A photo about censorship.
The problem with censorship is ... Credit: Cory Doctorow / Flickr Credit: Cory Doctorow / Flickr

Last week the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Management released a report titled “The reach of Russian propaganda and disinformation in Canada.” According to lead author Anatoliy Gruzd, “the research provides evidence that the Kremlin’s disinformation is reaching more Canadians than one would expect. Left unchallenged, state-sponsored information operations can stoke societal tensions and could even undermine democracy itself.” 

But the report calls statements of fact “pro-Kremlin claims.” One flagrant example cited prominently is the idea that “since the end of the Cold War, NATO has surrounded Russia with military bases and broken their promise to not offer NATO membership to former USSR republics, like Ukraine.” 

“The reach of Russian propaganda and disinformation in Canada” follows on the heels of the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy releasing their own report titled “Disinformation and Russia-Ukrainian war on Canadian social media”. The June report listed prominent Twitter accounts engaged in what it called “disinformation,” which includes “portraying NATO as an aggressive alliance using Ukraine as a proxy against Russia” and “promoting a specific mistrust of Canada’s Liberal government, and especially of Prime Minister Trudeau.” 

Recently the Canadian Forces tweeted, “we’re working with international partners to detect, correct, and call out the Kremlin’s state-sponsored disinformation about Ukraine.” They linked to a webpage titled “Canada’s efforts to counter disinformation — Russian invasion of Ukraine.” 

Overseen by the Department of National Defense, the 2,700 employee Communications Security Establishment (CSE) also claims to combat “disinformation.” Its Twitter account regularly posts updates on Russian “disinformation” and the top item in its recently released annual report is “exposing Russian-backed disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activity.” 

Ten days ago, the Trudeau government announced sanctions on 15 Russian entities engaged in “disinformation”. In March Ottawa put up $3 million to counter Russian “disinformation.” 

At the legislative level Bill C11 is expected to require companies to remove content flagged as “disinformation.” A panel of experts appointed by the heritage minister to help shape the “online harms” legislation called for it to address “harmful content online, which includes disinformation, by conducting risk assessments of content that can cause significant physical or psychological harm to individuals.” The legislation is expected to further empower CSIS and establish a “digital safety commissioner.” 

One member of the expert panel advising the minister, Bernie Farber, has repeatedly sought to suppress challenges to Israeli apartheid. As head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Farber pressured the York University administration against holding an academic conference entitled Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace, applauded the Stephen Harper government’s 2009 move to block former British MP George Galloway from speaking in Canada, spurred Shoppers Drug Mart to withdraw Adbuster  from its stores, campaigned to suppress A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth and called on Toronto Pride to ban Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. Today Farber is an advocate of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which has repeatedly been used to suppress Palestine solidarity activism. 

After I interrupted justice minister David Lametti’s press conference to question him about Israel murdering al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh and illegal recruitment for the Israeli military, Honest Reporting Canada released an action alert titled “CBC and CPAC Broadcast Anti-Israel Radical Crashing Press Conference and Spewing Hatred.” The May 27 statement noted, “instead of cutting away from this radical interrupting the press conference, CBC News gave the anti-Israel activist a national platform to spew disinformation, falsehoods, and anti-Israel hatred for over 2 minutes.” They called on the two TV channels to suppress my “disinformation.” 

The Daily Dot, a US-based technology publication, published a similar response when I interrupted a speech by foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly to challenge Canada’s escalation of violence in Ukraine. In “Tech giants built digital dragnets to stop Russian propaganda—here’s how it still seeps through” Claire Goforth suggested Twitter and other social media outlets should have suppressed my 45 second video challenging Canada’s promotion of NATO and weapons deliveries. Bemoaning how “Russian propaganda and disinformation commingle across the web”, Goforth effectively argued that if Russian media promoted a video of a Canadian challenging their country’s foreign minister about Canada’s role in an important international issue it should be suppressed. 

Proponents of “disinformation” are overwhelmingly focused on information that displeases Western power. “Disinformation” campaigners don’t cry foul when articles suggest Canada seeks to help Haiti or uphold the international rules-based order. Even obviously false numbers are okay so long as they align with power. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a memorial to the Rwandan genocide at last month’s Commonwealth Summit in Kigali CBC reported, “more than 800,000 Tutsis lost their lives across the country in the organized campaign that stretched over 100 days.” But it’s improbable there were 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 and no one believes every single Tutsi was killed, as I detailed in the 2017 article “Statistics, damn lies and the truth about Rwanda genocide”. (Rwanda’s 1991 census calculated 596,387 Tutsi and a Tutsi survivors’ group concluded close to 400,000 survived.)

In challenging his disinformation, I tagged the author of the CBC story, Murray Brewster, but he didn’t bother correcting the story. Canadian commentators claim more Tutsi were killed in the genocide than lived in Rwanda since it aligns with Washington, London and Kigali’s interests, as well as liberal nationalist Canadian ideology. 

As someone who spends hours daily countering “disinformation” about Canadian foreign policy, I find it odd objecting to efforts to combat the scourge. But current official talk about “disinformation” has largely become a euphemism for protecting empire and a rebranding of age-old government-run censorship.

Yves Engler

Dubbed “Canada’s version of Noam Chomsky” (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I. F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), “part...