As Canada’s spy agency warns that China’s efforts to distort the news and influence media outlets in Canada “have become normalized,” critics are renewing calls for Ottawa to take a far tougher approach to foreign media interference.
The warning is contained in briefing documents drafted for Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault in preparation for a meeting he had with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this year.
That meeting focused on the rise of foreign interference in Canada — something CSIS says has become “more sophisticated, frequent, and insidious.”
One way foreign states — including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — try to exert pressure on other countries is through media outlets, say the documents, obtained through an access to information request.
“In particular, PRC media influence activities in Canada have become normalized,” it reads.
“Chinese-language media outlets operating in Canada and members of the Chinese-Canadian community are primary targets of PRC-directed foreign influenced activities.”
CSIS spokesperson John Townsend said foreign states target both mainstream media outlets — print publications, radio and television programs — and non-traditional online outlets and social media channels to pursue their goals.
“Mainstream news outlets, as well as community sources, may also be targeted by foreign states who attempt to shape public opinion, debate, and covertly influence participation in the democratic process,” he said.
“Considering Canada’s rich multicultural makeup, foreign states may try to leverage or coerce individuals within communities to help influence to their benefit what is being reported by Canadian media outlets.”
China has an effective influence network, report finds
It’s a tactic former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu said he knows all too well. He said he was targeted during the recent federal election by a misinformation campaign run through Chinese language media outlets and social media.
“If that’s the normal behaviour, then we should really become concerned,” he said.
Chiu said he was attacked online as anti-Chinese after introducing a private member’s bill that would require agents of foreign governments to register and report on their activities. He lost the B.C. riding of Steveston-Richmond East to Liberal Parm Bains by almost 3,000 votes.
“I just felt, first of all, very sad. I feel ridiculous. I feel sad because some of my fellow Canadians of Chinese descent, why would they even believe in this information?” he said.
Earlier this year, Alliance Canada Hong Kong — an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in this country — released a report alleging the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) runs a sophisticated network that inserts Beijing-friendly narratives into various media outlets.
The report says China has been exploiting a lack of oversight in short-staffed newsrooms to push the party line abroad.
It says China sometimes pushes those narratives in the open — through sponsored posts or advertorial inserts written by Chinese party-state media — while groups closely tied to Chinese authorities buy digital or print ads parroting party rhetoric.
“It’s meant to portray that it’s indicative they’re the group that speaks on behalf of all Chinese folks, all the Canadian Chinese, which is just not true,” said Ai-Men Lau, an adviser with Alliance Canada Hong Kong.
China also uses its toehold in Canadian ethnic Chinese media to keep journalists in line, she said.
“For years, reporters in ethnic media are often required to self-censor themselves or face uprisings. We’ve seen journalists being fired. If they take a certain line, they don’t get their columns posted anymore in ethnic media,” she said.
Alliance Canada Hong Kong’s report says Beijing influences voices in mainstream media outlets as well.
“In the mainstream media, vocal supporters wooed through elite capture deliver Beijing’s messages in op-eds and media appearances, helping to sway popular perceptions,” says the report.
The CSIS briefing note said a number of countries (their names are blacked-out in the note) work to undermine Canada’s political processes at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, and within Indigenous governments.
‘Persistent targeting’ ongoing says CSIS
The heavily redacted document says that politicians and party riding associations are targeted by these foreign influence operations, along with members of Chinese-Canadian communities.
Earlier this year, CSIS reported that foreign states were looking to bribe or blackmail voters and politicians. That same report said some such operations also rely on flattery, money and even romantic entanglements to push their agenda.
Ai-Men Lau said she expects to see China’s harassment of dissidents abroad continue.
“You see out of Hong Kong, people are leaving and they’re leaving because of the national security law. It’s kind of like baggage — whether you want it or not, it follows you,” she said.
“So that’s something that I think Canadian officials or decision makers and policymakers and politicians need to think of when we talk about addressing these issues … It’s going to stay with us for a while.”
Townsend said CSIS is reaching out to communities under pressure.
“While I cannot speak in detail about the specifics of our assessments and investigations, I can say that CSIS has observed persistent targeting of specific communities here in Canada, both in person and through the use of online campaigns, by foreign state actors,” he said.
‘Sunlight’ policy needed: Vigneault
In his meeting with Trudeau, Vigneault said Canada has a role to play in calling out media influence tactics in public.
“Canada can make use of a policy that is grounded in transparency and sunlight in order to highlight the point that foreign interference should be exposed to the public and clandestine practices are not equivalent to public diplomacy,” the CSIS briefing documents said.
“Various state actors are currently using foreign interference activities with limited impunity to undermine Canada’s interests.”
Chiu said he wants to see a stronger approach from the federal government.
“The Chinese government controls WeChat, has a monopoly on many Canadians’ lives and their ears and their brains … we need to find a solution to that,” he said.
“We also need to monitor and make sure that our regulators … make sure that … broadcasters and the commentators are held responsible for this information they help spread, especially during the election or before the election.”
Ai-Men Lau also called for more oversight to make sure China isn’t manipulating media and threatening journalists.
CSIS said it recently increased its investigative efforts and triggered threat reduction measures — a term referring to its broad legal powers to reduce threats to the security of Canada.
The main restriction on CSIS’s threat reduction powers is that the service can’t intentionally — or by criminal negligence — cause death or bodily harm, violate sexual integrity or willfully obstruct justice.