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Shadowboxing with Russian bots

How DND’s research branch spent public money trying to prove that environmental activists are a sophisticated Russian troll army

Canadian Politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of the Kremlin/Wikimedia Commons.

In the name of democracy

Hide your kids, hide your wife, the Russians are coming, but this time for Canada’s pipelines, and they’re taking Alberta with them! At least, this is a scenario devised by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the research wing of the Department of National Defence (DND), in recently commissioned reports.

DRDC commissioned two studies from Montreal-based AI and machine-learning contractor, Nexalogy Environics, purporting to detail ongoing Russian interference operations in Canada. This research is being conducted through DRDC’s Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program, launched in 2018, which has committed $1.6 billion over 20 years for private or institutional partners to augment Canadian military capabilities.

As of 2017, Nexalogy is a wholly owned subsidiary of Toronto-based technology firm Datametrex, which claims to identify “radicalization and influential actors,” conduct “social risk assessments,” and detect bots and fake news. Datametrex has been busy acquiring both Canadian and US government contracts, flaunting its “military grade solutions” by working with the US government on tracking COVID-19 disinformation on social media, obtaining rights to sell COVID-19 testing kits to several Canadian mining companies, and working with the US Air Force to develop “technologies specific to the human element of warfighting capability.”

Partnerships with Nexalogy go back to 2015 when DND first contracted the firms for social media monitoring. Financial disclosures show that DND paid upwards of half a million dollars to generate the data used in the more recent studies identifying offensive cyber-intelligence operations purportedly active in the Canadian social media sphere.

The latest report, “Propaganda Filters: Tracking Malign Foreign Interventions on Social Media,” was presented at a NATO conference in Budapest between October 14-19, 2019. According to this report, DRDC believes that a plethora of left-wing causes frequently championed on social media—from antiwar to Indigenous issues and environmental activism—may well be the work of a dastardly Russian troll army “meddling in Twitter discussions on Canadian wedge issues” with a “mandate” to undermine Canadian democracy.

Receiving approval on July 20 from DND to enter the third phase of development, Datametrex was awarded $208,800 to continue building what is ostensibly a “Fake News Filter” called the NexaNarrative tool. DRDC’s research in question, however, reveals more about how the Canadian security elite perceives democratic debate, and bodes ominously for adversarial journalism, with Datametrex flaunting its capabilities for “publisher classification.”

Trolls under the bridge

Before even drawing conclusions from its findings, the DRDC study fundamentally grounds its methodology for identifying “Russian agents” on a widely discredited neoconservative blacklist of left-wing and independent media, PropOrNot (as in, “is this propaganda, or not?”). Based on 200 websites taken from the PropOrNot blacklist, DRDC’s report claims to have identified Twitter users “associated with Russian propaganda sites,” evidently “pushing a largely leftward (politically) leaning set of themes e.g. destroying organic farms or pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi messages.”

The problem, as journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ben Norton first reported in 2017 when PropOrNot emerged in a Washington Post puff piece, is that:

Included on this blacklist of supposed propaganda outlets are prominent independent left-wing news sites such as Truthout, Naked Capitalism, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, and Truthdig. Also included are popular libertarian hubs such as Zero Hedge,, and the Ron Paul Institute, along with the hugely influential right-wing website the Drudge Report and the publishing site WikiLeaks.

Rolling Stone followed Greenwald’s expose calling the blacklisting effort “shameful and disgusting.” Fortune wrote that PropOrNot’s criteria for identifying “Russian agents” could “theoretically include anyone on any social-media platform who shares news based on a click-bait headline.” The New Yorker published a detailed critique of PropOrNot’s methodology, describing it as a “mess,” in which Eliot Higgins of the US-aligned investigative website Bellingcat stated: “To be honest, [PropOrNot] looks like a pretty amateur attempt … I think it should have never been an article on any news site of any note.”

Greenwald ultimately called out PropOrNot as an exercise in “outright defamation” which slandered “obviously legitimate news sites as propaganda tools of the Kremlin:”

[A] big part of the group’s definition for “Russian propaganda outlet” is criticizing U.S. foreign policy. PropOrNot does not articulate its criteria in detail, merely describing its metrics as “behavioral” and “motivation-agnostic.” That is to say, even if a news source is not technically a Russian propaganda outlet and is not even trying to help the Kremlin, it is still guilty of being a “useful idiot” if it publishes material that might in some way be convenient or helpful for the Russian government. In other words, the website conflates criticism of Western governments … with Russian propaganda.

