A federal investigative unit has uncovered what may be a Chinese Communist Party information operation aimed at dissuading Canadians of Chinese descent from voting Conservative in the latest federal election.
Analysis from September 13, 2021 by Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, which tracks foreign interference, says researchers observed Communist Party media accounts on the Chinese social media platform Douyin that widely shared a narrative that Conservatives virtually would break diplomatic relations with Beijing.
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The report, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Freedom of Information Act, was produced just a week before Canadians went to the polls.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals emerged from the national vote on September 20 with a renewed minority mandate, while the Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, formed the official opposition.
O’Toole, who is no longer leader, claimed in a podcast recorded this month that the Conservatives lost eight or nine seats to foreign interference from China.
Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, based in Global Affairs Canada, produces open data analysis to chart trends, strategies and tactics in foreign interference.
His work supports the G7 RRM, an initiative to strengthen coordination to identify and respond to threats to major industrial democracies.
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The analysis of messages about the Conservative party was part of RRM Canada’s effort to monitor the digital information environment for signs of foreign state-sponsored information manipulation in general elections.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic, said in an interview that the analysis is “further evidence that the communist leadership in Beijing interfered in the last general election by spreading disinformation.”
RRM Canada says it manually reviewed Chinese social media platforms, including WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, Xigua and Bilibili, and conducted open source digital forensics using website archives, social listening tools and social media classification tools. multi platform.
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Analysts first noted the Tory narrative in two articles published on September 8 by the Global Times, a state-owned tabloid.
RRM Canada believes the Global Times coverage was prompted by a story in the Ottawa-based Hill Times newspaper that examined Canadian party positions on Canada-China relations. The analysis says that the Global Times was likely the first Chinese publication to pick up content from the Ottawa publication, with its two articles getting more than 100,000 page views each.
RRM Canada notes that the timing coincided with the first debate of the federal leaders and with poll numbers getting closer. Similar articles published by mainstream Canadian media outlets in early September, as well as the Conservative Party’s platform published in August, elicited no response from state-controlled media in China, according to the analysis.
Several popular Canadian-focused WeChat news accounts began engaging with the Global Times narrative on Sept. 9, copying the content and form without crediting the post, “obscuring the narrative’s point of origin,” analysts found.
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The accounts also added comments about conservatives to the articles, such as “Chinese people are scared by the platform” and questioned whether “companion Chinese should support conservatives if they use this rhetoric.”
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“Unless proven otherwise, WeChat users would not know that the narrative about the Conservatives and O’Toole originated from the Global Times and would assume the articles were original reporting from Canadian WeChat accounts.”
Many WeChat news accounts serving Canadians are registered to people in China, and despite being well-established news sources, “some may have unclear links” to Chinese Communist Party media groups, according to the analysis.
The researchers “were unable to determine if there is coordination between the CCP media that originally promoted the narrative and popular WeChat news accounts that cater to Chinese-speaking Canadians that are now amplifying the narrative,” the September 13 analysis warns. .
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“RRM Canada is also unable to determine whether there was inauthentic activity that prompted user engagement with the narrative, as Chinese social media platforms are not transparent at all.”
However, Communist Party media accounts on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, posted videos repeating a Global Times headline from September 8, the analysis says. For example, the Douyin account of Xinhua, China’s state news agency, shared a video saying that the conservative platform mentions China “31 times” and that an “expert” says that the party “almost wants to break diplomatic relations with China.” China”.
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment on RRM Canada’s analysis.
Among the planks of the conservative platform on the campaign trail were promises to stand up to Beijing on human rights issues, diversify supply chains away from China, adopt a presumption against allowing state-owned entities in Beijing to charge of Canadian companies and work towards less global dependence on critical minerals from China.
Chong says it’s clear the representatives were spreading disinformation on behalf of Beijing in the federal election.
“It is difficult to gauge whether that was the reason for the loss of some Conservative MPs. But I think we can safely say that it was a contributing factor.”
If Beijing comes to the same conclusion, China “might very well be encouraged to do something much bigger in a future federal election, undermining our democratic process,” Chong said.
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Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of high-level bureaucrats determined that an incident _ or a cluster of incidents _ threatened Canada’s ability to hold free and fair elections. There was no such announcement last year.
At a House of Commons committee meeting earlier this month, Bill Blair, public safety minister during the election campaign, said that while “we have all heard anecdotes and various opinions,” he had not directly received “any information of our intelligence services” that provided evidence of foreign interference in the campaign.
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Deputy Minister Rob Stewart told the meeting that there was, “unsurprisingly,” social media activity that would constitute disinformation and attempts to influence votes. “There was no threat to the overall integrity of the election.”
The Canadian Election Disinformation Project, which brought together several academic researchers, found that Chinese officials and state media commented on the election with the ostensible aim of convincing Chinese Canadians to vote against the Conservative party in 2021.
“Misleading information and information critical of certain candidates circulated on Chinese-language social media platforms. However, we found no evidence that Chinese interference had a significant impact on the general election.”
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Conservatives “could have done a better job” of countering such messages, Chong said. “Clearly we didn’t, and that’s a lesson learned.”
Still, the federal government needs to actively counter foreign disinformation between election campaigns, Chong said. During campaigns, the government should make the Rapid Response Mechanism’s analyzes immediately available to inform the public, she added.
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Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University who watches China closely, agrees that more transparency would be beneficial.
He advocates expanding the analytical process, perhaps through the creation of a center that includes non-governmental actors, collects information from various sources, and regularly publishes reports on apparent foreign interference.
“That takes him out of the domestic political arena, which will always be highly charged.”
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