COVID-19: Will foreign disinformation wreak havoc this federal election?

Many of us have accepted that where elections go, false information follows.

But what about a snap federal race amid a global pandemic? Well, some speculate that’s breeding ground for a disinformation disaster.

In the first 3 months of 2020, nearly 800 people died and 6,000 were hospitalized around the globe because of unproven COVID-19 antidote theories.

Does that mean holding an election during a worsening fourth wave of coronavirus cases would make a perfect springboard for false information to go rogue?

Read more: ‘Storm of misinformation’: Why some are seeking ivermectin to treat COVID-19

Aengus Bridgman says we’ve come a long way since the start of the pandemic.

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“I actually don’t think (COVID-19 false information) is going to play a major role,”  said Bridgman, director of the Canadian Election Misinformation Project.

“This has been an issue for about 18-19 months already. People know the issue. They have very strong opinions on it.”

The amount of people that could potentially be swayed by false narratives about the virus is “relatively small” said Bridgman.

“It would require something so gigantic. Some story, some piece of misinformation so intense … something that would totally shatter pre-existing narratives.”

Something like a conspiracy of the government mishandling the virus, Bridgman says, which would still be pretty tough to fly.

Read more: Twitter flags Liberal campaign video featuring O’Toole as ‘manipulated media’

For that reason, David Sheinin believes it would be hard to use the virus to delude the public. But it would also be quite difficult to use it to craft a false narrative about a politician.

“Politicians are (more or less) on the same page with regards to the COVID vaccine, masking, and really following the good advice of public health officials,” said Sheinin, political expert and director of Master of History at Trent University.

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With the exception of the Peoples Party of Canada, Bridgman says “COVID-19 has resulted in an unusual cross-partisan consensus in Canada.”

Click to play video: 'David Sheinin gives his take on the COVID-19 pandemic' David Sheinin gives his take on the COVID-19 pandemic

David Sheinin gives his take on the COVID-19 pandemic – Mar 1, 2021

This is why Sheinin and Bridgman believe COVID-19 disinformation will not be a big problem this election.

In fact, Sheinin says, aside from financial promises of recovery, politicians have been shying away from addressing the future of the pandemic altogether.

“The numbers are so close, it’s way too risky to say something that may perpetuate a drop in numbers.”

Read more: Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines a hot-button issue as election race kicks off

But as COVID cases climb across the country, Sheinin says politicians are well aware of the pressure to speak up, and the “disastrous” effect of making a promise they would not be able to fulfill.

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“They’re probably in the strategy rooms talking about this every day.“

Bridgman’s project is currently monitoring serious misinformation and disinformation threats to Canada’s 2021 federal election.

So far, he and his team haven’t found anything troubling.

But even if COVID-19 isn’t easy to weaponize against Canadians, there’s still an abundance of topics that could rock the boat.

“You could imagine something with national defense, obviously there’s the crisis in Afghanistan right now;  there’s very tense relationships between Canada and China; the discovery of large numbers of unmarked graves of Indigenous children – these are the types of issues that people are divided on, feel passionate about, and could be potentially divisive,” said Bridgman.

“Even something like (Minister Maryam Monsef calling the Taliban ‘brothers’) could have an impact — because the numbers are so close,” said Sheinin.

Read more: Maryam Monsef called the Taliban ‘brothers.’ Here’s what you need to know

Sheinin believes interference from a foreign country is not that likely, as nations like China and Russia are not as interested in Canada as they are in the U.S.

“(For) one, we’re not as powerful economically and strategically. In addition, our parties — as polarized as they are — the Conservatives and Liberals are really much more similar today than the Republicans versus the Democrats in the United States.”

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While there was lots of talk of foreign interference in the last election,  a study by the Digital Democracy Project revealed the election was “largely clean.” Bridgman says he isn’t worried about conspiracies surrounding voter suppression either.

Canada’s foreign intelligence and cybersecurity agency says the legitimacy of the 2021 federal election is not in serious danger.

“We assess that cyber threat actors pose a low threat to the integrity and fairness of the Canadian democratic process as Canada remains a lower priority target relative to other countries, and our elections are paper-based,” Evan Koronewski, a spokesperson for Communications Security Establishment (CSE) told Global in an email.

“However, we judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference ahead of, and during, the federal election — though it is unlikely to be at the scale seen in the U.S.,” the email noted.

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When asked if a foreign threat had already been flagged, the CSE said it cannot comment, as the decision to publicly release such information lies with Deputy Ministers.

But, Bridgman says even if foreign actors are only interested in sabotaging elections south of the border — launching a test run on Canada’s federal race would be a great starting point.

Read more: Elections Canada is expecting a flood of mail-in ballots. So far that hasn’t happened

Foreign interference or not, Canadian voters still face the threat of misinformation domestically.

“Misinformation is everywhere during an election campaign … what you really need to be concerned about is disinformation and misinformation that is so egregious and so effective that it manages to convince or confuse a large number of Canadians and potentially compromise the integrity of an election.”

Sheinin suspects we might see more false information pop up in the last 10 days before election day — perhaps about mail-ballots or lack of polling stations at schools.

Elections Canada told Global that, as of mid-August,  two to three million Canadians might choose to vote by special ballot (mostly mail). However, the agency is preparing for an estimated four to five million special ballots — an estimate conducted during early pandemic times.

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The CSE said allowing more mail-in ballots, or other changes made to voting processes due to the pandemic “do not substantially change the cyber threat to Canada’s democratic process.”

Nonetheless, Elections Canada says it is tracking and correcting false information posted on public social media accounts, and is flagging fake election websites and accounts.

Bridgman’s message to voters? Stay vigilant.

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Key takeaways from the final leaders’ debate

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