By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Editor, myWestman.ca
NEEPAWA, Man. — As a Canadian sitting in rural Manitoba, it’s hard to believe that we have been unknowingly targeted by cleverly disguised propaganda from a foreign government. But that seems to be the case.
Late last month, data from Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication, and Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics, was made public. The data compiled by the South Carolina professors was nearly three million tweets from accounts identified as being operated by a well-funded Russian “troll factory,” called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which has ties to the Russian government.
The Russian-based IRA had over 400 employees and 13 of them were charged in the U.S. as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Their job was to use social media, often Twitter, to spread disinformation and divisiveness into American politics. This January, Twitter informed 1.4 million users that they had interacted with Russian troll accounts.
Though Twitter deleted the IRA-linked accounts, the text of their tweets has been preserved, thanks to Clemson’s Social Media Listening Centre. Last month, Linvill and Warren made the 2,973,371 tweets, from 2,848 Twitter users, publicly available. They have also published a working paper which is currently under review at an academic journal.
While the U.S. was the main target of the IRA, other liberal democracies weren’t immune, including Canada. CBC News analyzed the tweets for topics relating to Canada and found 8,000 tweets that mentioned Canadian issues, including asylum seekers, the Quebec City mosque shooting and the Keystone XL pipeline.
It’s not hard to see why Canada would be a target of a government opposed to liberal democracies, with a tendency to invade its neighbours. Canada has been a strong supporter of democratic institutions, such as NATO and the UN, and in 2014, enacted sanctions against Russia, and certain Russians, as a response to that country’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Then there’s Syria. Russia has supported the Syrian government in the civil war, while Canada has officially condemned the Syrian regime, and its backers, for its use of chemical weapons and targeting of civilians. Canada has committed over $1 billion in humanitarian aid and has taken in 25,000 refugees. While it hasn’t happened yet, military action could also take place. It’s not surprising that Russia would be looking to sway or divide public opinion in Canada over Syria in particular and political issues in general.
Twitter isn’t the most popular social media network in Canada, but unlike Facebook, where much of what people post is only available to their “friends,” almost all tweets are public, making this type of analysis possible. While Facebook may not make its content public the way Twitter does, IRA operatives were working on that platform too.
Even though the American election is over, that doesn’t mean trolls have eased up, in fact, it’s been the opposite. “There were more tweets in the year after the election than there were in the year before,” Warren said. “I want to shout this from the rooftops. This is not just an election thing. It’s a continuing intervention in the political conversation in America.”
“They are trying to divide our country,” Linvill added.
This applies to Canada, too. Remember, next time you feel yourself getting angered over something you see online, it could very well be the work of trolls, looking to exert influence over our opinions, our elections and our democracy.