Over the past month Canadians may have been shocked to see headlines like: Forged letter warning about wolves on the loose part of Canadian Forces propaganda campaign that went awry (ottawacitizen.com, 14 October 2020) and Canadian military wants to establish new organization to use propaganda, other techniques to influence Canadians (ottawacitizen.com, 2 November 2020).
In the 14 October article, Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese outlines a farcical attempt by the Canadian Forces “military intelligence unit” to hone their propaganda skills on the hapless Canadian public. He writes:
A letter from the Nova Scotia government sent out to residents to warn about a pack of wolves on the loose in the province was forged by Canadian military personnel as part of a propaganda training mission that went off the rails.
Describing this action as “a major violation of ethics”, Emma Briant, a specialist on military propaganda, warns:
It’s a very dangerous path when you start targeting your own public with false information and trying to manipulate them.
Pugliese also recounts other instances of the Canadian Forces developing deception campaigns using fake Facebook and other social media accounts intended to target Canadians. At the same time, he advises (with tongue-in-cheek perhaps) that:
The Canadian Forces stresses that it follows ethical guidelines in its propaganda operations.
In the second article, which appeared on 2 November, Pugliese cites documents outlining plans for a new Defence Strategic Communications group, which would include members of the Canadian public as “target audiences”, using “propaganda and other techniques” to influence the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of Canadians. He concludes:
This document is the end result of what Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance has called the “weaponization” of the military’s public affairs branch.
That approach would also include “aggressive” actions to undercut the credibility of journalists seen as “trouble makers”.
According to Pugliese, the public affairs “enhancement plan” had originally been approved by the Minister of Defence in 2015, and greater involvement by Canada in information warfare was part of the new Liberal defence policy announced in 2017. (We might add that it is unlikely the public understood “information warfare” to include operations to influence ordinary Canadians.)
The status of the initiative was brought into question, however, by Floriane Bonneville, the press secretary to the Minister of Defence, who stated that, despite the holding of a series of town halls for military personnel on the draft plan:
No such plan has been approved, nor will it be….
That assertion now appears to have been fully acted upon as Pugliese informs us in a 13 November 2020 Ottawa Citizen article with the comforting headline Canadians shouldn’t be viewed as “targets” – Military initiative to aim propaganda at public shut down.
This latest article reviews the broad scope of the now-defunct plan and the training that had taken place to date, as well as recounting again the largely shambolic examples of testing on the Canadian public. Brig. Gen. Jay Janzen, who had been leading the initiative, stated (with a straight face, we ask):
These efforts were on the leading edge, and we were exploring uncharted territory….Innovation is sometimes prone to being misunderstood.
While a number of serving public affairs officers embraced the initiative, Pugliese reveals that retired senior public affairs officers had repeatedly warned against it. For example, in a strong opinion piece entitled Fight the Information War Without Sacrificing Canadian Values (ottawacitizen.com, 26 October 2020), retired navy captain Dave Scanlon identifies the nub of the problem:
The military’s pattern of ethical breaches appears to reveal an embedded operational mindset fixed on tactics, as opposed to a strategic one focussed on building public trust.
Scanlon argues that public trust is a “priceless strategic effect”, and trusted sources of information are needed now more than ever as “malign actors seek to create confusion and division”.
In an email to staff announcing the programme’s shut-down, Laurie-Anne Kempton, the Assistant Deputy Minister for Public Affairs, wrote:
Canadians must have absolute confidence in knowing that we completely understand our role in informing the public space of our initiatives and activities. They must know that they are not targets.
Retired navy captain Dave Scanlon’s commentary includes a series of recommendations to guide military public affairs, including:
- Robust policy, doctrine and governance
- Ethical considerations incorporated at all levels
- Professionalization of the military information practitioners, and
- Clear differentiation between activities intended to inform Canadians and information designed to influence or deceive adversaries.
Fighting disinformation is a serious whole-of-nation challenge. It requires an informed public, ethical and transparent government, an engaged private sector, a vigorous and valued free press, and armed forces that respect and reflect Canadian values.
We would add that this vital distinction between Canadians and adversaries when developing information campaigns is equally relevant in overseas stabilization operations such as Afghanistan, where the need to build public trust with local populations is also a strategic imperative.
While we commend the Minister of National Defence for shutting down this ill-conceived initiative, we also urge him to adopt robust policy and doctrine on information operations which include a clear differentiation between activities to inform Canadians and operations targeting adversaries.
Postscript: Frankly, we at Ceasefire.ca find it “gobsmacking”, as the Brits would say, to have to spell out such a recommendation to the Canadian Forces leadership.
Photo credit: Wikipedia (National Defence HQ)