Three reasons to doubt that foreign powers can seriously influence voters and policy by sowing discord with misleading information.
With the Canadian federal election scheduled to take place by this October, many concerns abound as to how foreign actors might influence how voters behave. During his controversial testimony in the SNC-Lavalin affair, former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick declared that he was “[worried] about foreign interference in the upcoming election.” More recently, a report by the Communications Security Establishment predicts that “cyber threat actors [will] manipulate online information, often using cyber tools, in order to influence voters’ opinions and behaviours.” These actors would exploit “polarizing social and political issues” and convey prejudicial information about political parties and individual candidates. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has cautioned that Canadians should be prepared for Russian disinformation. The Canadian-led NATO battle group in Latvia has already been a target for disinformation.
Are such concerns justified? Do Russia and other foreign powers like China really have the ability to sow discord and to bend political outcomes to their liking by using disinformation — defined as deliberately misleading information?
As I explain in a recent article published in the European Journal of International Security, there are three broad reasons to doubt that disinformation substantially influences political outcomes, either in how people vote or in how foreign and defence policy is formed.
The first reason is that, by the very nature of international politics, any rhetoric broadcast by Russia cannot be taken at face value. Like any other great power, Russia has every incentive to craft self-serving narratives about its foreign relations and to convey that it has good intentions when it really has revisionist ones. In peacetime, when relations are warm and friendly, this uncertainty may matter little. However, since 2014, Russia has been fighting with Ukraine while engaging in adversarial policies toward NATO countries.
Canadians may not necessarily regard Russia as an enemy, at least not to the same degree as people do in many parts of Europe, but they have no reason to be trusting of Russia either in light of its behaviour. Indeed, a 2017 poll conducted by Pew Research finds that 59 percent of Canadians have unfavourable views of Russia, well above the global median of 40 percent. The Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party have all made statements condemning Russian aggression. Since Russia suffers a deficit of trust already with Canadian voters, any information conveyed by Russia may be considered deliberately false and therefore would be dismissed. Messages that are obviously pro-Kremlin would be immediately suspect.
The second reason for doubt is that those who fret about the effects of disinformation tend to assume that voters are receptive to any incoming information. Yet a large body of political science literature finds that citizens are not blank slates. They process information in light of their deeply held prejudices, lived experiences, identities and pre-existing beliefs. In the United States, a powerful predictor for an individual’s beliefs on issues ranging from climate change to economic performance is whether they are Democratic or Republican. Canadian voters may be more flexible in their partisanship, but longstanding values and party loyalties remain strong predictors of voters’ electoral choices.
Any foreign purveyor of disinformation will find that members of a target audience are largely decided in their beliefs. This is especially true of more sticky beliefs that relate to polarizing social and political issues. If there are people who are susceptible to disinformation from foreign sources, even amid intense political polarization within their society, then they are probably susceptible to disinformation from domestic sources, too. Indeed, the growing evidence about disinformation is that its effects have largely been limited to a small segment of voters who probably would have supported extremist parties anyway.
The disinforming state thus faces a conundrum. It cannot broadcast disinformation that is obvious in its intent and political leanings. However, in order to find a message that resonates with a target society, it risks broadcasting the sort of information that audiences would already have accepted: a disinforming state might find itself preaching to the proverbial choir. It must somehow calibrate a moderate piece of disinformation so that it is neither obvious enough to be discounted nor redundant enough to be lost in the popular discourse.
There is a third reason why we should not overestimate the effect of disinformation: Even if a disinforming adversary can solve this conundrum and overcome international distrust and individual biases, countermeasures are available. One countermeasure is — problematically — disinformation itself. One leading scholar of propaganda conceded that “[propaganda] efforts often nullify one another.” If a political party avails itself of a foreign disinformation campaign, an unlikely move in light of the attitudes toward Russia or China held by Canada’s main political parties, then opposition parties might use its apparent alignment to scandalize voters and to generate public backlash. Less controversial countermeasures involve media outlets and journalists quickly correcting mistakes, using credible sources, making sure false claims are not repeated and reducing any partisan or ideological cues in the reporting of a news item.
These reasons for why disinformation should be largely ineffective leave unchallenged the assumption that opinion polls or electoral outcomes directly affect policies that matter for the disinforming state. Presumably, the disinforming state is trying to shift opinion so as to affect in turn those policies that govern how a target aligns itself geopolitically and the foreign and defence policies regarding the disinforming state itself. After all, it is not spreading disinformation for its own sake. Unless the disinforming state is truly nihilistic, polluting the discourse in a society serves a higher end.
The problem for the disinforming state is that the relationship between public opinion and the policy results dear to it is at best unclear. For one thing, the decision-makers and practitioners who make up the foreign policy executive also generally process information through the lens of their own ideological commitments, beliefs and identities. They have recourse to the intelligence agencies, if they so choose, to cut through the noise created by international disinformation campaigns. For another, policy-making itself is a complicated process. Many stakeholders — ranging from the military to the civilian bureaucracy to private interests — will seek to shape foreign and defence policies. Hence we see much more basic operational continuity in US foreign and defence policy than not — toward Russia, no less — despite the alleged role of Russian disinformation in the 2016 presidential election.
Disinformation campaigns thus have to overcome serious obstacles in order to be effective. Small wonder that in places like the Baltic countries — which some observers consider to be a prime target for Russian information warfare — increases in defence spending and popular support for NATO initiatives persist.
None of this discussion suggests that we can be complacent about disinformation. Civil discourse grounded in evidence and reasonable interpretations thereof is valuable in its own right. We should take whatever active measures we can to limit the effectiveness of disinformation campaigns.
Still, what political parties and candidates should also do is to avoid the temptation of blaming their defeats at the ballot box on foreign disinformation campaigns when their own performance is more likely to blame. This temptation may be especially powerful this year since the upcoming federal election promises to be highly competitive. The Canadian political system would survive the defeat of any one party or leader, but losers might continue to strike out politically if they avoid confronting the hard questions that come with self-examination.
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