A federal research unit has detected what may be a Chinese Communist Party information operation aimed at discouraging Chinese Canadians from voting for the Conservatives in the last federal election.
The September 13, 2021 analysis by Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, which tracks foreign interference, says researchers observed Communist Party media accounts on Chinese social media platform Douyin widely sharing a narrative that the Conservatives would break practically diplomatic relations with Beijing.
The report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, was prepared just a week before Canadians head to the polls.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals emerged from the September 20 national election 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 because of foreign interference from China.
Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, based at Global Affairs Canada, produces open data analytics to chart foreign interference trends, strategies and tactics.
His work supports the G7 RRM, an initiative to strengthen coordination to identify and respond to threats to major industrial democracies.
The analysis of messages about the Conservative Party was part of RRM Canada’s efforts to monitor the digital information environment for signs of manipulation of foreign state-sponsored information during the general election.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, 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 claims to have manually reviewed Chinese social media platforms, including WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, Xigua, and Bilibili, and conducted open-source forensic digital analysis using website archives, social listening and cross-platform social media ranking tools.
Analysts first noticed the narrative about the conservatives in two articles published Sept. 8 by the Global Times, a state-owned media tabloid.
RRM Canada believes the Global Times coverage was prompted by an article in Ottawa’s Hill Times newspaper that examined the positions of Canadian parties on Canada-China relations. The analysis indicates that it is likely that the Global Times was 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 federal leaders’ debate and increasingly tight poll numbers. Similar stories published by mainstream Canadian media earlier in September, as well as the Conservative Party platform published in August, elicited no response from state-controlled media in China, analysis finds. .
Several popular Canada-focused WeChat news accounts began engaging with the Global Times story on September 9, copying the content and form without crediting the post, “obscuring the story’s origin point”, noted analysts.
The accounts also added comments about conservatives to the posts, such as “Chinese people are scared off by the platform,” and questioned whether “fellow Chinese should support conservatives if they use this rhetoric.”
“Unless otherwise noted, WeChat users would not know that the story about the Tories and O’Toole came from the Global Times and would assume the stories were original reporting from the Canadian WeChat accounts.”
Many WeChat news accounts that serve Canadians are registered with people in China and, while these are well-established news sources, ‘some may have unclear ties’ to Party media groups Chinese Communist, according to the analysis.
The researchers were “unable to determine if there is any coordination between the CCP media that initially promoted the narrative and the popular WeChat news accounts that serve Chinese-speaking Canadians and are now amplifying the narrative,” says warns the analysis of September 13.
“RRM Canada is also unable to determine whether there was any inauthentic activity that drove user engagement with the narrative, as Chinese social media platforms are completely non-transparent.”
However, Communist Party media accounts on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, posted videos that featured a Global Times headline from Sept. 8, according to the analysis. For example, the Douyin account of Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, shared a video saying the conservative platform mentions China “31 times” and an “expert” says the party “wants almost sever diplomatic relations with 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 campaign platform were promises to stand up to Beijing on human rights issues, diversify supply chains away from China, Adopt a presumption against allowing state entities in Beijing to take over Canadian companies and work towards less global reliance on critical minerals from China.
Chong says it’s clear proxies have been spreading disinformation on Beijing’s behalf during the federal election.
“It’s hard to gauge whether that was the reason for the loss of some Tory MPs. But I think we can safely say it was a contributing factor.”
If Beijing comes to the same conclusion, China “could very well be emboldened to do something much bigger in a future federal election, undermining our democratic process,” Chong said.
Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a group of senior officials determined that an incident — or an accumulation 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, Minister for Public Safety during the election campaign, said that while “we’ve all heard stories and various opinions”, he had not directly received “any information from our intelligence services” that provided evidence of foreign interference in the campaign.
Deputy Minister Rob Stewart told the meeting that there was “predictably” social media activity that would constitute misinformation and attempts to sway votes. “There was no threat to the overall integrity of the election.”
The Canadian Election Misinformation Project, which brought together several academic researchers, found that Chinese officials and state media commented on the election with the apparent aim of convincing Chinese Canadians to vote against the Conservative Party in 2021. .
“Misleading information and material critical of certain candidates circulated on Chinese-language social media platforms. However, we find no evidence that Chinese interference had a significant impact on the overall election.”
Conservatives “could have done a better job” of countering such messages, Chong said. “Obviously we didn’t, and that’s a lesson learned.”
Even so, the federal government must actively combat foreign disinformation between election campaigns, Chong said. During campaigns, the government should make the analyzes of the rapid response mechanism immediately available to inform the public, he added.
Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University who watches China closely, agrees that greater transparency would be beneficial.
He argues for broadening the process of analysis, perhaps by creating a center that includes non-state actors, collating information from various sources and publishing regular reports on apparent foreign interference.
“It takes him out of the domestic political arena, which will always be very busy.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 23, 2022.
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