In the fall of 2023, dozens of demonstrations took place across Canada under the “1 Million March 4 Children” banner. Ostensibly organized against sexual orientation and gender identity education in schools, the events became a flashpoint for the broader issue of 2SLGBTQI+ rights in Canada, leading to conflict between protesters and counter-protesters and harassment campaigns online.

During that time, Reddit forums for several small Alberta cities experienced a sudden influx of accounts downvoting 2SLGBTQI+ related posts and spamming the comments section with inflammatory content.

When Reddit’s year end recaps were released — which give statistics on activity for individual subreddits such as top posts and comments — they indicated Russia was the third most common country of origin for users visiting many of these subreddits, causing moderators to rethink what was behind the trolling activity they had contended with a few months before.

“While I suspected bad actors, such as direction from Take Back Alberta via Telegram, I did not suspect they would be from what this recap seems to point to,” Sherwood Park subreddit moderator u/j1ggy wrote in a post.

“It appears that we were actually being brigaded by Russian troll farms.”

Along with Sherwood Park, the subreddits for Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, and a handful of other small cities throughout Canada also recorded Russia in their top three countries of origin for users last year — results that alarmed both local users and experts on foreign interference.

New strategy by Russian trolls

Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi is the director of The Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication, and associate professor of news, social media, and public communication. Al-Rawi has researched the use of online trolling by Russian and Iranian regimes in attempts to influence Canadian politics, and said the activity observed in the Alberta subreddits is troubling, but that there are many unknowns that need to be considered before drawing any conclusions from the data.

“The fact that there are Russian users invested in and interested in discussing this issue is troubling, because they are actually focusing on a non-federal, very localized issue, probably to create some division,” he said.

“It might be a new strategy by the Russian trolls, because everyone is looking at the big events, like for example, the federal election, or the major issues happening in urban cities. They are not looking at smaller towns. This is a dark spot. It’s under the radar. And that is troubling, because they could sow division, and possibly mobilize people and influence public opinion in a localized context.”

To sow division, trolls look to inflame tensions around highly emotional social issues, Al-Rawi said. In his research, he has observed Russian trolls spreading disinformation in Canada around 2SLGBTQ+ issues, immigration, pandemic politics and the convoy protests, Islam, and Indigenous issues.

In the last U.S. election, Al-Rawi said there were examples of Russian troll involvement in smaller places in Texas, pushing for rallies and engaging with the public in different ways, “but engaging with or discussing a controversial issue in small urban places and in rural Canada is something new.”  

Despite his concern, Al-Rawi expressed caution about the Reddit data. How the geographical data of users is identified and measured is black-boxed by social media companies, so it can’t be independently verified. Users could also be routing their internet traffic through a Russian VPN, though they’re actually active elsewhere.

Another possible explanation of why so much traffic would be coming from Russia is that users who are both Russian and Canadian are highly active on these social media pages while in Russia, though given the current geopolitical climate, this seems unlikely, said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.

Given that using a VPN in Russia, as opposed to elsewhere in Canada or the U.S., would considerably slow down internet traffic, this explanation is also questionable, he said.

“We still have this factoid of sorts that there was a lot of Russian activity on these subreddits that is inconclusive, that has not been explained away,” he said.

“If what Reddit is reporting is genuine, it does look like there is some kind of influence campaign being waged. We just don’t have any details or specifics about it.”

National and international threat evaluations

A spokesperson for Canada’s Communication Security Establishment said the agency is aware “hostile state actors are attempting to influence and interfere with Canada’s society and democracy in various ways, including espionage, malicious cyber activity and online disinformation,” but that it does not monitor domestic social media channels.

CSE is one member of Canada’s Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force and provides intelligence on the intentions and capabilities of foreign threats to Canada’s democratic institutions.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officials have previously identified Alberta as a “very attractive” target for foreign interference due to its geostrategic importance, energy resources, and large diaspora communities, Postmedia has reported.

In a presentation given by CSIS to representatives of Elections Alberta and the province’s political parties in December 2022, the agency noted the provincial and municipal levels of government are perceived as being easier targets because they receive less scrutiny and attention, documents released through freedom of information requests show.

The tactics and actors involved in foreign interference in Canada are consistent throughout the West. A 2021 briefing paper for the European Parliament states a review of 11 countries’ secret service reports repeatedly identified the Russian government as the main foreign power attempting to influence European politics and decision-making. A core strategy has been to exploit divisive social issues, the report says, and LGBTQ+ rights “appear to have been singled out as a particularly opportune topic to sow friction and disunity between EU member states.”