Faced with this backlash, the Post disowned PropOrNot in an editor’s note explaining that the publication “does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet.” Foreign Policy, profiling a similar AI-driven “propaganda filter” by the company New Knowledge, stated: “This method of analysis … remains a fairly blunt instrument … It sometimes mistakes real people who post anti-imperialist arguments about US foreign policy for Kremlin trolls, for example.” Moreover, an analyst with New Knowledge himself admitted, “The network cannot be conclusively attributed to the Russian government.”

DRDC also “filters” against Twitter’s list of accounts allegedly connected with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), held by the US Department of Justice to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election. But in 2017, Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean J. Edgett testified that there are “technological limits” to determining the origin of accounts given that there “there is no single characteristic that reliably determines geographic origin or affiliation.”

The data Twitter used to identify accounts as Russian in origin is inconclusive: Cyrillic characters happen to be used in over 50 languages; Russian emails, phone-numbers, and IP addresses are easy enough to spoof; and the use of VPNs, by the social media company’s own admission, obscures the “actual origin of traffic.” Despite this inconclusive approach, Twitter stated, “We considered an account to be Russian-linked if it had even one of the relevant criteria.”

Yet, DRDC’s study still bases its methodology in Twitter’s faulty blacklist to lead “to a bias within the sample against foreign influence not pretending to originate within Canada.” It concludes this with a seemingly innocent remark on the absence of Twitter geolocation data indicating that malign content might originate “from Venezuela or Russia.”

This suggestion mirrors Twitter’s own dubious findings, when the company claimed to identify 3,841 IRA “affiliated” accounts originating in Russia, and 770 other accounts “potentially originating in Iran.” Later, Twitter admitted to misattributing 228 accounts to Russia, which are now “confidently” associated with Venezuela.

DRDC’s subtle reference to Venezuela as a potential “malign actor” only makes sense when considering that Ottawa has loyally followed the Trump administration’s regime change strategy against Venezuela’s socialist government. The Lima Group had unsuccessfully courted Russia for assistance in ousting president Nicolás Maduro, so of course Venezuela must now be in league in plotting cyberattacks to interfere in Canada’s democracy—as opposed to, say, Saudi Arabia, whose government has contracted Twitter employees to spy on thousands of accounts, and whose state media has brazenly threatened Canada.

But CTV News, in an otherwise flattering article about the Datametrex research, cited digital media professor Taylor Owen’s admission that “not everyone is buying the idea of foreign entities meddling in our political discourse.” Owen’s team, the Digital Democracy project, monitored the 2015 federal election and, as CTV reported, “did not find any evidence of foreign actors driving conversations on Canadian issues,” Owens instead described Twitter discourse as “real echo chambers in online debate where partisans were really just talking to each other.”

The Washington Post promoted a blacklist by PropOrNot, which smears alternative media websites as “Russian propaganda” while listing US government-funded outlets as “allies.” Image courtesy of The Gray Zone.

“Information manoeuvres”

Far from laying out expert opinion, the study fails to get basic facts about Russian foreign policy correct: DRDC purports to ground its understanding of the threat posed by Russia in a deep appreciation of the Gerasimov doctrine: “NATO is also well aware of the 2013 “Gerasimov Doctrine” … that uses the information environment to attack human cognition,” the report claims. But as the man who coined the term, Mark Galeotti, wrote two years ago in Foreign Policy:

Everywhere, you’ll find scholars, pundits, and policymakers talking about the threat the “Gerasimov doctrine”—named after Russia’s chief of the general staff—poses to the West. It’s a new way of war, “an expanded theory of modern warfare,” or even “a vision of total warfare.” There’s one small problem. It doesn’t exist. I feel I can say that because, to my immense chagrin, I created this term, which has since acquired a destructive life of its own.

In fact, Gerasimov’s original speech referred to the Arab Spring uprisings and, as Galeotti clearly wrote, to the “‘color revolutions’ against pro-Moscow regimes in Russia’s neighbourhood.”

The doctrine has since been dredged up repeatedly, including by former US intelligence officer and current Carnegie fellow Eugene Rumer, who speculated that the non-existent doctrine might be “an effort to develop an operational concept for Russia’s confrontation with the West”—reimagined, perhaps, as an alpha release for the still more terrifying Primakov doctrine, which, at its core, opposes US hegemony in favour of “multi-polar” global governance.

The report proceeds to map out Russia’s supposed meddling “in foreign populations by finding wedge issues to push people to the extremities” onto an acronymous BEND framework, which represents a dizzying arsenal of techniques that comprises just about any imaginable use for a tweet (like “build, excite, engage, neutralize, nuke, distract, dismay,” among others). That a tweet could possibly stimulate a reaction based on this acrostic is, according to the study, further proof of Russian “information manoeuvres.”

