Ontario election: journalists likely targets of disinformation smear campaigns

Click to play video: 'Fact or Fiction: Journalists likely targets for disinformers during Ont. election'
Fact or Fiction: Journalists likely targets for disinformers during Ont. election
When it comes to election interference, Ontarians may not have to look very far for the perpetrators. Researchers say many disinformation attacks have domestic origins. – Jun 2, 2022

It seems every time there’s an election in North America, the question of foreign interference quickly follows.

One year after the 2016 election in the U.S., elections in at least 17 countries, including Canada were impacted by disinformation. Canada’s 2021 election experienced Chinese interference.

The Canadian Centre for Cybersecurity says voters are often targeted by nefarious actors during elections. But in the midst of alarming media-bullying trends, as journalists across Ontario scramble to disseminate the latest news about the June 2nd election, researchers say their large platform places a massive target on their backs.

“Journalists are in the business of getting information and disclosing it to the public,” said David Masson, director of enterprise security at the AI cybersecurity company Darktrace. “The journalist doesn’t realize they’re being sucked into the larger piece of the jigsaw puzzle. They’ll actually be used to promote a line or reduce attention to something else.”

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Because Canadian elections are paper-based and therefore ‘unhackable,’ Masson says it makes sense for nefarious actors to target the people who cover elections instead.

Their weapon of choice? Disinformation.

“We live in a very connected world. Because of this networking, we are facing new challenges,” Ahmed Al-Rawi, director of the Disinformation Project, told Global News over Zoom. “Disinformation campaigns targeting journalists during an election is an attempt to silence them.”

Disinformers may deploy multiple techniques. One, says Christopher Tenove is “media manipulation” aimed at deluding a journalist into reporting falsehoods.

“A sweet spot for this technique is just a few days before the election,” said the researcher at Global Reporting Centre. “There’s somewhat of a tendency for [voters] to remember the last thing they saw.”

We’ve seen such instances globally, like the massive #macronleaks dump of hacked emails days prior to the conclusion of France’s presidential campaign. Emmanuel Macron claims fabricated information was planted between real documents to sow doubt. French officials pointed fingers at Russia.

In Canada, Masson and Al-Rawi say past elections show such a threat doesn’t seem to be a major concern, even in Ontario. However, Al-Rawi notes its a “large hypothetical,” meaning journalists should not let their guard down.

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Despite this, another disinformation technique has proved to be active in the country, and is constantly weaponized against journalists covering the polls.

Reporters are increasingly battling smear campaigns, online harassment, lies and racist vitriol that are “threats to their reputation and credibility,” said Tenove.

Whether its leaking intimate or fabricated photos or threatening reporters’ safety, Tenove says these campaigns are longer-lasting and more carefully planned. They aim to “make it harder for journalists to do their job, harder for sources to open up to them, and harder for audiences to trust them.”

Ipsos polling in 2021 showed 72 per cent of journalists surveyed faced some form of harassment during the previous year. 65 per cent said that harassment came online. That same year, A UNESCO paper titled “The Chilling” found serious links between disinformation spreaders and the targeted online harrassment of women journalists.

Al-Rawi’s latest research with Simon Fraser University shows those most at risk of such campaigns in Canada are indeed female journalists and visible minorities. Interestingly, attacks on women were generally misogynistic, focusing more on their sex as opposed to their careers, he said.

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As seen with Al Jazeera and the Wall Street Journal, an attack can start with a hard-to-trace phone or email hack. It’s all the more reason for journalists to get a refresher on “cyber hygiene,” said Masson.

Who is behind this? 

Recent foreign attacks on democratic processes south of the border may make Canadians feel their nation is next. The threat isn’t fictitious. A 2022 report found evidence of Chinese interference  in Canada’s 2021 federal election, though the electoral process was minimally impacted.

Despite this, Tenove says Canada, and specifically Ontario, is less of a geopolitical target for other countries. Disinformation attacks are more likely to come from domestic actors.

Political parties are known to deploy “cyber operations” of hired trolls, said Al-Rawi,  barraging critical journalists with online hate. Other harassment campaigns may be launched “just for the sake of it.”

Tenove and Al-Rawi know disinformation campaigns against journalists are active in Canada. Right now, they’re trying to uncover just how prevalent they are, while outlining the psychological effects they have on journalists, as well as their potential implications on democracy.

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All three experts say there doesn’t seem to be key divisive issues that could fuel disinformation during the Ontario election. Nevertheless, merely intimidating or silencing a journalist, said Al-Rawi, could be seen as a triumph to many trolls.

Click to play video: 'Ontario Election: A look back at some of the key events over the last 4 years'
Ontario Election: A look back at some of the key events over the last 4 years

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