In Canadian Politics, Human Rights, National Security

On June 8, 2022, Canadian media widely published an article by Canadian Press reporter Marie Woolf regarding a new “study” which claims that Canada is being “targeted” by Russia with “disinformation”.

The eight-page study, which can be read here, was compiled by a team of researchers led by University of Calgary Assistant Professor Jean-Christophe Boucher.

Woolf’s article about the study does not disclose that Boucher’s research is funded, to the tune of $2.4 million, by Canada’s Department of National Defence.

According to Woolf, Boucher asserts that the “Russian state apparatus” is “associated with” many accounts tweeting in Canada, and is influencing posts that are retweeted, liked or repeated by different accounts again and again. Boucher claims that the “path of influence” of many “pro-Russian tweets” can be traced back to accounts “associated with Russia.”

The study, however, provides no evidentiary support whatsoever for these claims. It does not even identify a single Twitter account which its authors believe to be “associated with Russia” or part of the “Russian state apparatus”. Moreover, the amorphous terms “Russian state apparatus” and “associated with Russia” appear nowhere in the study at all.

What does the study actually say?

The study’s authors begin by positing that five narratives constitute ‘Russian disinformation’. Those five narratives are:

  1. Implying NATO expansionism legitimizes the Russian invasion
  2. Portraying NATO as an aggressive alliance using Ukraine as a proxy against Russia
  3. Promoting a general mistrust in institutions and elites
  4. Suggesting that Ukraine is a fascist state or has extensive fascist influences
  5. Promoting a specific mistrust of Canada’s Liberal government, and especially of Prime Minister Trudeau

Then, under the heading “Approaches and Methodology”, the authors state that the data underpinning their analysis are composed of 6.2 million Tweets from around the world since January 2022. A location filter was applied to that dataset to confine the analysis to Tweets associated with Canadian Twitter profiles. The authors then used a “Social Network Analysis” to build a retweet network, establishing a connection between accounts and mapping out online conversations pertaining to the Ukraine war. A community detection algorithm purportedly enabled the authors to divide profiles into different clusters and to identify “main influencers” promoting the five “pro-Russian narratives”. Finally, the authors used a “deep learning algorithm” to categorize the main narratives being discussed in each of the clusters.

Based on their methodology, the authors compiled lists purporting to show the top disseminators of Russian disinformation.

Are the five narratives ‘disinformation’?

The study’s authors never explain what they mean by “implying NATO expansion legitimizes the Russian invasion.” Are they suggesting that identifying NATO expansion as a cause of the Ukraine war amounts to ‘legitimizing’ Russia’s invasion? If so, they are either woefully mistaken or wilfully misleading, because there is an important distinction between seeking to understand the causes of a government’s behaviour and believing that its behaviour is legitimate. I myself have argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates international law and must be condemned, but that NATO expansion clearly contributed to Russia’s decision to invade. If we truly want to bring an end to this war and to the immense suffering it is causing, then it behooves us to understand the war’s causes. You are not likely to solve a problem without knowing what caused it.

The study offers no argument or evidence to support its claim that the five narratives on which it focused constitute “disinformation”. Rather, the authors simply assume that these narratives are false or misleading. They make that assumption despite ample evidence to the contrary.

For example, leading foreign policy figures from Western states repeatedly warned that, by breaking their many promises to the USSR not to expand eastward, major NATO powers would eventually provoke Russia, and NATO expansion would end in tragedy. NATO leaders systematically and repeatedly ignored these warnings. Thus, the assertion that NATO expansion contributed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is supported by the historical record.

So too is the assertion that NATO is an aggressive military alliance. Even before the recently announced increases in NATO military spending, the collective military spending of NATO states was about seventeen times Russia’s military spending. The United States alone has seven hundred fifty military bases in eighty countries, whereas Russia has fewer than twenty military bases in eight countries. NATO destroyed Libya. NATO powers laid waste to Afghanistan during a 20-year war that was rife with brutality and corruption. NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days, causing at least 500 civilian deaths. In light of these and other easily verifiable facts, only a pro-NATO propagandist would insist that NATO is a purely defensive alliance.

As for the claim that NATO is using Ukraine as a proxy to weaken Russia, we have only to heed the now infamous words of the powerful U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff: “the United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there and we don’t have to fight Russia here.”

Evidence also abounds for the claim that there are “extensive fascist influences in Ukraine”. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (after which it became verboten in the West to mention Ukrainian Neo-Nazis), Congress banned U.S. arms from going to Ukraine’s Neo-Nazi Azov battalion. At around the same time, more than forty human rights activists petitioned Israel’s High Court to bar Israeli arms exports to Ukraine on the basis that those weapons could end up in the hands of Neo-Nazis. In November of last year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Canadian officials who met with members of Ukraine’s Neo-Nazi Azov battalion didn’t denounce the unit, but were instead concerned the media would expose details of the get-together. This followed an earlier report by the Ottawa Citizen that the Canadian military had trained Ukrainian Neo-Nazis (that report also revealed that the Canadian military had trained Iraqis who were involved in torture and rape).

