Political warfare/weaponized news: a threat to Canada?

Murray Brewster has written an interesting but troubling article on the CBC News website on this topic. I dealt with some of this a few weeks ago, discussing war in the “grey zone” and also in “disinformation war,” but it is worth a return visit, especially because Mr Brewster goes outside of what most people regard as “cyber war” and gets into the business of how the “news” and public information are “shaped” to help achieve partisan political objectives.

In the military world,” Mr Brewster explains, “the concept has been distilled down to a two-letter term: PW … [that stands for] … Political warfare* … [and] … The phrase is not new. It has long been used — in the pejorative sense — to describe the day-to-day grinding of legislative gears in Ottawa, Washington and beyond … [but] … In today’s world, particularly in the military, it has a more menacing aspect due to its role in the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, named for the Russian general who penned it … [so] … Never heard of it?

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 06.58.57

… [no matter] … You saw it in action — in both Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In both cases, cyber attacks were combined with a sophisticated social media disinformation campaign to sow distrust and instability in another nation … [and] … Political warfare is what the Liberal government fears most as it considers security arrangements for the 2019 federal election. We saw that fear given fiscal form in the recent federal budget.

Murray Brewster goes on to say that “A significant amount of money — $750 million — is being spent to reinforce the weak spots and the long-neglected holes in Canada’s cyber defences … [and] … It will, according to experts, deliver tangible security gains to prevent hacking across federal departments and deter cybercriminals … [but] … What the money will not do is address the flip side of the political warfare coin: the selective use of hacked data and the pervasive weaponization of so-called “fake news.”” He’s right. $750,000,000.00 given to Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) can do a lot to add value to the good work the experts ~ and I will assert that they are “world class” experts ~ already do. It’s not a drop in the bucket. ““It is one thing for information to be well-protected,” said John Turnbull, a former Canadian military electronic warfare specialist … [but] … “The use of Facebook has nothing to do with cyber defence. It is how public information is being disseminated, used and shaped. That’s got nothing to do with cyber defence.”” CSE can help to prevent or, at least, warn government and even commercial users about e.g. Russian hacking, but how does one or should one control, just for example, Rebel Media or, say, Candice Malcolm who writes what have been described as polemics? I’m not criticizing either Ezra Levant or Ms Malcolm but it must be recognized that both are highly opinionated and fiercely partisan ~ both in, generally, the same, anti-Justin Trudeau and all his policies, direction. That’s not “enemy” disinformation, but I’m willing to bet that the Liberal Party of Canada think that both are purveyors of “fake news.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,” Murray Brewster says, “reportedly delivered a warning to Facebook’s chief operating officer last fall. The message was simple: either the media company fixes its fake news problem or it will be subject to tighter federal regulation … [and] … Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould said pretty much the same thing in a recent interview with CBC News … [further, she added] … If the federal government doesn’t see something substantive in the next six months, then “we need to take action … [but, in Mr Brewster’s opinion] … The problem, however, is much broader than social media.

After discussing the plight of “the “real” news industry” and “genuine journalism” and the threat posed by “content that mimics it [genuine journalism] and dresses deceit in a cloak of credibility” Mr Brewster turns to his worry, which is that “many studies, particularly in the U.S., have noted that the weakened state of so-called traditional media is a danger to democracy that must be recognized.” He, quickly, touches back to the “cyber war” threat, saying that “”First and foremost, the leadership of the United States must acknowledge that political warfare strategies are being implemented by regional powers, including Russia, that seek to shift the current balance of geopolitical power in their favor,” said an analysis written in June 2015 by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif … [and] … “The most dangerous consequence of refusing to acknowledge the proliferation of PW, however, will be increasingly provocative, foreign [political warfare] programs designed to erode U.S. national interests throughout the world.”” He cites Colonel (ret’d) John Turnbull, again, as saying that he (Turnbull) sees fewer threats to Canada because we have “fewer cultural and economic faultlines” and “a [more] critically thinking, educated public.” I’m not sure I agree with John Turnbull on either of those points.

John Turnbull says “That doesn’t mean, however, that the federal government can stand back. Political parties need to be prepared for and alert to the threat of hacking. And they have to be forthcoming with security services, no matter how uncomfortable that may be … [and] … Turnbull said politicians themselves may be Canada’s best weapon against enemies striving to turn information into a tool to topple democracy … [because] … “No one understands information warfare better than politicians” … [and] … “An election is nothing more than information war over ideas. Politicians are masters at it. They understand the value of spin.”

