Later this year, Canada faces its first federal elections since potential foreign interference became one of the main concerns for democratic elections in the 21st century. After extensive discussions and consultations, the government has taken significant measures, including an Election Modernization Act and a new Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force to monitor online foreign interference. While these measures are important first steps, more remains to be done.
Canada is not immune to foreign influence campaigns on social media. In early February, Twitter released a database of 9.6 million tweets from deleted troll accounts that seem to have been operating from Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. Over 20,000 of these tweets contained messages aimed specifically at Canadians. Although the volume was small compared to tweets directed at the United States, for example, these tweets may be a harbinger of more sustained attempts to influence Canadians’ beliefs during elections that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already predicted will be “negative” and “divisive.”
The tweets followed similar aims to those directed at the United States or other democracies. They sought to stoke divisions over controversial policy issues. Kate Starbird, of the University of Washington, has shown how troll accounts linked to the Russian government tried to insert themselves into both sides of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States in 2016 to amplify racial tensions, a tactic they continued to employ long after the presidential election. The Canada-focused tweets similarly concentrated on divisive issues such as pipelines, immigration, and terrorism. Analysis by the CBC found that the troll accounts used common tactics of amplification such as automated retweeting or using hashtags to push conspiracies like QAnon.
Ultimately, the foreign threat to Canadian democracy stems not only from foreign disinformation, but also from other tools employed predominantly by authoritarian regimes—cyber-attacks against public, private, and non-governmental sector targets; exploiting avenues for malign financial influence to further anti-democratic objectives; and subverting political parties and organizations, among others. A holistic strategy to defend elections, and democracy more broadly, must account for the multifaceted nature of this threat.
Canada’s government has already introduced several initiatives and legal innovations to protect the integrity of elections from possible interference of this kind. Here we draw from the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Policy Blueprint to Countering Authoritarian Interference in Democracies to analyze its current measures and suggest how the government and civil society organizations might build on them to further strengthen the resilience of Canada’s democracy.
Policy Changes to Canadian Electoral Procedures
Last spring, Minister for Democratic Institutions Karina Gould introduced the Elections Modernization Act. Despite criticism that the bill was introduced rather late for elections in fall 2019, it will come into force in June. The bill includes measures to prevent interference and to facilitate greater voter participation.
Among other things, the preventative measures address the role of third parties in elections by creating spending limits during an election campaign and requiring third parties to report on their activities and advertising during elections. Political parties and third parties are now required to identify themselves in advertisements during an election campaign. There is also a revised prohibition on publishing or making “a false statement about the citizenship, place of birth, education, professional qualifications or membership in a group or association of a candidate, a prospective candidate, the leader of a political party or a public figure associated with a political party.” (Section 91 1b)
Participatory measures include making voting more accessible for people with disabilities, extending hours for advanced polling days, and revoking a provision that had removed voting rights from citizens who had lived abroad for more than five years. The bill also enables the chief electoral officer (who is non-partisan) to provide unlimited educational and information material to the public.
While the Election Modernization Act mainly addresses domestic electoral procedures, the government also announced specific measures on January 30, to safeguard the integrity and legitimacy of elections from foreign interference. This included a new Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force, an integrated inter-agency body that will monitor online foreign interference. Under a “critical election incident public protocol” (CRIPP), senior civil servants will decide if they should inform the public during the writ period about foreign interference during an election campaign (the chief electoral officer calls elections by issuing a writ to dissolve parliament and, by law, the elections must then be held after a minimum of 36 days). There is also a new Digital Citizens Initiative to improve Canadians’ digital literacy alongside a CAD 595 million fund to support journalism.
The measures implemented by Canada’s government are notable for reducing loopholes for foreign actors to exploit, improving coordination within government on a threat that transcends any one ministry’s jurisdiction, increasing transparency with the public, and building resiliency within Canadian society. Using ASD’s Policy Blueprint as a guide, we offer several recommendations for the government to consider to further safeguard elections and strengthen Canadian democracy against foreign interference.
Refine CRIPP’s scope, broaden its timeframe beyond writ period, and codify it in law.
