The threat of digital foreign interference: past, present and future
Digital foreign interference (DFI) is an emerging Canadian national security challenge that is rising in significance as more malicious foreign actors learn how to effectively employ it against democracies. DFI is particularly dangerous because foreign actors can surreptitiously undercut established institutions, values, and norms by directly connecting with citizens in other countries through free and widely accessible methods of communication
DFI is an evolved form of traditional propaganda, whereby the Internet and other types of technology are utilized to create and proliferate particular information in an immediate, targeted, and tailored way. As opposed to traditional forms of propaganda, DFI is employed primarily through the Internet and specifically via social media platforms. Once a malicious actor is virtually connected with foreign individuals and communities, they can create and disseminate tailored and targeted propaganda. In some cases, this propaganda feeds the national objectives of a foreign government, which may seek to mould another state’s public opinion, or disrupt elections, or increase animosity between political rivals and social groups, or altogether weaken democratic principles.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), for instance, ran digital campaigns across multiple social media platforms during the 2016 US presidential election. According to one report, this campaign resulted in 3841 persona accounts on Twitter generating 10.4 million tweets (of which 6 million were original), 81 unique Facebook pages containing 61,483 posts, 1107 videos across 17 YouTube channels, and 33 Instagram accounts containing 116,205 posts.
DFI campaigns also targeted Germany, the UK, France, and Taiwan. As outlined in this report, the process often starts with sophisticated hackers, often backed by a state, stealing sensitive personal and/or professional digital data. Next, the data are eventually dumped anonymously and made publicly available. Twitter and other social media platforms are then used to draw broader attention to the documents and data. Bots do their part to amplify the process even further. The content enters the collective mainstream, shared by regular social media users and reported upon by traditional media.
By manipulating and falsifying information, DFI threatens Canadian liberal democratic institutions in several ways: It replaces the interests of Canadians with those of a foreign government or actor; it inflames societal tensions within Canada, and within and among Canada’s friends and allies, creating political polarization and division as a result; and it facilitates authoritarian overreach of Canadian citizens with connections abroad. More fundamentally, because of our increasing reliance on digital technology for information, DFI threatens to undermine the very notion of truth within Canadian society and degrade trust in the democratic process.