I part company with John Turnbull and Murray Brewster when they compare political “spin,” even the nasty, dishonest even obscene sort of spin that characterized the 2015 Canadian …

… and 2016 US elections and that is becoming more and more prevalent in Canada. I expect the media ~ both “traditional” and “new” ~ to have biases; I’m pretty sure that everyone who actually reads will know that there is a difference in bias between say The Star and CBC News on one hand and e.g. the Sun and Global downloadcmNews on the other. No one can possibly mistake the views of The Star‘s Heather Mallick for those of the Sun‘s Candice Malcolm; both are ferociously partisan, both are openly biased, but that’s where any similarity ends. Compare, also, e.g. the CBC‘s Evan Dyer’s coverage of Justin Trudeau trip to India to that of David Akin of Global. It was like they were discussing two different things. Most Canadian journalists and, I think, all Canadian news outlets have a “point of view.” I, personally, might, sometimes, wish that my news had more hard facts and a little less of the journalists’ points of view, but I accept the world as it is and, generally, I’m happy to know that both Misses Malcolm and Mallick are telling us what they think about the goings on in Ottawa and Toronto and New Delhi and that both Messers Akin and Dyer are trying to put affairs into some context. There are left wing, Liberal friendly media outlets in Canada; there are also a good many right wing, Conservative supporting newspaper chains and TV networks, too. That’s how it should be and I, personally, do not want to see that change. Bias is normal, bias is even good, as long as it is honest … we, all of us, just have to know that it’s there and we have to understand that both Ms Malcolm and Ms Mallick and Messers Akin and Dyer are, each in her or his own way, trying their level best to help us understand what’s going on in our communities, duffy-trial-levant-20150311judy-rebick1our country, our societies and our world. You and I don’t have to agree with them but we should, at the very least, consider what they and Ezra Levant and Judy Rebick are trying to tell us, and we should understand that, almost always, they are either just telling us what they think ~ traditional columnists such as John Ibbitson and John Ivison and polemicists like Levant, Malcolm, Mallick and Rebick ~ or what they think the implications of current events are ~ reporters like Akin and Dyer. We need to be what retired military Cyber Warfare expert John Turnbull thinks we are: an educated people who can and do think critically about we see, hear and read in the media. But the onus is on us, not on Justin Trudeau’s government or the CEO of Facebook, to make sure we are educated and capable of critical thinking. If we fall victim to “confirmation bias” ~ only reading, hearing and seeing opinions that mirror our own ~ then we, each of us, one by one, will be to blame for the demise of democracy in Canada.

Meanwhile, CTV News reports that “The former director of the CIA says Canada should be concerned about potential interference, Russian or otherwise, in the fast-approaching 2019 federal election … [and] … “I think any democracy these days needs to be concerned about foreign interference in their elections,” said John Brennan in an exclusive interview with Evan Solomon on CTV’s Question Period … [he added that] … “Canada, like other countries in Europe and throughout the world, need to be mindful that there are individuals in countries out there that are going to try to do them harm, including in their electoral systems.”” That, I believe, is a real 22413035threat … I am as close to 100% certain as I can be that there are legions of university students in China, being paid by the 2nd Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff, who are, right now, probing and testing our government and commercial networks, including those of e.g. Elections Canada and of political parties. I suspect the Russians are doing the same, albeit with less skill or “mass” … maybe even the Brazilians and French and Indians and so on … many countries might think there is something to be gained by, covertly, influencing Canadian elections.

To prepare, [former CIA Director John] Brennan said it’s important that Canada hardens its electoral system, identify its vulnerabilities, and protect critical infrastructure — something he described as a multi-year effort.” One of the best ways to “harden” our electoral system is to close the loopholes that allow foreign money to influence campaigns through third parties ~ that’s both a national scandal and a real, immediate threat to our democracy.

CTV News continues to say that ““The Russians have demonstrated that they are seeking to influence political events in other countries, through the manipulation of the digital environment, as well as putting out these personas that purport to be citizens of these countries,” Brennan said. “It was the view, and the unanimous view of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Director of National Intelligence that there was incontrovertible proof that the Russians did interfere.”” But it’s not just the Russians; how are organizations like Leadnow funded? How much of Leadnow‘s money comes from the Canadian wing of the Tides Foundation and how much of that money came from the USA?

