Canada’s spy agency is leaning on Soviet imagery to help prime the public against disinformation, but experts say Moscow is more likely to use images that make readers think the messaging is coming from North American sources.
Last month, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) started posting on social media about its efforts to counteract deliberately misleading information online.
The posts feature a font that resembles the Cyrillic alphabet, featuring stars instead of dots and the letter N appearing backwards.
One posting features a Russian nesting doll, known as a matryoshka, with the words, “Do you know who is behind it? Disinformation is here and hides well.”
Another advises Canadians to “be aware of what you share” on social media, citing the risk of trolls.
Aaron Erlich, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, said it’s important to make people aware of misleading information online. But he said the wording in the CSIS campaign was “not the most straightforward” and appeared to be an attempt not just to educate but to invoke fear.
Erlich said clumsy messaging can backfire, and he would like to know if the messaging was tested at all to see how it would be received.
In a statement, CSIS said the campaign is meant to inform Canadians of risks linked to multiple countries, not just Russia.
“While this social-media campaign was evocative of Soviet imagery, the main goal of the campaign was to educate the public on the threats posed by all hostile state actors that often engage in hostile activities, such as clandestinely spreading disinformation targeting Canadians,” spokesperson Lindsay Sloane said in the statement.
The agency said that government and non-government actors exploit open democracies like Canada, particularly since the internet allows them to amplify messages that “interfere in healthy debate” and undermine confidence in institutions.
“As more Canadians transition from conventional media to a digital news environment, avenues to spread messaging have proliferated, and social media provides further channels of amplification,” Sloane said.
Erlich, who has studied Russian disinformation, agreed with CSIS, saying the messaging often goes beyond legitimate debate and skepticism of politicians. Instead, Moscow’s messaging aims to discredit the democratic process, by painting all politicians as corrupt and challenging core facts that underpin reality.
But he also said that Russia’s disinformation attempts don’t usually look like they come from Russia.
“The Russians in particular are very good at creating fake identities on Facebook of composite North American, Canadian, U.S.-based people, that look and feel like the people who are interacting certainly don’t seem to be coming from Russia,” Erlich said.
Caution, skepticism needed when online: researcher
Data collected by Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) Canada, an effort of Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department, backs that up, suggesting many messages supportive of Russia come through sites meant to resemble North American or European media.
The program supports the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism, an initiative to strengthen co-ordination in order to identify and respond to threats to the leading industrial democracies.
RRM Canada reports from early this year, which were obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, identify sites that are not overtly tied to the Russian state but are closely aligned with Kremlin narratives. They echo conspiracy theories and try to undermine countries’ support of Ukraine.
The analysis also notes that these sites try to undermine the decision made by Western countries to send military aid to Ukraine by arguing it comes at the expense of domestic programs. “There was a clear appeal to working-class people in Western countries, stating that their political leaders are sacrificing their well-being,” reads a Feb. 15 analysis.
It is difficult to know what sort of effect such narratives in cyberspace might have on a reader, because much depends on variables such as the person’s world view, said Tim Blackmore, a professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University in London, Ont.
Blackmore stressed the need for caution, skepticism and being slow to judgment about what people see and read.
“We need to settle into that and get out of the habit of saying, ‘I must have the truth.”‘