Are we on the verge of a third world war? That’s the question suddenly on a lot of minds these days as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has spurred questions about what the West can do to help — and whether that could even lead to nuclear war. So much for 2022 being a better year than 2021.

But here’s the thing: in some respects, we’re already in the middle of a world war with Russia. It just happens to be playing out online rather than on the battlefield. And for the last few years, at least, Russia has been kicking our ass. Its ability to spread disinformation, sow doubt and destabilize democratic institutions helped elect Donald Trump, as the Mueller report proved conclusively, and it may also have contributed to the unexpected win by the “leave” side in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Russia’s digital brigades have been busy at work here in Canada as well. The recent trucker convoy that occupied Ottawa for the better part of a month was aided and abetted by foreign forces, and that seems to have Russian fingerprints on it. RT, a major conduit for Russian propaganda and A self-described “info weapon,” ran upwards of 1,200 stories on the occupation.

“Who would have reason right now to cause as much chaos in Canada as possible?” cybersecurity analyst David Shipley told the CBC’s Harry Forestall. “Well, (at the) top of that list is Russia.”

This isn’t new. Russia has been running a long-standing campaign against Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of finance and one of Russia’s long-standing enemies, and its willingness to sow division on social media is well-documented. But the collateral damage in this war is the many thousands — maybe millions — of ordinary Canadians who have had their brains scrambled by this campaign of deliberate confusion.

Take the furor around S-233, an otherwise ordinary Senate bill proposing to study the creation of a guaranteed basic income that has become the latest front in the war for the truth.

As Sen. Paula Simons said in a long (and powerful) Twitter thread: “I despair that we can't have this debate without fear mongering and conspiracy theories. This is not a Jewish conspiracy. It is not a globalist plot. It is not a secret attempt to make Canada a police state. It's not about your vaccination status.”

Kate Graham, a candidate in London for the Ontario Liberal Party, expressed a similar sense of despair over a conversation she had while knocking on doors recently. After a constituent asked her opinion on the situation in Ukraine and she shared her horror, she was told it wasn’t even happening — and that “CBC is the biggest terrorist going.” As Graham asked her Twitter followers: “When we have such different ideas about truth and facts and the world around us, how do we possibly bridge that gap?”

We start by removing the most obvious and odious sources of disinformation. Last week, the four largest cable companies in Canada dropped RT from their lineups. As Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said: “RT is the propaganda arm of Putin’s regime that spreads disinformation. It has no place here.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also renewed an initiative called the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism that was introduced at the G7 summit he hosted in Quebec in 2018. That mechanism (the conspiracy theories practically write themselves here) started as a three-year pilot project that would co-ordinate efforts between other G7 countries to “identify, block and respond to threats targeting G7 democracies.”

Opinion: A war against the sort of disinformation that’s poisoning our public discourse and damaging democracy around the world is worth fighting — and winning, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Russia #MAGA #FoxNews #RT

As the Toronto Star reported, those include “state-sponsored disinformation, attacks on electoral processes and anything that might undermine Canada’s sovereignty and security.” With the $13.4 million over five years in new funding that it’s providing, Canada is now the official leader of this effort.

If Trudeau and other western leaders really want to step up the fight here, they should go after a bigger target: Fox News. Its status as a clearinghouse for MAGA-themed messaging and other far-right ideas is well documented, and its role in amplifying the anti-democracy protests in Ottawa should be fresh in everyone’s memory. But its relationship with the Putin regime and its willingness to carry water for it should alarm everyone outside the Trump-Putin ecosystem.

Liz Wahl, an American who worked for RT, wrote: “Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson, along with other right-wing media figures, are at times indistinguishable from the propaganda on my former network.” Fox’s pro-Moscow tilt has even caught the attention — and admiration — of the Russians themselves. As Mother Jones reported, a recent internal memo from Russia’s Department of Information and Telecommunications Support said, “it is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson.”

Canada can’t do anything about how Fox News behaves or how it chooses to cover its stories. But our large telecom companies can deny it access to the television sets of their subscribers, just as they did for RT. And if they won’t do it, maybe the federal government should. Yes, it would provoke renewed anger towards Trudeau and fresh accusations that he’s a dictator who doesn’t respect free speech. But our government’s job is to protect the public, and in the 21st century, that means shielding it from state-sponsored propaganda campaigns and the proxies who advance them.

A world war involving actual military combat would be a disaster for everyone involved. But a war against the sort of disinformation that’s poisoning our public discourse and damaging democracy around the world is worth fighting — and winning.

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Certainly we are drowning in tsunamis of propaganda from Putin, Zelensky and Western media.
I hope you expose all not just Putin. Otherwise it looks like you are on NATO’s bandwagon and helping to escalate tensions and hatred towards Putin.
You are aware I know, and should continue to expose NATO’s provocation of this mess. The bear was poked in the eye when NATO and Ukraine insisted on breaking the agreement that they would never join NATO.
I hope you illuminate any actions towards peace. My personal hope is that some sane, intelligent states-person like Angela Merkel, become a mediator in a peace agreement. Otherwise with the weapons and oil industries writing the side stage cue cards, we could head for nuclear war.
Hardly a productive bandwagon.

Very delicately and diplomatically expressed. CNO indicated that any material they published with respect to COVID, was sponsored by various corporations and millionnaire foundations which they identified. I wonder if the same group is now sponsoring all editorials, opinions and comments on the war in Ukraine - it being the distraction from the disastrous management of the Pandemic now being hushed. Mr. Fawcett has definitely proven to be ideal person to write about disinformation.

