As Canada’s spy agency warns that China’s efforts to distort the news and influence the media in Canada have “been normalized”, critics are renewing calls for Ottawa to take a much tougher approach to foreign media interference.
The warning is contained in briefing documents prepared for the Canadian security intelligence service, David Vigneault, in preparation for a meeting he had with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this year.
That meeting focused on the rise of foreign interference in Canada – something CSIS says has become “more sophisticated, frequent and insidious.”
One way foreign states – including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – try to put pressure on other countries is through the media, the documents say, achieved through a request for access to information.
“In particular, the influence activities of the Chinese media in Canada have been normalized,” it reads.
“Chinese-language media operating in Canada and members of the Sino-Canadian community are primary targets of China-led foreign-influenced activities.”
CSIS spokesman John Townsend said foreign states are targeting both mainstream media – print publications, radio and television programs – and non-traditional online and social media channels to pursue their goals.
“Mainstream news media, as well as community sources, can also be targets for foreign states trying to shape public opinion, debate and secretly influence participation in the democratic process,” he said.
“Given Canada’s rich multicultural composition, foreign states may seek to exploit or force individuals in communities to help influence to their advantage what is reported by Canadian media.”
China has an effective network of influence, the report finds
It’s a tactic that former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu said he knows all too well. He said that during the recent federal election, he was hit by a misinformation campaign run through Chinese-language media and social media.
“If this is normal behavior, then we should really be concerned,” he said.
Chiu said he was attacked online as anti-Chinese after enacting a private membership law that would require agents from foreign governments to register and report on their activities. He lost the BC ride of Steveston-Richmond East to the Liberal Parm Bains by nearly 3,000 votes.
“First of all, I just felt very sad. I feel ridiculous. I feel sad because some of my Canadians of Chinese descent, why should they believe this information at all?” he said.
Earlier this year, Alliance Canada Hong Kong – an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in that country – released a report claiming that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) runs a sophisticated network that inserts Beijing-friendly narratives into various media.
The report says that China has taken advantage of the lack of oversight in low-staff newsrooms to push the party line abroad.
It says China sometimes pushes these narratives openly – through sponsored posts or advertising posts written by Chinese party-state media – while groups closely linked to Chinese authorities buy digital or print ads that leave party rhetoric behind.
“It’s meant to portray that it’s a sign that they’re the group that speaks on behalf of all Chinese, all Canadian Chinese, which is just not true,” said Ai-Men Lau, an adviser to the Alliance. Canada Hong Kong.
China is also using its foothold in Canadian ethnic Chinese media to keep journalists in line, she said.
“For years, journalists in ethnic media have often been required to self-censor themselves or face uprisings. We have seen journalists get fired. If they take a certain line, they no longer get their columns posted in ethnic media,” she said.
Alliance Canada Hong Kong’s report says that Beijing also influences voices in mainstream media.
“In the mainstream media, vocal supporters wooed through elite capture deliver Beijing’s messages in op-eds and media appearances, helping to influence popular perceptions,” the report says.
The CSIS briefing memo said a number of countries (their names are obscured in the memo) are working to undermine Canada’s political processes at the federal, provincial and municipal levels and within indigenous governments.
‘Persistent targeting’ is underway, says CSIS
The heavily edited document says that politicians and party associations are targets of these foreign influence operations along with members of Sino-Canadian communities.
Earlier this year, CSIS reported that foreign states sought to bribe or blackmail voters and politicians. The same report said that some such operations also rely on flattery, money and even romantic intricacies to squeeze their agenda.
Ai-Men Lau said she expects to see China’s harassment of dissidents abroad continue.
“You see out of Hong Kong that people travel and they travel because of the national security law. It’s a bit like luggage – whether you want it or not, it follows you,” she said.
“So it’s something that I think Canadian officials or policy makers and policy makers and politicians need to think about when we talk about tackling these issues … It’s going to be with us for a while.”
Townsend said CSIS reaches out to communities under pressure.
“While I can not comment in detail on the specifics of our assessments and studies, I can say that CSIS has observed sustained targeting of specific communities here in Canada, both personally and through the use of online campaigns, by foreign actors,” he said. said.
‘Sunlight’ policy required: Vigneault
In its meeting with Trudeau, Vigneault said Canada has a role to play in developing media influence tactics in public.
“Canada can make use of a policy based on transparency and sunlight to highlight the point that foreign interference should be exposed to the public, and secret practice is not equivalent to public diplomacy,” the CSIS briefing states.
“Various state actors are currently using foreign interference activities with limited impunity to undermine Canada’s interests.”
Chiu said he wants to see a stronger approach from the federal government.
“The Chinese government controls WeChat, has a monopoly on the lives of many Canadians and their ears and their brains … we need to find a solution to that,” he said.
“We also need to monitor and ensure that our regulators … ensure that … television stations and commentators are held accountable for this information they help disseminate, especially during or before the election.”
Ai-Men Lau also called for more oversight to ensure China does not manipulate the media and threaten journalists.
CSIS said it recently stepped up its investigative efforts and triggered threat mitigation measures – a term that refers to its broad legal powers to reduce threats to Canada’s security.
The main limitation of CSIS ‘threat mitigation powers is that the service cannot intentionally – or through criminal negligence – cause death or bodily harm, violate sexual integrity or intentionally obstruct justice.