‘Home-grown disinformation’ a growing threat to Canadian Armed Forces: report

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The Canadian Armed Forces are “poorly placed and inadequately prepared” to guard against misinformation and disinformation campaigns from both “homegrown” actors and foreign adversaries, according to a new report prepared for the military’s research branch.

Prepared for Defence Research and Development Canada, the report also found that the CAF has an “ad hoc” approach to countering disinformation and needs a broader strategic plan for “information operations.”

Failing to address the issue could lead to greater dissatisfaction within the ranks, make it harder for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to retain members and deepen an already serious recruitment crisis, suggested the report.

Disinformation and misinformation are terms often thrown around in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and definitions vary. But broadly speaking, disinformation refers to incorrect information purposely spread by malicious actors, while misinformation refers to incorrect information spread by people who believe it to be true.

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The report says that while the CAF does have “significant … capabilities” to address misinformation and disinformation, it also suggested those resources are largely “untapped due to an institutional mindset … rooted firmly in the pre-Internet Cold War.”

“The situation should be of particular concern to an organization in a self-described ‘existential crisis,’ which makes the (Department of National Defence and the) CAF more susceptible to harm by mis- and disinformation … especially to domestic forms,” the report read.

While the term “information operations” can conjure up images of wartime propaganda and mistruths, Brett Boudreau, a retired colonel and the author of the report, said it can also apply to everything from how the Forces communicate within the ranks to the kind of “information warfare” the world has seen during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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The report – which was informed by interviews with current and former senior defence and security officials – provide a long list of recommendations to improve the CAF’s handling of information operations, but mainly that the defence community needs to incorporate information operations into their overarching strategy, instead of just putting out public relations fires as they arise.

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Boudreau pointed to misinformation spreading within the ranks about COVID-19 vaccines, which led to some CAF members refusing the vaccines and leaving the organization despite direct orders.

“That’s a pretty substantial impact on your force … That’s an operational issue,” Boudreau, now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said in an interview with Global News.

Boudreau said if the CAF can’t effectively communicate policy decisions to its own members, the situation can lead to “disaffection with the organization” and ultimately problems for the military’s recruitment of new members and retention of existing ones.

“Canadians, including CAF members, are spending more of their lives online and interacting in digital environments. (The Department of National Defence)/CAF needs to understand the implications for defense and security of the growth of misinformation and disinformation online,” wrote Daniel LeBouthillier, a spokesperson for the CAF.

“To be clear, none of these operations are allowed to target Canadians or persons in Canada. As things currently stand, DND/CAF is currently reviewing (and) updating policy on the information environment. The importance of protecting Canadians’ rights and privacy is one of the main aspects of the policy review and update.”

Canadian military members have also been targeted by disinformation campaigns – false information published with the intent to mislead – while on recent deployments. The most well-documented cases have been in Latvia, where CAF members have been stationed as part of a NATO mission to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

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Such campaigns can be used to raise suspicion and mistrust in regions where CAF personnel are deployed or to damage members’ morale while on mission.

Boudreau’s report noted disinformation campaigns are appealing to hostile foreign powers, as they are “fast, easy and cheap to produce at scale, (and are) difficult to attribute and difficult to counter or disprove once made public.”

“The information battle in the Baltics is already well underway, and so far, it is not going well for us,” wrote Maj. Chris Wattie, a reservist who served as an information operations analyst in Latvia, in a 2020 edition of the Canadian Military Journal.

Wattie pointed to some information operations successes in Latvia, such as building ties in communities that border Russia to increase NATO’s visibility in the region and reassure the locals that the force was there to defend them. Simple meetings and displays of equipment in border communities helped explain NATO’s presence in the country, and to counter scurrilous stories propagated by bad actors.

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But he noted that progress had been slow, and there seemed to be little buy-in from senior officials back in Ottawa.

“The strategic importance of this fight is clear; the credibility of NATO to its member nations and that of Canada as a founding member of the alliance is under persistent attack by Russia,” Wattie wrote.

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“The national and international stakes are high, and our senior leadership (both military and civilian) seem to understand the broader implications of the informational confrontation in the Baltics. But we are not succeeding at operationalizing that understanding or even recognizing the challenges and how to meet them.”

But Boudreau, writing three years later, and after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, argued that the CAF’s information operations resources are disproportionately focused on disproving and countering Russian propaganda at the expense of both domestic threats and other foreign adversaries’ activity.

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“(The CAF) needs to be much more deliberate about its effort and more attuned to kind of the way the real world works … 1998 policies are not sufficient for the information environment of 2023 and beyond,” Boudreau said in an interview.

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