As for the third and fifth “pro-Russian” narratives, are we seriously to believe that it is “disinformation” to promote mistrust of elites or of Justin Trudeau’s government? A comprehensive catalogue of Trudeau’s record of dishonesty could occupy an entire book. For the sake of brevity, I will confine myself to Trudeau’s mantra that his government is a defender of the “rules-based international order”. Israel is an apartheid regime and Saudi Arabia is committing genocide in Yemen, yet the Trudeau government allows Canadian firms and Canada’s military to trade in deadly weapons with both of those regimes. So extreme is the Trudeau government’s support for apartheid Israel that, in 2018, the government entered into an ‘enhanced’ free trade deal with Israel mere days after an Israeli sniper shot a Canadian-Palestinian doctor. These are but a few examples of the Trudeau government’s dealings with pro-Western human rights abusers.

When it comes to generating mistrust among Canadians, the Trudeau government needs no help from the Russians.

Accordingly, the basic premise of the University of Calgary study is false: the narratives which the study defines as “pro-Russian disinformation” find abundant support in the historical record. The fact that those narratives appear repeatedly in the Twitter discourse simply reflects that there is substantial evidence to support them. The prevalence of those narratives in the Twitter discourse does not prove that Russia is “targeting” Canada with disinformation.

Pro-NATO disinformation masquerading as academic analysis

Ultimately, the University of Calgary study is pro-NATO disinformation, but why would we expect anything other than pro-NATO disinformation from an academic whose research receives millions of dollars of funding from Canada’s Department of National Defence?

In September of last year, Canadian media reported that Canadian military leaders saw the pandemic as a unique opportunity to test out propaganda techniques on an unsuspecting public. In light of revelations such as these, no sensible individual would rely on researchers funded by DoD to tell us what is and is not disinformation.

Ultimately, the University of Calgary study is not designed to educate Canadians about Russian disinformation. Rather, it seeks to discredit “major influencers” who dissent from NATO’s narrative about the Ukraine war by insinuating, without a scintilla of proof, that these persons are promoters of Russian propaganda or, worse, agents of the Russian government.

Almost certainly, this study will now be cited by warmongers and militarists in Canada’s Parliament and corporate media as grounds for engaging in even more aggressive censorship of those who oppose the West’s disastrous meddling in Ukraine. In all likelihood, more censorship is the true but unacknowledged objective of this lamentable “study”.

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Showing 9 comments
  • Nora Abercrombie

    Was the annexation of Crimea also provoked by the West?

  • ALi

    I think you moved from being a respectable human rights activist to an insane russian oligarchy propagandist, so sad. Your analysis seems to be “copy and paste” from the dictated Russian State Media (i.e RT): Specifically, It is not nuanced, very biased and epistemologically void.

    While I totaly despise NATO and it is expansionist ideology, I remain vigilant of the oppressive socio-political situation in Russia and China. The Russian government is not the USSR; on the contrary, it is the opposite of it. Putin has unequivocally condemned the USSR and its policies. His government is composed of filthy RICH Oligarchs (I actually lived in Russia) who can’t care less about the world state of affairs except for its conntection to their the wealth.

    Russian manufactured story about the Nazis/fascists in Ukraine is just one of their smokescreens to jsutify their historical zeal to control and dominate Ukraine. Russia now is a pure capitalist country -with minimum constitutional protection for people civil liberties, and therefore they want to expand their markets (Like Karl Marx predicted), and Ukraine was the weak piece of the chain. Sure USA does not have the best intentions, but man I would not want to change one monster for another worse.

    Finally, I wish that you researched Russian massive crimes in Chechnya, Libya and Syria, and the use of their ruthless mercenaries like the wagner group to serve disgusting ends.

    This post disappointed me a lot, I thought you were an intelligent man…

  • Lisa Barrett

    Thank you Dimitri. That’s a very thorough and helpful clap back to some very tiresome yet dangerous clichés. I did some background research on Boucher too. Also Chris Alexander has waxed poetic about the virtues of NATO in Afghanistan (where he was briefly posted as ambassador) and beyond. I’ll post about that history but meanwhile many people have seen this coming since the 2014 Maidan coup including:

  • Lisa Barrett

    Here is Boucher’s book-length apologia for the brutal, genocidal, illegal war against Afghanistan.

  • james

    finally a moment of sanity…. too bad more canucks can’t read this like they read that csis controlled disinfo page called cbc news.. oh well… i am always shocked to think the so called journalists who work their don’t mind their work has to be okay-ed by csis proof readers…

  • Robin Collins

    Dimitri, the extent of neonazi influence in Ukraine should not be discounted, but it should also not be exaggerated, which is the primary issue at hand. We know that in terms of parliament, the extreme right are miniscule. And it is estimated that 20% of the Azov brigade is made up of neonazis. Going with the “high” number of the brigade size of 1000, that would put the neonazis in the 200 person range. (The low number of the brigade is about 450, high number about 1000.) The Ukraine military is 250,000 strong and the National Guard is 50,000. Two hundred vs 300,000. This is not to say the neonazis are not punching above their weight, but let’s put this is perspective! Putin and his friends have every reason to inflate the numbers to justify their special military mission to rid Ukraine of “neonazis”. Clear propaganda.

  • thomas keene

    the real disinformation is coming from the mouthpieces for the warmongers…the state run US msm

  • Eric Peter

    The classic main-stream political spin is to label “truth” as “misinformation”. As the above articulates, if one takes away the “disinformation” label, we have a study that clearly shows that there are a large number of astute people in the world that can see beyond the main-stream media’s on-sided representation of who is to blame for NOT averting this war.

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