Yes, Murray Brewster is right: our traditional “real” news industry and genuine journalism play a vital role in making democracy work by helping Canadians to form an informed public opinion. But they work best, in fact they only work when there is a broad range of diverse opinions (biases) in the media. Suggesting, even saying outright, that Justin Trudeau is an idiot who is not qualified to lead Canada’s government is not “fake news,” it is an opinion that is shared by millions of Canadians. Saying that his recent trip to India was a diplomatic disaster that has, very likely, done serious harm to Canada’s standing in Asia and the world, is also not “fake news,” it is analysis and it is a fair part of the public information process … without critical analysis, from friendly and unfriendly sources, Canadians are less informed. Both The Star and the Sun offer a range of opinions and analyses, and, in fact, how they cover “hard news” reflects the biases of their journalists, editorial staffs and publishers, but neither peddles “fake news” and neither needs government supervision.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAJiAAAAJDk3NDE1NWI3LWQwYzgtNGVlMS1iZDM4LTlkY2JiYzNjMDdjOQPamphleteerFacebook and Twitter are, likewise, not threats to democracy … in fact they may be something of a throwback to the days of the ancient Athenian agora and to the pamphleteers of  the 17th and 18th centuries where relatively “ordinary people” could “shout out” their views to their friends and neighbours and passersby.

But there are real threats to democracy out there …

… in the form of Russian propaganda disguised as real news (that’s real weaponized news), Chinese influence operations, and the flood of outright lies that President Donald Trump tells.

There are two kinds of “political warfare:”
  • Legitimate, which is waged by political parties and their friends in the media and their Canadian partisans and supports; and
  • Illegitimate, which is waged by foreign governments, foreign special interest groups and by Canadians using foreign money.

Legitimate political warfare is part of the democratic process … even when it is rough and rude. It is quite proper for Russian officials to say ~ and many would agree ~ that NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe is a threat to Russia and broke a fairly explicit promise made back circa 1990. That’s an honest difference of opinion with facts on both sides. That’s not enemy propaganda, that’s debate and it’s healthy.

What is not a debate is Russian “disinformation operations designed to frighten Latvians about Canadian troops stationed there. That is propaganda, it is based on lies, and it is hostile.

Political-language...-is-designed-to-make-lies-sound-truthful-and-murder-respectable-and-to-give-an-appearance-of-solidity-to-pure-wind.Illegitimate political warfare needs to be a concern of government, the media ~ both traditional and new ~ and political parties … it needs to be discovered, exposed by the media, and punished by government.

Canada needs to protect its government, commercial and its political parties’ on-line facilities from hacking and covert attacks. That might mean expansing the remit of CSE ever so slightly so that its advice can be shared with e.g. commercial and social media service providers.
Political parties need to be selective in their dealings with others … especially with people representing groups that are not, very clearly, Canadian.
Polemicists (including Ezra Levant, Judy Rebick and Donald Trump) need to keep shouting, but, please, with some regard for honesty.
I believe that some “political warfare” is a threat to Canada, but only some ~ the “illegitimate” sort I described above. Domestic political warfare, the kind that political parties and really Canadian interest groups wage is not a threat, in fact it is an important part of the democratic process. It is vital that Canadians keep that in mind, and they, including Murray Brewster  and John Turnbull, need to be careful to protect legitimate political discourse, even when it’s rude and unfair. If we are going to counter illegitimate political warfare then we need to make distinctions and, as with criminal law, it is better that a bit of (guilty) enemy propaganda gets through than to have (innocent) legitimate political opinion, even polemics, punished or disrupted.
* That’s a new term to me. I am familiar with “Information Operations,” “Cyber Warfare,” Influence Operations,” “Information Warfare,” and so on through various combinations and permutations … but I’ve been retired for a long time so I defer to Mr Brewster’s knowledge of military terms.

I am familiar with the term political warfare in a strategic context where, according to a 2013 article in Foreign Affairs: “This concept was defined in a May 4, 1948, memorandum produced by the State Department’s policy planning staff under George Kennan:

Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP—the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.” (The emphasis is mine.)

9 thoughts on “Political warfare/weaponized news: a threat to Canada?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s