The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has leveraged Soviet iconography in its recent effort to raise public awareness against online disinformation, triggering a debate among experts. The argument centralizes around the idea that Moscow is more likely to use North American-looking content in its disinformation tactics.
The campaign by the CSIS started last month with social media postings warning Canadians about intentionally misleading information circulating on the internet. The posts use a font designed to evoke the Cyrillic alphabet, with stars in place of dots and reversed Ns. One post features a matryoshka — a Russian nesting doll — with the phrase “Do you know who is behind it? Disinformation is here and hides well.”
The campaign warns Canadians to be mindful of what they share on social media due to the high risk of trolls spreading disinformation. Aaron Erlich, a political science professor at McGill University, believes that it’s critical to raise awareness about misleading information on the internet. However, he has criticized the messaging of the CSIS campaign as obscure and seemingly designed to induce fear as well as educate.
Erlich voiced concern that inept messaging could backfire and questioned whether the campaign had undergone any testing to measure its potential reception. In response, the CSIS emphasized that the campaign’s objective was to educate Canadians about risks associated with several countries, not just Russia.
The agency referred to the campaign as a response to the challenges posed by hostile state actors that frequently participate in covert activities, such as spreading disinformation targeted at Canadians. Government and non-government actors are known to exploit open democracies like Canada, as the internet allows for a broader spread and amplification of their messages aiming to undermine public trust in democracy and institutions.
Erlich echoed the sentiments of the CSIS. Russian disinformation campaigns, he explained, often seek to undermine the very concept of democratic process by portraying politicians as fundamentally corrupt and challenging facts which are foundational to reality. However, he added that most of these disinformation attempts are articulated in a way which masks their Russian origin.
Data gathered by the Rapid Response Mechanism Canada lends credence to this view. It suggests that messages perceived as supportive of Russia often come from websites designed to mimic North American or European media outlets. These sites often subscribe to conspiracy theories and aim to erode international support for Ukraine.
While the impact of cyber-narratives is difficult to quantify due to varying individual worldviews, Tim Blackmore, a professor at Western University, emphasized the importance of caution, skepticism, and considered judgment when interpreting online information. His advice reflected a call for prudent media consumption in a digital news landscape fraught with disinformation risks.