Anti-authority narratives could tear ‘fabric of society’, intelligence report warns

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

Published Sunday, March 24, 2024 7:23 pmEDT

Last updated Sunday, March 24, 2024 7:25 pmEDT

Threats against politicians have become “increasingly normalized” due to extremist narratives sparked by personal grievances and fueled by misinformation or deliberate lies, a newly released intelligence report warns.

The report, prepared by a federal task force aimed at safeguarding elections, says Canada’s violent extremist landscape has seen the proliferation of conspiracy theories, a growing lack of trust in the integrity of the state and increased political polarization.

Unfounded theories, misinformation and disinformation have spread to broader audiences, exposing online users to a vast network of narratives that undermine science, government systems and traditional authority figures, the report says.

“Violent rhetoric routinely focuses on elected officials, with particular hostility toward high-profile women.”

The Canadian press used the Access to Information Act to obtain the June 2023 report of the Task Force on Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections. Some passages from the “Secret/For Canadian Eyes Only” evaluation were considered too sensitive to publish.

The federal body, created in 2019 to protect the electoral process from foreign interference, includes representatives from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyberespionage agency.

The report notes that while domestic terrorism threats are not strictly part of the task force’s focus on foreign meddling, “we recognize the need to provide assessments on this issue.”

The task force weighed the potential threat of violent extremism fueled by politics, religion and ideology. It concluded that of the three, a Canadian federal election would “very likely be affected” by ideologically motivated violent extremism.

There is no single worldview for ideological extremism, the report says. Rather, “threat actors” are driven by a variety of highly personalized grievances, ideas, and narratives from across the traditional left-right spectrum, often deeply influenced by conspiracy theories.

Grievances may be fueled by elements such as xenophobia, gender issues, or general anti-government sentiment.

It says that while threats against politicians peak during election cycles or major political announcements, RCMP data showed the monthly and annual averages had remained relatively stable since September 2021.

Ideologically motivated violent extremists “have increasingly normalized threats against prominent public figures outside of the election cycle,” the report concludes.

All threats to the prime minister and other MPs reported to the RCMP are classified and assessed to determine their link to national security, the task force adds. About 20 per cent of reported threats against the prime minister and 13 per cent of threats against MPs between September 2021 and mid-2023 met the RCMP’s national security threshold.

While extremist narratives and conspiracy theories do not typically manifest as an act of serious violence, “they have the potential to negatively affect the fabric of Canadian society,” the report says.

The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam said the 2023 assessment “remains unchanged.”

CSIS Director David Vigneault told a House of Commons committee this month that the spy service is dedicating about half of its counterterrorism resources to investigating the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism. “We’ve seen several threat vectors increase,” he said.

The task force report says anti-authority extremists have “almost certainly leveraged” social media posts about foreign interference in Canadian elections to “reinforce pre-existing narratives about the inherent corruption of government institutions in Canada.”

However, a narrative of the scale of the “stolen election” rhetoric that sparked the breach of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 has not emerged across the Canadian political landscape, the report notes.

On the question of foreign interference, a broader supplemental report says that as of last June the task force had seen no evidence of a significant cyber threat to Canadian electoral processes or electoral infrastructure from state actors.

However, political parties, candidates and their staff continue to be targeted by cyber threat activities, which can take the form of online espionage, disinformation or fabricated videos known as deepfakes, the report added.

Overall, the task force says “sophisticated, widespread and persistent” meddling efforts constitute a serious threat to Canada’s national security and the integrity of its democratic institutions.

For certain foreign states, foreign interference activities “are part of their normal patterns of behavior in Canada and often peak during election periods.”

This interference, given its clandestine or deceptive nature, often takes place in a legal gray area, where there are no laws regulating the activities or where their interpretation is ambiguous, the report adds.

Canada is a high-priority foreign interference target due to its role in key global alliances and bodies, and enjoys a “strong international reputation” that can be used or co-opted to help legitimize the interests of foreign states.

Additionally, Canada’s advanced, knowledge-based economy is attractive to foreign states seeking to develop their own scientific and technological expertise, the report says. Finally, Canada is home to large diaspora communities, which some foreign states attempt to monitor, control, or use to further their own strategic objectives.

“Foreign states develop important relationships in Canada throughout the year to promote their own political platforms, and will use these relationships to their advantage, especially around election time.”

Under a federal protocol, the heads of key national security agencies would inform a special panel of top bureaucrats of an attempted interference during an election period.

There would be a public announcement if the panel determined that an incident – or an accumulation of incidents – threatened Canada’s ability to hold free and fair elections.

There was no such announcement in 2021 or in relation to the 2019 election. In both votes, the Liberals returned to government with minority mandates, while the Conservatives formed the official opposition.

Accusations of foreign interference in these elections – suggestions fueled by anonymous leaks to the media – led to a chorus of calls for a public inquiry.

The commission of inquiry, headed by Quebec Judge Marie-Josée Hogue, resumes hearings on Wednesday.

The hearings will focus on the merits of allegations of foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

The commission will hear from more than 40 people, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet, senior government officials, diaspora communities, political party representatives, Elections Canada and the office of the Canadian elections commissioner.

The initial report of the commission’s conclusions is due May 3.

The investigation will then move to broader policy issues, examining the government’s ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference aimed at Canada’s democratic processes. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

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