A federal research unit discovered what could be an information operation for the Chinese Communist Party aimed at discouraging Canadians with Chinese heritage from voting for the Conservatives in the recent federal election.
The September 13, 2021 analysis by Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, which tracks foreign interference, says researchers observed the Communist Party’s media accounts on the Chinese social media platform Douyin, which broadly shares a story that the Conservatives would almost break diplomatic ties with Beijing.
The report, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, was drafted just a week before Canadians went to the polls.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came out of 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 the leader, claimed in a podcast recorded this month that the Conservatives lost eight or nine seats due to foreign interference from China.
Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, based on Global Affairs Canada, produces open data analysis to identify trends, strategies and tactics related to foreign interference.
Its 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 foreign state – sponsored information manipulation in parliamentary elections.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s critic of foreign affairs, said in an interview that the analysis was “further evidence that the Beijing communist leadership interfered in the last parliamentary elections by spreading disinformation.”
RRM Canada says it manually reviewed Chinese social media platforms, including WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, Xigua, and Bilibili, and performed open source forensic digital analysis using site archives, social listening tools, and ranking tools across social media platforms.
Analysts first noted the story of 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 a story in the Ottawa-based newspaper Hill Times that examined Canadian parties’ attitudes toward Canada-China relations. The analysis says that it is likely that the Global Times was the first Chinese publication to capture the content of the Ottawa publication, with its two articles receiving over 100,000 page views each.
RRM Canada notes that the timing coincided with the debate of the first federal leaders and increasingly close voting numbers. Similar pieces released by major Canadian media earlier in September, as well as the Conservative Party’s platform released in August, elicited no response from state-controlled media in China, the analysis says.
Several popular Canada-focused WeChat news accounts began engaging in the Global Times narrative on September 9, copying the content and form without crediting the publication, “obscuring the narrative’s point of origin,” analysts found.
Reports also added comments about the Tories to the articles, such as “Chinese are intimidated by the platform,” and questioned whether “Chinese compatriots should support the Conservatives if they use this rhetoric.”
“Unless otherwise credited, WeChat users would not know that the story of the Conservatives and O’Toole came from the Global Times and would assume that the articles were original reports from the 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 connections” to Chinese Communist Party media groups, the analysis says.
The researchers were “unable to determine whether there is coordination between the CCP media that originally promoted the narrative and the popular WeChat news accounts serving Chinese-speaking Canadians, who are now reinforcing the narrative,” the September 13 analysis warns.
“RRM Canada is also unable to determine if there was any spurious activity that increased user engagement with the narrative, as Chinese social media platforms are completely opaque.”
But the Communist Party’s media reports on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, published videos that repeated a Global Times headline on September 8, the analysis says. For example, the Douyin report on Xinhua, China’s state news agency, shared a video that says the conservative platform mentions China “31 times” and that an “expert” says the party “almost wants to break diplomatic ties with China. . “
The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment on the RRM Canada analysis.
Among the conservative platform planks in the election campaign were promises to stand up to Beijing on human rights issues, diversify supply chains to move them away from China, adopt a presumption against allowing Beijing state-owned entities to take over Canadian companies and work towards less global dependence on critical minerals from China.
Chong says it is clear that attorneys spread disinformation on behalf of Beijing in the federal election.
“It is difficult to measure whether it was the cause of the loss of some Conservative MPs. But I think we can safely say that it was a contributing cause.”
If Beijing comes to the same conclusion, China may well be encouraged to do something much bigger in a future federal election, which undermines our democratic process, Chong said.
Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident – or an accumulation of incidents – threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair choice. There was no such announcement last year.
At a meeting of the House of Commons committee earlier this month, Bill Blair, Minister of Public Security during the election campaign, said that while “we have all heard anecdotes and differing opinions”, he had not directly received “any information from our intelligence services” that presented evidence of foreign interference in the campaign.
Deputy Secretary Rob Stewart told the meeting that “as one would expect” there were activities on social media that would constitute disinformation and attempts to influence voices. “There was no threat to the overall integrity of the election.”
The Canadian Electoral Misinformation Project, which brought together several academic researchers, found that Chinese officials and state media commented on the election with an obvious goal of convincing Canadians of Chinese descent 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 find no evidence that Chinese interference had a significant impact on the overall election.”
The Conservatives “could have done a better job” of responding to such messages, Chong said. “Obviously we did not, and that is a lesson.”
Still, the federal government needs to actively address foreign disinformation between election campaigns, Chong said. During campaigns, the government should make analyzes from the Rapid Response Mechanism immediately available to inform the public, he added.
Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University who closely follows China, agrees that more transparency would be beneficial.
He argues for expanding the analytical process, perhaps through the creation of a center involving non-state actors, gathering information from various sources and regularly publishing reports of apparent foreign interference.
“It takes it out of the domestic political arena, which will always be very charged.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 23, 2022.