The study also claims that “evidence of foreign interference” can be found by scanning public discourse for anything that matches “Russia’s strategic goals,” for example “to prevent Ukraine’s transformation into being part of the external border of NATO.”

But while scanning online data for inauthentic political content appears a legitimate enough pursuit, the study takes on a pernicious undertone that evokes a deeper Canadian legacy of censorship. DRDC’s study eerily recalls the state repression and surveillance—and weaponization of anti-communist propaganda—that defined the prelude to the Cold War.

Under the auspices of “protecting” Canadians from communist, Trotskyist, anarchist and leftist ideologies during the Second World War, the Canadian government used its powers to shut down leftist publications and raid bookstores—even as the government’s own evidence refuted the severity of the Soviet “threat.” As political scientist and professor Greg Whitaker wrote in his study on anti-communist repression for Labour, “Indeed, the RCMP’s secret Intelligence Bulletin was replete with information suggesting internal divisions and a drastic decline in influence of the [Communist Party] due to the Nazi-Soviet pact.”

As Whitaker also wrote, Canadian academics were attacked for encouraging “disloyalty,” and the RCMP advised Canadian universities to employ federal assistance in the “‘complete eradication’ of the ‘red plague’ from the educational ‘bloodstream.’”

These attacks continue today on the reputations of public figures and academics who are critical of Canadian or American foreign policy. This critique is often conflated with what the DRDC report calls “anti-Western rhetoric.”

Paul Robinson, a former British intelligence officer and highly respected Russia scholar with the University of Ottawa, recently saw his professional blog listed as a “Russian propaganda outlet” by a similar blacklist operation conducted by self-proclaimed “Russia expert” (and noted paranoiac) Marcus Kolga of the Big Oil-funded Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

In an email to Canadian Dimension, Robinson described his experience “expressing opinions which are not 100 percent in accordance with the prevailing anti-Russian discourse” as leading to attacks on social media by anti-Russian diaspora groups and accusations of being paid by the Kremlin. “I know others, including businessmen, distinguished former diplomats, and members of the Russian-Canadian community,” he wrote, “who have been similarly denounced as ‘Kremlin proxies,’ and so on, merely for expressing opinions deemed insufficiently hostile to Russia.”

“I am concerned that the fight against alleged disinformation and ‘interference’ in domestic politics,” he added, “is being used as a tool to discredit those who disagree with those leading that fight by labelling them as ‘Russian proxies,’ and so in effect a means of silencing them.”

Kolga himself has advocated for the creation of a “strategic communications office” jointly operated by Global Affairs Canada, DND and Public Safety—perhaps not realizing the irony in invoking an analogue of the Soviet censorship agency Glavlit, which oversaw the ideological spin and approval for all published materials.

Or perhaps Kolga envisioned a state-censorship agency such as that proposed in the 1950s by Ontario Conservative Premier George Drew, who called for a Canadian equivalent to the US House Committee on Un-American Activities. “Our contention is that the positive act of working to destroy our democracy in the service of the Kremlin or any other foreign government should be declared an offence by law,” Drew stated in a speech in Pembroke in 1953, while fearmongering about Soviet-led attacks to paralyze Canada’s “vital uranium industry.”

The shrill panic of new Cold War rhetoric is a big business, after all, and clearly companies like Datametrex are finding the moment ripe to capitalize on the appetite for broadening Canadian state censorship. So what is to be made of the effect of such blacklisting and smear campaigns on democratic debate in Canada? “In the process, much needed alternative perspectives are suppressed, creating a situation in which policy discussions take place in an intellectually impoverished environment,” Robinson said. “Thus what is portrayed as an effort to protect Canadian democracy and strengthen national security, both undermines democracy and weakens our security. The ‘cure’, if that is what it is, is worse than the disease.”

Image courtesy of Alliance for Securing Democracy

Patriotic pipelines and negative emotions

This paranoid frame of minds leads the DRDC report to suggest that the Kremlin is interfering in Canada’s bitumen industry and—as opposed to homegrown trolls—is busy fomenting Wexit.

It makes sense [DRDC claims] that Russian BOTs would promote anti-pipeline … discussions, in order to promote Russian geopolitical interests. This makes sense from a Russian perspective because less oil produced by Canada, and being against users seen as pro-pipeline, means less Canadian oil would make it to market.

