Distinguishing trolls from taxpayer will be one of the challenges facing officials tasked with trying to keep the upcoming federal election safe from attempts at foreign interference.
In an interview with The West Block, Treasury Board president and acting Democratic Institutions Minister Scott Brison said it will take a “whole-of-society” approach to tackle the threats of foreign voter persuasion that can undermine democracies, such as those attributed to Russia in recent American and European elections.
But figuring out how to tell who is a citizen exercising their right to voice dissent online from trolls purposely trying to whip up a frenzy will be one of the difficult balancing acts that elections officials will need to consider.
“We also have to balance protecting our electoral system with also recognizing the importance of free speech,” Brison said.
“There is a balance there, in the same way there’s a balance between understanding the difference between chatbots operated by foreign organizations deliberately aimed at thwarting Canadian elections versus free speech in Canada and people expressing their opinions as citizens on social media.”
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In February, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals for allegedly interfering with the 2016 American presidential election.
According to court documents, the Russian meddling went back to 2014 and was carried out with the goal to “sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.”
On March 15, U.S. President Donald Trump slapped a fresh round of sanctions on 19 Russian individuals and five groups for meddling in the election and for carrying out cyberattacks on the U.S.
One of those five entities was the Internet Research Agency, more commonly known as Russia’s factory of internet trolls.
The entity spammed social media platforms with divisive political posts and misinformation during the 2016 election.
Intelligence officials have also said they believe Russian meddling was aimed at disparaging Hillary Clinton and promoting Trump.
Deciphering which posts come from legitimate Canadians voicing dissent or concerns will be part of the challenge for Canadian officials, who have been watching and learning from the mistakes and best practices of allies in Europe and the U.S.
But it is not just the government that will need to step up its game, Brison warned.
“Citizens themselves have a responsibility,” he said. “There is an urgency to this.”
Budget 2018 announced roughly $750 million for cybersecurity and boosting government systems.
Elections Canada will also get roughly $14 million over the next two years in money reallocated from funds set aside to hire contact staff which will now be used to hire full-time staff to work on protecting the Canadian electoral system.