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.”
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
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.”
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.