A woman glances sideways into the room.

Marie-Josée Hogue, commissioner of the commission of inquiry into foreign interference in electoral processes and federal democratic institutions.

Photo: The U.S. Press / Sean Kilpatrick

Ahead of the 2019 election, Canada has adopted a Public Protocol in the Event of a Major Electoral Incident, the role of which is to warn Canadians of serious threats to democratic integrity. No such warnings were issued during the last two general elections. Should it have been otherwise?

This is one of the questions that emerges from the preliminary report of the Commission of Inquiry into Foreign Interference released Friday.

The one who chairs the Commission, Judge Marie-Josée Hogue, says in the report that she is not ready to say that it was necessary. However, she assures that the question deserves to be explored further in the next phase of the investigation, which will begin next fall.

A candidate who was “drowning in disinformation”

One of the main incidents fueling this thinking is the Chinese-language disinformation campaign carried out during the 2021 campaign against the Conservative candidate for the riding of Steveston–Richmond East, Kenny Chiu. More than half of the population of this British Columbia riding is of East Asian origin.

During the Commission hearings, Mr. Chiu, who won this constituency in 2019, said he drown in misinformation during the 2021 election campaign, without getting the help he wanted to set the record straight. He then reported his concerns to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

The candidate said that because of this misinformation, he had the door slammed in his face by voters of Chinese origin who had supported him in the past and that many volunteers of Chinese origin no longer wanted to lend him a hand. strong.

In Chinese-language online media and on the Chinese social network WeChat, Mr. Chiu was the target of numerous false information concerning in particular the draft law on the register of foreign agents of influence that he had tabled. Articles then described him as traitor to his racea white supremacist, and assured that discrimination against the Chinese would increase in Canada if he was re-elected.

Chiu attempted to respond to this media speech, but his message was not picked up or broadcast by Chinese-language media”,”text”:”Mr.Chiu attempted to respond to this media speech, but his message was not picked up or broadcast by Chinese-language media”}}”>Mr. Chiu attempted to respond to this speech in the media, but his message was not picked up or broadcast by Chinese-language mediawe can read in the report. Chiu says he was shunned by Chinese-speaking media, which generally did not cover his campaign.”,”text”:”Mr.Chiu says he was shunned by Chinese-speaking media , which generally did not cover his campaign.”}}”>Mr. Chiu says he was shunned by Chinese-language media, which generally did not cover his campaign.

The conservative candidate ultimately lost the election by more than 8%. According to Justice Hogue, it is reasonable to believe that this disinformation campaign affected Kenny Chiu’s electoral outcome, although foreign interference in the 2021 election did not undermine the integrity of the electoral system and did not have any impact on the overall outcome of the election.

Uncertain ties with China

While aware of the disinformation campaign, Canada’s Rapid Response Mechanism and the Task Force on Security and Intelligence Threats to the Elections did not have definitive evidence that it was directed by China.

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There were indications that these were coordinated activities, but while it may have been an intervention by (China), it could also be an organic reaction.we can read in Commissioner Hogue’s report.

It is for this reason, among other things, that the committee of officials responsible for the Public Protocol in the event of a major electoral incident did not issue a public warning about the false information targeting Mr. Chiu. In addition, the fact that the latter corrected the facts on social networks cleaned up the information ecosystemaccording to the committee.

This article was originally published in the 4 edition May of the Décrypteurs newsletter. To get exclusive content like this as well as analysis on everything related to web disinformation, subscribe by clicking here.

More questions than answers

However, Commissioner Hogue questions some of the committee’s conclusions. He also explained that he had not issued a warning about a Chinese-language disinformation campaign targeting the leader of the Conservative Party at the time, Erin O’Toole, because false information about him had stopped circulating a few weeks before the election.

The idea of ​​relying on the media ecosystem’s ability to self-correct concerns me. It may be too late when the misinformation dissipates. The damage to the democratic process may already have materialized.

A quote from Marie-Josée Hogue, commissioner, in her preliminary report

Chiu and Mr.O’Toole faded before Election Day doesn’t mean they had no effect. It may be necessary to intervene more quickly in such cases. However, it is also worth asking whether the public would accept senior officials determining what information needs to be corrected”,”text”:”The fact that the false information about Mr. Chiu and Mr. O’Toole was faded before election day does not mean that they had no effect. It may be necessary to intervene more quickly in such cases. However, it is also worth asking whether the public would accept senior officials determining what information needs to be corrected”}}”>Just because the misinformation about Mr. Chiu and Mr. O’Toole died down before Election Day doesn’t mean it had no effect. It may be necessary to intervene more quickly in such cases. However, it is also worth asking whether the public would accept senior officials determining what information needs to be correctedadds the judge.

The report also discusses the distortions of reality that can be acceptable forms of expression in political debates – as long as they are not orchestrated from abroad.

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Ultimately, Judge Hogue believes that the decision not to warn the public was reasonablebut that she highlights a profound gap in the mechanisms for dealing with misinformation or disinformation during electoral periods.

The lack of clear guidelines is one of the main issues raised in the report. It will be interesting to follow the debates and discussions on this subject in the next phase of the inquiry, and to see what changes might be made between now and the next federal election, scheduled for October 2025.

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