Politics

China linked to propaganda campaign targeting Trudeau, Poilievre, says Global Affairs

The Chinese government likely was behind a “spamouflage” disinformation campaign targeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and other MPs in August and September, says Global Affairs Canada.

GAC says goal of 'spamouflage' campaign was to silence PRC critics

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping listen to opening remarks at a plenary session at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday June 28, 2019.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping listen to opening remarks at a plenary session at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28, 2019. GAC says the PRC targeted Trudeau and other MPs with an online propaganda campaign. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Chinese government likely was behind a "spamouflage" disinformation campaign targeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and other MPs in August and September, says Global Affairs Canada.

The department's Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), which was set up to monitor foreign state-sponsored disinformation efforts, said the campaign was "connected to the People's Republic of China" and was meant to curb criticism of the communist regime. 

According to a report released Monday morning, the propaganda campaign began in August and targeted dozens of MPs from across the political spectrum.

A "spamouflage" campaign is one which uses a network of new or hijacked social media accounts to post propaganda messages across various platforms, such as Facebook, X/Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Medium, Reddit, TikTok and LinkedIn.

A politician looks to his right as he leaves a news conference in a legislature.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was targeted by the campaign, says GAC. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Global Affairs Canada said the bot network picked up steam over the September long weekend, leaving thousands of comments in English and French on the social media accounts of MPs.

The posts claimed a critic of the Chinese Communist Party in Canada had accused the various MPs of criminal and ethical violations, said Global Affairs Canada. The Chinese campaign also used what were likely "deepfake" manipulated videos, the department said.

An email from GAC officials to the affected MPs said 47 of them from across Canada were targeted. The email advised MPs on how to protect themselves from foreign interference and assured them the campaign did not present a threat to their safety.

"It is our assessment that the information operation was intended to negatively impact your reputation, not to cause you physical harm or endanger your family," the email said.

The GAC report says the goal of the the operation was twofold.

"First, it likely seeks to discredit and denigrate the targeted MPs through seemingly organic posts, alleging impropriety, by posting waves of social media posts and videos that call into question the political and ethical standards of the MPs, using a popular Chinese-speaking figure in Canada," said the report.

"Second, it likely seeks to silence criticism of the CCP by getting MPs to distance themselves from the critic and discouraging wider online communities from engaging with them."

Department flagged campaign against MP Chong

Global Affairs Canada said the government will continue to monitor the situation and respond when necessary and appropriate, "including through public disclosure and diplomatic engagement."

MPs also have been offered a more thorough briefing by Global Affairs Canada.

The government said the same bot networks were engaged in spreading disinformation claiming that the Hawaiian wildfires were caused by a secret U.S. military "weather weapon," and have been connected to disinformation about Japan's decision in August 2023 to release millions of tons of treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant.

In August, the Rapid Response Mechanism reported that a disinformation operation on the Chinese social media platform WeChat had spread false information about Conservative MP Michael Chong. That campaign spread false narratives about his identity, including commentary and claims about his background, political stances and family heritage.

WATCH | PM, MPs targets of disinformation campaign: 

China likely targeted PM, MPs in propaganda campaign, Global Affairs says

4 months ago
Duration 2:01
Global Affairs Canada says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre and other MPs were the targets of a ‘spamouflage’ campaign, likely by China's government, that spread propaganda and disinformation on social media.

At the time, GAC said China's role in the information operation was "highly probable."

In a statement on Monday, Chong said the Trudeau government has neglected to protect Canadians from authoritarian governments on Canadian soil.

"From foreign police stations illegally operating here to interference in our elections, these foreign interference threats have disproportionately targeted diaspora communities," he said. "It's time the Trudeau government put the safety and security of Canadians first."

Details of foreign interference inquiry still unclear 

The Liberal government has been under pressure from the opposition to take foreign interference more seriously following media reports of China's interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

The government has agreed to hold a public inquiry into foreign election interference and has tapped Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue to lead it.

It's still not yet clear when the hearings will start and how much of Hogue's work will be made public, given national security concerns.

Hogue has been tasked with looking into interference by China, Russia, other foreign states and non-state actors in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

She is also expected to examine how intelligence flowed to decision-makers in the context of the past two elections.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he believes Hogue's mandate is broad enough to allow her to look into spamouflage. He said it's ultimately up to her and her team.

"If at the root of this foreign interference activity is a foreign state or non-state actor deliberately attempting to inflict damage and circulate disinformation in a Canadian electoral context, absolutely [Hogue's] work could include examining this issue," he said.

Hogue has to deliver an interim report by the end of February. A final report is due by the end of 2024. 

Beijing has denied interfering in Canada's affairs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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