“Previous research also showed that [Rebel Media’s] Ezra Levant was promoted by Russia-friendly accounts,” the DRDC’s report claims, without defining “Russia-friendly.” The report adds that the alleged Russian BOTs maintained “a high-level discussion of why climate change, as provoked by the Anthropocene, is an incorrect hypothesis.”

The suggestion that Russia is responsible for Wexit picked up steam about a month later in a Calgary Herald article from November 2019, where the ubiquitous Kolga came to the conclusion that because Sputnik sent a correspondent to cover Wexit, the separatist movement must be controlled by the Kremlin: “These are agencies that are directly linked to the Kremlin—and if they’re linked to the Kremlin, they’re directly linked to Vladimir Putin and the president’s office in Russia.”

For DRDC to go along with an unsubstantiated suggestion of Russian interference in Canada’s oil and gas sector plays into the politicization of a perpetual “Russian threat” that criminalizes any opposition to mainstream Canadian policy as a gateway to “promot[ing] Russian geopolitical interests.” This is turn distracts from Canada’s direct interference in Russia’s own export markets.

Yet, is it possible that Russia might feel justifiably threatened by the Alberta tar sands?

Mark Finley, fellow in Energy and Global Oil at Rice University’s Center for Energy Studies, noted that while Canadian tar sands make up most of the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, the lack of export options carries liability for investors, along with “high development costs, high operating costs, and a relatively high carbon intensity.”

These high development costs for Albertan bitumen are associated not only with extraction, but with the need to dilute heavy oil with a lighter and more costly oil, like condensate, in order to flow through pipelines.

“Moreover,” said Finley, “their long development times are a further disadvantage at a time when massive uncertainty leaves investors more interested in quick turn-around projects.”

With Canada exporting primarily to the United States, and Russia exporting to the Eurasian market with negligible exports to the US, Finley confirmed that there is currently no direct competition, though he added, “everybody expects Asia to lead future oil demand growth, and both Russian and Canadian producers have been eyeing Asia as a growth market for their production.”

Despite Canada experiencing the third-biggest growth in oil production in the past decade, the attractiveness of Canadian tar sands product to Asian markets is another question. As independent economist Robyn Allan described, while Alberta’s primary export markets in the US Midwest and Gulf Coast operate the specialized infrastructure that is needed to process diluted bitumen, “international refiners prefer light oil, particularly given the outlook for supply and its relatively low price.”

“Alberta’s bitumen really can’t compete in international markets given the developments of increasing output of low cost light and the transition away from fossil fuels that is already underway,” she said. “Given the outlook for production from Alberta in the decades ahead, there will be sufficient pipeline space to deliver Alberta’s output to existing US markets, so pipelines have little to do with the situation.”

That Russia, which has historically been averse to quota systems to stabilize crude prices, hasn’t sought to buy Canadian resources should be even more indication that Canadian oil is just not that tantalizing a prize for Russian military intelligence. Numerous foreign companies have actually sold their Canadian assets over the years, including Total’s recent $9.3 billion write down of tar sands assets, as well as sales by Royal Dutch Shell, Marathon, and Statoil. As Suncor’s CEO Steve Williams stated back in 2018, “If you look at the competitiveness of Canada, we’re not in great shape.”

In the words of Allan, “engaging in some orchestrated campaign to discredit the tar sands on environmental grounds is a false narrative conjured up by big oil lobby groups like [the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers], and it’s a bit silly to think that if any country or company felt threatened by Alberta’s low quality, high cost and high polluting product its go-to competitive strategy would be as DRDC seems to suggest.”

DRDC’s study ultimately says little about Russian intelligence activities in Canada. By its own admission, it does not forensically determine the authenticity or origin of online content “with attribution to Russia,” nor its “core malign network.” The study itself admits that it can only produce “an inferred attribution,” and that its attribution of BOTs may not be valid—“It is very hard to trace exactly who controls a BOT.”

Despite these glaring deficiencies, all that seems to be missing from DRDC’s assertions is the proclamation against “subversives” made by Hamilton’s mayor in 1940: “I would like to add pacifism, disarmament, and brotherly love to the things we are against.” The report has since taken on a life of its own, fueling otherwise unsubstantiated and fearmongering coverage in Canadian mainstream media, decrying the supposed curation of debate across university campuses and the weaponization of “ethnocultural” communities by Moscow, with Beijing in tow.

But perhaps the real accomplishment of DRDC’s report is to validate that the surest way to receive large amounts of funding is to hide inept methodologies behind the smokescreen of a perpetual Red Scare. Readers will be left with one important question, however: who indeed are the “forces in this world that would benefit from weak democracies?”

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.


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