A federal research unit has uncovered what could be a Chinese Communist Party information operation designed to discourage Chinese Canadians from voting Conservative in the last federal election.
A September 13, 2021 analysis by Canada’s Rapid Response Mechanism, which monitors foreign interference, said researchers observed the Communist Party’s media accounts on Chinese social media platform Douyin, which were widely spreading information that the Conservatives would nearly cut off diplomatic relations. with Beijing.
The report, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, was produced just a week before Canadians went to the polls.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals emerged from the September 20 national vote with a renewed minority mandate, while the Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, formed the official opposition.
O’Toole, who is no longer in the lead, said in a podcast recorded this month that the Conservatives have lost eight or nine seats due to foreign interference from China.
The Canadian Rapid Response Mechanism, based in Canada for International Affairs, analyzes open data to identify trends, strategies and tactics for foreign intervention.
His work supports the G7 RRM, an initiative to strengthen coordination to identify and respond to threats to major industrial democracies.
The analysis of reports about the Conservative Party was part of RRM Canada’s efforts to monitor the digital media environment for signs of manipulation of foreign sponsored information in the general election.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic, said in an interview that the analysis is “more evidence that the communist leadership in Beijing interfered in the last general election by spreading disinformation.”
Asked for comment on the analysis, the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa said, “China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
RRM Canada says it manually reviewed Chinese social media platforms including WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, Xigua and Bilibili and conducted open-source forensic digital analysis using website archives, social media sniffing tools and cross-platform ranking tools in social networks.
Analysts first drew attention to the conservative narrative in two articles published Sept. 8 in the Global Times, the state news tabloid.
RRM Canada believes that the Global Times coverage was prompted by an article in the Ottawa-based Hill Times that looked at the Canadian side’s position on Canada-China relations. The analysis shows that it is likely that the Global Times was the first Chinese publication to pay attention to the contents of the publication in Ottawa: two of its articles received more than 100,000 page views each.
RRM Canada notes that the timing coincided with the first debate of federal leaders and increasingly close poll results. Similar stories published by major Canadian media outlets earlier in September, as well as a Conservative Party platform published in August, elicited no response from China’s state media, the analysis said.
Analysts found that several popular Canadian-targeted WeChat news accounts began engaging with the Global Times narrative on September 9, copying content and form without linking to the post, “hiding the source of the narrative.”
The accounts also added comments about Tories to articles such as “Chinese scared of the platform” and questioned whether “Chinese compatriots should support conservatives if they use this rhetoric.”
“Unless otherwise noted, WeChat users will not be aware that the story about the Conservatives and O’Toole is from the Global Times and will assume that these articles were original reports from Canadian WeChat accounts.”
Analysis shows that many WeChat news accounts that serve Canadians are registered to people in China, and while they are well-established news sources, “some of them may have obscure links” to Chinese Communist Party media groups .
The researchers “were unable to determine if there is coordination between the CCP media that originally promoted this narrative and the popular WeChat news accounts that cater to Chinese-speaking Canadians who are now spreading this narrative,” the Sept. 13 analysis warns.
“RRM Canada is also unable to determine if there was inaccurate activity that increased user engagement with the story, as Chinese social media platforms are completely opaque.”
However, the Communist Party’s media accounts on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, posted videos that echoed the September 8 Global Times headline, the analysis said. For example, China’s state-run Xinhua Press Agency’s Douyin account shared a video saying the conservative platform mentions China “31 times” and that an “expert” says the party “almost wants to cut diplomatic ties with China.”
Among the plans of the conservative platform in the 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’s state-owned enterprises to take over Canadian companies, and work towards less global dependence on critical minerals from China.
Chong says it’s clear that proxies have been spreading disinformation on Beijing’s behalf in the federal election.
“It is difficult to determine whether this was the reason for the loss of some Conservative MPs. But I think we can safely say that it played a role.”
If Beijing comes to the same conclusion, China “may very well dare to do something much bigger in future federal elections by undermining our democratic process,” Chong said.
Under federal protocol, a public announcement will be made if a group of high-ranking bureaucrats determines that an incident – or set of incidents – threatens Canada’s ability to hold a free and fair election. There was no such announcement last year.
At a House of Commons committee meeting earlier this month, Bill Blair, campaign secretary of public safety, said that while “we have all heard anecdotes and differing opinions,” he has not received directly “any information from our intelligence agencies” about that provided evidence of foreign interference in the campaign.
Undersecretary Rob Stewart told the meeting that “as you would expect” there were activities on social media that would amount to disinformation and attempts to influence the vote. “There was no threat to the integrity of the elections.”
The Canadian Electoral Disinformation Project, which involved several academic researchers, found that Chinese officials and state media commented on the election with the apparent aim of persuading Chinese Canadians to vote against the Conservative Party in 2021.
“Misleading information and information critical of some candidates have been circulated on social media platforms in Chinese. However, we find no evidence that China’s intervention had a significant impact on the overall election.”
According to Chong, conservatives “could do better” with such reports. “Obviously we didn’t, and that’s a lesson.”
Despite this, the federal government should actively counteract foreign disinformation between campaigns, Chong said. He added that during campaigns, the government should immediately provide analyzes of the Rapid Response Mechanism to inform the public.
Fen Hampson, a professor of international relations at Carleton University who has followed China closely, agrees that more transparency would be helpful.
He advocates expanding the analytical process, perhaps through the creation of a center that includes non-governmental players, collects information from various sources and publishes regular reports on overt foreign interference.
“It takes him out of the domestic political arena, which will always be very tense.”
— Jim Bronskill, Canadian Press.