Hijack Canada’s Twitter Conversations,” National Observer, June 27, 2019. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/06/26/news/non-human-users-threaten-hijack-canadas-twitter-discussions?