When Canadians think about military missions, internet trolls and social media posts aren’t the adversaries they expect their soldiers to encounter. But in Latvia, it’s all been part of the battle for Canadian forces.
“The biggest threat here is one of inaccurate information getting pushed out into some of the media,” said Lt. Col. Sean French in a phone interview with Global News. “We have seen that from time to time, especially in the early stages of the mission.”
Social media and fake news had opened a new front for militaries, who now have to fight against lies and hyperbole meant to stir up dissent and undermine missions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday visiting the Canadian troops who are stationed there as part of Operation Reassurance. It’s a NATO mission to provide assurance and deterrence in Eastern and Central Europe after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
And it’s Russia who is widely believed to be behind the online misinformation campaigns that plagued the Canadian Forces last year.
The National Post uncovered stories that popped up on websites purporting Canadian soldiers were staying in taxpayer-funded luxury apartments. Other campaigns suggested disgraced former air force colonel and serial killer Russell Williams still commanded Canada’s biggest air base.
“It’s typical type of fake news: taking images out of context, using images out of context, designed to stir up fear, designed to stir up enmity, designed to stir up mistrust,” said David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.
The Canadians say they’ve been winning the information war, of late, as the attacks have slowed down recently.
“It hasn’t been a problem, to be honest with you,” French told reporters in Riga on Tuesday. “We’ve been able to maintain our focus with all the soldiers.”
Fake news as a means to level the playing field
It’s a problem that is likely the grow as a part of modern conflicts, which aren’t defined by state boundaries, according to some experts.
“What social media, what disinformation, what the online narrative battles allow is for asymmetric powers to level the playing field,” explains Patrikarakos.
Online actors could spread stories meant to stir up dissent or exploit cultural fault lines. Former Soviet countries like Latvia are home to Russian populations, which are often targeted by the misinformation.
Another goal of misinformation and propaganda is to affect morale.
It hasn’t worked in Latvia, according to Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff.
“It stands out like a sore thumb when it happens,” he said in Riga. “The troops know what the truth is, so I don’t think it affects morale.”
How to fight fake news
Fighting fake news can be difficult for Western democracies and their armed forces.
“These things are very dangerous and they are only going to get worse as AI increases, as the technology develops, as the ability to create fake content improves,” Patrikarakos said. “You will never get ahead of the technology.”
Add to that the constraints of democratic society and actors like Russia have a clear advantage.
“Putin is not accountable to the press,” said Patrikarakos. “Our military can’t do that. They can’t pretend they are doing something they are not in the public domain because they will get caught out by their own media and they will pay the price.”
Instead, truth is the best weapon for militaries fighting information wars.
French said Canadian soldiers try to get out to local events and talk to the Latvians about the mission. There is also a concerted approach to respond online.
“We monitor social media and we respond appropriately to ensure really that the populations that count, the Latvian population, the Canadian population and the populations of the troops represented here, that their populations know that it is in fact an inaccurate story or social media hit and we correct it right away.”
Royal Military College professor Anthony Seaboyer has been studying the misinformation campaigns in Latvia. He says they were largely unsuccessful with very few posts catching up into any real public debate. Still, he warns Canada should remain vigilant since technology today can have a bigger impact than a tank.