Chinese state-run media and pro-Beijing actors published disinformation narratives on various platforms in what was likely a “coordinated influence operation” targeting Chinese Canadian voters in the 2021 Canadian federal election, says an organization specializing in exposing disinformation.
DisinfoWatch, which monitors and exposes foreign disinformation activities in Canada, reported in September that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its affiliated entities targeted Chinese-Canadian voters and federal candidates from the Conservative Party during the 2021 federal election.
“After analysing available open-source data and consulting with key stakeholders, we believe that the timing and content of narratives indicate the likelihood of a coordinated influence operation targeting Chinese-Canadian voters,” says a Dec. 1 report co-authored by Marcus Kolga, DisinfoWatch founder and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and Ai-Men Lau, communications officer at the Ottawa-based think tank.
“The objective of this false narrative was to incite fear and anger towards the candidate and the Conservative Party in targeted communities. The ultimate impact of these and other influence operations targeting the Conservatives is difficult to measure, though voter influence and conversion remains the likely goal.”
Those pro-Beijing actors spread disinformation narratives on various media platforms, including CCP mouthpiece Global Times, the WeChat app, and local Chinese-Canadian websites, the authors said.
One example they gave was a Global Times article published on Sept. 9 that condemned the Conservative Party’s platform, particularly its foreign policy related to the CCP. The article also threatened that there would be retaliation should the Conservatives form government and implement that policy. “China will pay back with a strong counterstrike, and Canada will be the one to suffer,” it said.
Kolga and Lau noted that despite the Global Times’ small audience in Canada, the article allowed Beijing to “set the tone for domestic Canadian platforms and actors” who would “actively support far-left and far-right illiberalism and authoritarians” and spread CCP propaganda and disinformation domestically.
The report said the motivation of the Chinese regime’s disinformation campaign was likely a way for it to deflect criticism of its authoritarian rule and protect its interests.
“When faced with criticism from governments, media, or activists abroad, the Chinese government often deploys tactical counter-narratives that aim to discredit and undermine them,” the report said.
The Conservative Party’s election platform had a comprehensive section on policy proposals to hold the Chinese regime and CCP officials accountable for human rights violations. It also included proposals to diversify trade away from China, ban Huawei from Canada’s next-generation telecom infrastructure, and remove Chinese state media from Canada’s cable networks.
‘Pink Attack Mode’
Following the publication of the Global Times article, a post that included disinformation regarding Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu emerged on the Chinese state-controlled chat app WeChat and its Chinese version, Weixin.
“While state media were used to directly attack the Conservative Party leadership and platform, certainly on the orders of government leadership, narratives that targeted specific candidates appear to have been less organized and more-bottom up,” Kolga and Lau wrote.
The post blasted Chiu for introducing a private member’s bill, Bill C-282, aimed at establishing a “foreign influence registry” that would obligates individuals or organizations acting on behalf of a foreign government to register themselves with the Canadian federal government.
While the bill was not directed at any specific country or ethnic community, the post alleged that Chiu was attempting to “suppress the Chinese community,” and that the foreign registry would restrict Chinese-Canadian economic, cultural, and technological exchanges. It further alleged that the bill would repress the Chinese community’s freedom of speech.
In a previous interview with The Epoch Times, Chiu said he had reported the experience of being targeted for misinformation with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, but the agency wouldn’t confirm or deny whether it was pursuing an investigation on the matter.
The WeChat post targeting Chiu is an example of a common CCP disinformation tactic, dubbed as the “Pink Attack Mode” by Doublethink Lab, a leading disinformation analysis NGO in Taiwan. The mode involves local pro-Beijing “netizens” in China and Canada who help spread CCP propaganda and disinformation online.
The DisinfoWatch report said an estimated 1 million Canadians use the WeChat app, which means that content shared on the platform “has the potential to reach a large audience.” Combining Facebook, private messaging, and a payment system, WeChat is the third most popular social media platform in the world, with nearly 1.25 billion users.
Timing and Impact
Examining the timing of the Global Times article, Kolga and Lau said it was likely published in response to the Conservative Party’s surge in the polls around that time.
When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the federal election on Aug. 15, the Liberal Party was polling at roughly 35 percent and was projected to win at least a strong minority. By the end of August, support for the Liberals had dropped to around 32 percent, while support for the Conservatives rose.
The disinformation narrative circulated on WeChat targeting Chiu also corresponds to this timeline, the report said.
While it is difficult to measure the actual impact of CCP disinformation on the election, Kolga and Lau point to the polling data collected by 338canada.com, which was off by a nearly 10 percent margin in its projection of Chiu winning in the Steveston-Richmond East riding.
“It should be noted that while these polling results suggest a dramatic swing, it does not rule out that polling may simply be inaccurate,” they wrote. “However, the gap between polling and election results is unusual due to how rapidly the swing between a Conservative to Liberal candidate occurred.”
Kolga and Lau said the Canadian government should examine third-language media in the country to understand how these platforms were used to spread disinformation and misinformation.
“The Chinese government has repeatedly demonstrated its readiness to advance its interest in Canada by directly manipulating Canadian political debate and policy through the use of disinformation, threats, intimidation, and influence operations directed at Canadian diaspora groups,” they said.
“Such interference threatens to undermine the integrity of Canadian democracy and erode public trust in our democratic processes and institutions.”