The prominent anti-LGBTQ+ narratives used in these propaganda and disinformation campaigns will be familiar to most Canadians: framing LGBTQ+ people as a threat to child safety, and sex education promoting unnatural sexuality and gender expressions; opposition to “gender ideology” that permeates the west and threatens the future of the human race and civilization; gender and LGBTQ+ rights as a threat to traditional family structures or even the “natural order” as ordained by God.

Russia isn’t alone in it’s efforts to push back on the human rights gains of the last decades, the report says; “(its) interests in destabilization overlap with those of other actors driven by ideological agendas.”

The same is true in Canada.

Emboldening domestic antidemocratic movements

A list of user accounts that had been banned from one of the Alberta subreddits for trolling on 2SLGBTQI+ related posts during the period these communities were experiencing a surge in disruptive activity last fall was provided to Great West Media by a Reddit moderator. These 51 accounts represent only a fraction of the trolls involved in one affected community. Thirteen of these accounts had been permanently suspended from Reddit, making it impossible to gather any information on them. 

For the remaining 38 users, data including date of account creation and more than 17,000 comments, threads, and other interactions were scraped and analyzed.

Some of the accounts do exhibit suspicious activity, such as being created shortly before the “brigading” of the Alberta subreddits began, posting anti-S2LGBTQI+ content frequently and in multiple Canadian forums, posts that are almost identical in different communities, and, in isolated cases, knowledge of the Russian language.

Given the small sample size, the evidence is still inconclusive as to whether the identified users were part of a state-backed campaign, Al-Rawi said.

What is clear in the analysis, however, is that many Canadians are highly active and motivated to spread hate and divisive rhetoric online, in ways that parallel the intentions of state-backed actors. 

“I’m just sick of the rainbow mafia.”; “It’s called grooming and manipulation. Stop normalizing mental disorders.”; “There are two genders. TWO. SICK *****. LEAVE KIDS ALONE.”; “the left hates being exposed for the pedophiles they support.”: From national forums to local pages for Saskatoon, Kitchener, or Sherwood Park, users peppered any conversation related to inclusive sex education or the trans community with anti-2SLGBTQ+ attacks.

Popular among the same people were a common far-right cluster of conspiracies around vaccines (“the vax is a tool to validate Tyranny and Compliance”), climate change (“There is no climate change just crooked government”), and immigration (“the great replacement”). 

Rhetoric around transgender people and the 2SLGBTQI+ community has become the current obsession of far-right and antidemocratic movements in Canada, according to Balgord, but the focus of hate-motivated movements tends to follow whatever is in the news.

In 2016, the focus was on Muslims and immigration. Following the murder of George Floyd, anti-Black racism surged. COVID conspiracies and convoy-related anti-establishment rhetoric thrived in far-right circles during the pandemic, “but the next stop off after the convoy it has become anti-2SLGBTQI+ organizing and advocacy, primarily targeted at education.”

In his experience, Balgord said a few “power users” can spread an inordinate amount of hate and harassment online.

“Where you’re looking at antidemocratic movements, the far-right have a number of trolls that enjoy doing this. They enjoy causing emotional harm to people. And it is like a game to them.” There are also the true believers, who have bought into the conspiracy and think they are helping solve the problem by spreading disinformation, and the possibility of more coordinated campaigns.

Balgord said he calls these groups antidemocratic, not because they don’t believe in voting or the rule of the people, but because they don’t share the belief in “a liberal democracy with guardrails,” one including peaceful transitions of power, a free press, and the separation of church, state, and judiciary.

“The goal of the antidemocratic movements in Canada is to take political power, whether at the ballot box or not. Then once they have that political power, to use it to persecute their perceived enemies,” he said.

“They’re trying to take over school boards. Get into municipal politics. They’re looking for any position of power by which they can push their ideology and in this case, disrupting school boards or even sending death threats to education officials because they don’t want anything being taught in schools that says it is OK to be queer.”

As it relates to Russian trolls and interference, the specific topic is less important than its potential to disrupt, Al-Rawi said. The memes and other social media content ultimately intended “to sow division for the sake of divide-and-conquer,” Al-Rawi said. These orchestrated disinformation campaigns are often more subtle than citizens might anticipate, and are presented as a form of entertainment, using humour to engage and maintain an audience.

“Because they will not be bored to death. They will remain on your side, at the same time, you are actually sowing division by discussing controversial issue.”

By Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Feb 28, 2024 at 10:55

This item reprinted with permission from   St. Albert Gazette   St. Albert, Alberta

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