State adversaries like Russia will not be the only sources trying to influence the Canadian election with disinformation — the global far right will likely be doing the same, according to one expert on online conflict and extremism.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Sasha Havlicek said the effects of disinformation and fake news from both the Kremlin and the far right have been seen in recent European elections. According to recent cybersecurity assessments, the lines between the two sources can often be blurred, with one party amplifying disinformation from the other.
“What we’re seeing is a much more complex set of actors,” said Havlicek, founder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank focusing on solutions to extremism and polarization.
“We’re seeing transnational non-state actors very active here. The international right has been as much of a player, I would say, as Kremlin sources across Europe, across a whole range of elections of late, and we can see an investment in long-range campaigns around wedge issues.”
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Havlicek said the way those groups are spreading fake news is also changing.
“What we see now across European elections and across the information warfare terrain is a much more nuanced way in which fakery is happening,” she said, noting that this is posing challenges in identifying and removing fake news before it can spread.
“We need a much better job being done by the internet companies to deal with this far-right problem … They need to do more to engage with experts who understand the nuance of the type of content that’s being put out by these groups and how it’s reaching specific constituencies.”
As noted by Politico during a report into how disinformation spread during the European Parliament elections last month, malign actors are shifting from creating fake content themselves to amplifying domestic extremist messaging in a bid to sow social tensions.
That same report found more than half of European voters are believed to have encountered some form of online disinformation spread by Russian actors, and that included a significant online network that boosted and shared content from far-right extremists and populist politicians during that election.
This makes it even harder for intelligence officials to track, the report explained.
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Havlicek said the fact that people tend to trust content shared by their friends and family also factors into the challenges of stopping the spread of disinformation.
“News and information that’s shared within peer groups tends to be more impactful. We tend to believe it a little bit more,” she said. “You may not question it in as rigorous a way as you might verify other types of content.”
While she said she thinks the Canadian government has “done quite a lot” to try to prepare the country for the onslaught of disinformation, Havlicek said the bigger challenge will lie in whether people actually respond and take a more critical eye to what is shared into their social networks.
“One of the tactics we need to be alive to is this tactic of trying to get people simply to not come out and bother to vote,” she said.