The government rightly established a set of procedures for assessing foreign threats to elections and informing parliament and the public of its conclusions. This transparency with the public is essential so the electorate has all relevant information on election security at its disposal, but also to prevent a sitting government—or opposition parties in parliament—from playing politics with threat information. But improvements could be made to the existing protocol. First, it does not define specifically what an “interference attempt” in an election means. Parliament and the public should know whether the government considers disinformation an interference attempt in the same way it considers a hack on electoral infrastructure, or even an attempt to co-opt parties or candidates using illicit financial vehicles. Second, its applicability should be extended beyond the writ period. Will the SITE Task Force be responsible for informing the public before the writ period? Will the government honor the CRIPP protocol anyway? Finally, parliament should codify CRIPP, with the recommended revisions, into legislation. There is nothing stopping a future government from repealing this government’s actions on election security and turning the measures into law would make it more difficult to do so. Defending elections against foreign interference is not just a 2019 problem.
Expand the SITE Task Force’s mandate beyond elections.
Foreign threats to democracy do not end with the conclusion of an election. As Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and other interference operations worldwide have demonstrated, authoritarian regimes seek to undermine democratic institutions and societies every day. The heightened attention of the main social media companies to scrubbing their platforms of disinformation is one indication of the perpetual challenge democracies face. Ongoing discussions across the transatlantic community on how to tighten anti-money laundering regulations are another. With SITE, the government correctly identified the need for an inter-agency task force to bring together its varied institutional expertise like law enforcement, intelligence, and global affairs under one roof to defend against foreign interference threats and to coordinate policy responses. But the task force should be active at all times, not just during election season.
Encourage political parties to publicly pledge not to use nefarious tactics.
Foreign state actors will not be deterred from adopting nefarious tactics if they believe political parties and candidates for office will themselves use them. Voters should hear directly from the parties representing them that they are uniting to renounce these tactics categorically. Canadian researchers Fenwick McKelvey and Elizabeth Dubois have suggested that political parties develop a voluntary code of conduct for digital campaigning. The government could encourage those efforts behind the scenes and even provide assistance in developing a code of conduct. Furthermore, the parties, candidates, and outside political groups should pledge to uphold all existing campaign-finance laws and other legal restrictions that prohibit foreign contributions to election campaigns.
Collaborate more closely with civil society.
From academics and researchers to NGOs, there are numerous stakeholders in Canadian society working to defend democracy against external interference. Increased assistance for organizations addressing this threat is an important demonstration of government support for civil society. But creating a two-way street so the public sector and civil society can engage on these issues and solve problems together through institutionalized channels of cooperation would be just as important a step.
Find sustainable support for local journalism.
The government has already created a CAD 595 million fund to support journalism. Non-governmental actors are also contributing to such efforts, like Facebook’s pledge of CAD 2.5 million to a new Local News Accelerator specifically in Canada. The key for government now is to develop a strategic plan to sustain local journalism, without doubling down on old business models. One step might be to subsidize specific journalism positions. In the United Kingdom, for example, the BBC has created 150 local democracy reporters who are spread around the country and who must report on local issues. This goes some way to addressing the fact that 58 percent of Britons lived in communities that had no access to a local daily newspaper as of 2017. Another important step to consider is funding new initiatives that experiment with reporting and building trust among users. It is not enough to subsidize existing outlets that may or may not be adapting to digital journalism. A third step would be to endow a Canadian version of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, an American non-profit organization founded in 2016 to create and support sustainable business models for local journalism.
Canada generally has a good reputation for its approach to global affairs. According to one poll, it is the most trusted country in the world in this regard. Its international involvement in the issue of disinformation and election interference is growing. Last year, it used its role as G7 host to facilitate agreement on the “Charlevoix Common Vision for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” that included commitments to improving digital security and the establishment of a rapid response mechanism to identify and respond to threats to democracies. In May, Canada will host the second meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News, which is comprised of parliamentarians from multiple countries, including the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Singapore. The committee will ask the CEOs of the major social media platforms to testify on how they are trying to prevent the spread of disinformation. Alongside these international activities, the upcoming federal election this fall provides an opportunity to demonstrate Canada’s soft power by showing other democracies how to defend against foreign interference.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.