Ingrid, thank you for your comment. NATO (a.k.a. the US) started poking the bear in the eye in late January early February. When the US starts to predict war by an adversary, I get nervous. The propaganda machine has been working over time ever since - on both sides. The west and NATO are not the good guys here. There are no good guys, just victims.
There is and has been a peaceful solution to this mess but the US and EC continue to bait Ukraine with dreams of membership in the EU and NATO knowing full well that it can not and will not happen. They knew if they poked the bear often enough they could get Putin to launch an attack. Ukraine is the sacrificial pawn in all this while the west cheers the brave Ukranians on to fight for their freedom. It's sickening to watch. The lords of war and the oil/gas barons are jumping in absolute glee with the recent developments. Oh the money they're going to make.
I expect more from the National Observer and the Tyee on this issue. No historical context and how we came to be in this moment in time. I'm disappointed.
I go to the sources I know will give me clear-headed facts: Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges.
This being said the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a war crime and it needs to stop immediately. NATO and the EC know what they have to do.

Your words on NATO, while certainly valid, are also part and parcel of a trend to "westsplain" what is happening in eastern Europe. It's not that simple.

Agreed, it's not that simple but you'd never know it listening to all the propaganda in the western media.

Back when the world wide web/internet was just gaining recognition, a group of my colleagues, librarians all, were brainstorming about what this could mean for the future. We were already, actuall, had been for years, preparing for digitizing our catalogues and collections; participating in the Library of Congress MARC project (machine readable cataloguing) and the ISBN (international standard book number) system. We were excited about the possibilities and indeed, began to formulate the development of local information databases cataloguing all the community services available. It was a heady period coupled with our digitizing of local newspapers and other collections of local history.

What we never anticipated, while immersed in this marvelous new tool, that the inevitable, insidious, profit driven capitalist predators were busily at work looking to capture and monetize access to the world's limitless store of information.

Lo and behold!! 60 years on, all our flights of fancy have been realized - along with the sewer like underbelly of crude propaganda, systematized manipulation of lies, wild conspiracy fantasies, and the ugliest impulses of humanity. All laid out like a banquet for the greediest, most amoral aspect of the human species. Nothing in our millennia long history of depravity and existential fear has exposed the weaknesses of our species so catastrophically.

I'm an atheist so cannot blame God, gods, demons, imps or devils; and as a humanist, cannot compare humanity to other life forms. We are sui generis, and uniquely constructed, it seems, to drive ourselves to destruction.

I do not believe in most conspiracies; humans have the fatal flaw of being unable to keep secrets. I do however, recognize the lethal, overt conspiracies perpetrated by the power mongers, the wealth accumulators who brazenly operate in the full glare of publicity and advertising. These parasitical, blood sucking vampires have always been with us. The web has just added to their poisonous reach and revels.

Like all parasites, they will inevitably, eventually kill their hosts - but at least that will also end their largely useless lives.

Agreed Betsy, those of us with some perspective, i.e. pre-internet, can clearly see its role in bringing out the absolute worst in people. In fretting their usual hour on the stage, it has expanded greatly and is now a world stage relatively speaking, so has inspired proportional delusions of grandeur. Combine that inherent human egotism with limited literacy, and we're off. I have a nephew who now sees himself as "a warrior;" he's discovered a wellspring of personal power in people like Alex Jones who was a revelation to him in that he talks totally differently, more like my nephew, but also has the automatic added authority of a faux newscaster because he's there regularly on a screen. I truly think that carrying that screen around in your hand (the addictive effect now known) has got to exacerbate the problem.
And like you, I'm an atheist, so in the context of the alternate reality of "believers," how is that not both foundational to their thinking, and in many cases an impediment to actual "critical thinking," (let's face it, insisting that Santa Claus is real, as is your "god" IS not only obvious wishful thinking, but as an idea is also definitely a bit "out there") and also presents as the perfect platform for OTHER magical thinking, for other "big lies," for other "fake news?" The truth is simply not THAT relative. But as long as you have your community of fellow believers, the sky's the limit isn't it? And the internet serves up an instant community with the added appeal of being far-flung. Heady stuff in other words.

I guess the line between news and entertainment blurring has caused this as we amuse ourselves to death, but I'm interested in the relative receptivity of the audience when it comes to discernment. Among "low-information" voter types. I wonder if the style of language used in news and public presentation generally, which can be droning and repetitive, is outright alienating for a certain percentage of people lacking vocabulary and/or context, so when an alternative narrative pops up on that phone in their hand, they feel both more interested because of the novelty AND more proprietary, so are more likely to succumb to the ego rush of having the "inside track." And studies on the "conservative brain" phenomenon DO show a higher degree of paranoia among that cohort.

One of the ways in which we can target and eliminate disinformation sources and avoid 'free speech' accusations that can torpedo attempts to get rid of this stuff, is to set up legal frameworks that outlaw it by identifying the components that make up such content and defining exactly what we mean by 'disinformation'. This strategy would be very similar to the existing approach to Hate Speech. We didn't legislate a ban on specific sources since they would just pop up elsewhere under a different name. Instead, we defined Hate Speech in specific terms and made it illegal, then went after the sources wherever and whenever they popped up. We need to use the same strategy on 'disinformation' and 'fake news'. Of course, a lot of content from the major political parties would end up getting caught in the net as well, and that would be a good thing too!

Of course it's vitally important that our disinformation defeat their disinformation.

I remember many years back on the comedy spy show Get Smart, the Chief had assigned an ex-enemy agent to work with our hero Maxwell Smart.
Max said "Oh, we brainwashed him, eh?"
The Chief answered, "No, no, Max! We re-educated him. When THEY do it, it's brainwashing. When WE do it, it's re-education!"

Only one question for all of you:
Who determines truth or reality as opposed to mis or disinformation? And who "judges" once this is established?